Tag Archives: HBO

Lucky Strike

DQ meets stars Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger on the set of Strike, which introduces JK Rowling’s dogged detective Cormoran Strike in three new crime dramas produced for the BBC and HBO.

When it comes to iconic television fashion, there are few better examples than Sherlock’s deerstalker hat and the knitted jumpers donned by The Killing’s Sarah Lund, while every incarnation of the Time Lord in Doctor Who has their own unique and memorable style.

Next to join TV drama’s sartorial wall of fame could well be Cormoran Strike’s thick grey woollen coat, which is likely to become the must-have garment this winter following the launch of Strike, BBC1’s adaptations of the three crime novels written by Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, famously published under the guise of her pen name Robert Galbraith.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, a three-part miniseries that launched in UK last Sunday, introduces private detective Strike, a war veteran with both physical and psychological wounds. When a young model falls to her death from a Mayfair balcony, her brother asks Strike to investigate, unconvinced that she took her own life.

Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott alongside Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike

Two-parter The Silkworm will follow, with Strike set to explore the death of a novelist who is found brutally murdered, apparently to silence him from publishing a tell-all book about everyone he knows.

Then later this year comes Career of Evil, a grittier, darker two-parter that opens when a woman’s severed leg is delivered to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott. With the police investigating a suspect who Strike is sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands as more horrendous acts occur.

When DQ visits the set of The Silkworm in March this year, Strike and Robin are inside their shared office as the former returns from a gruesome crime scene. A packet of Yorkshire Tea can be found in the kitchen area, while a map and notes are pinned up on one wall. There are business cards scattered about, an old filing system in another corner and an ashtray filled with cigarette ends on a table.

Two cameras are rolling, one focused on Holliday Grainger sitting behind a desk as Robin, when Tom Burke’s Strike comes in, wearing that soon-to-be iconic grey coat. There are plants on the nearby windowsill, while a desk lamp is on next to the computer. The scene is repeated several times and, after a short break, filming resumes with new angles and a tighter focus on the stars’ faces.

The set of Strike’s London office

The office set, with an authentic backdrop of London’s Denmark Street lit up outside the windows, is the only one that is shared across all three adaptations, while the production took great effort to film on location – and in the exact places Rowling describes in the novels.

It’s also that sense of place that helps to give each story its own identity, with producer Jackie Larkin explaining that each story is set in a different world.

“The first one is the fashion world – Mayfair and Chelsea,” she says. “The second is about the publishing and literary world. That’s a lot around west London. For book three, we did manage to have a very interesting chase sequence all over Soho one Sunday evening, locking off Frith Street and Old Compton Road.

“The shoot has been 80% location, 20% studio. It’s been great – we have had very good access. In book three, some of that happens up north so we really felt we had to go to Barrow-in-Furness. And the third book is a road movie; it’s very much about trying to find who delivered the severed leg. So that brought us to Catford, to Bow, to Whitechapel.”

Strike is described a war veteran with both physical and psychological wounds

Another key landmark is The Tottenham pub, a staple of London’s bustling Oxford Street but recently renamed after a change of ownership. That meant finding another location for Strike’s preferred watering hole, in this case The Duke of York in nearby Fitzrovia, and redressing it as The Tottenham. “It’s a small, intimate pub. It feels exactly like the place Strike would be. It feels like The Tottenham in the book,” Larkin says.

Sold globally by Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Strike is produced by Rowling’s Brontë Film & Television in coproduction with HBO-owned cablenet Cinemax, and the author, who is an executive producer, has been extremely involved in the development of the series and can often be found on set during key scenes.

“She’s actually amazing,” Larkin enthuses about the author. “She comes to our read-throughs and feeds into the script. She’s so supportive of the writers and her notes are so insightful for all of us. She has the most amazing notes on character – it’s wonderful for us because she’s created them and we want to get them right.”

That’s not to say the scriptwriters – Ben Richards on The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm and Tom Edge for Career of Evil – haven’t made some departures from the stories Rowling first put on the page. “There are times when, simply because of the sheer volume of the books, to get it into two hours you have to make some trims or simplify some plot stuff. But I don’t think you would ever look at it and say, ‘I don’t recognise the book in this,’” Larkin says. “The books are such great source material that you want to try and fit as much of them into that two or three hours as you can.”

DQ visited the set Strike set during filming in March

When Strike and Robin first meet in The Cuckoo’s Calling, there’s an awkwardness in the air. He’s forgotten he’d hired a temp, while she arrives at the worst possible moment. But very quickly she makes herself indispensable – and the pair become inseparable by the end of the first story.

“They’re the heart and soul of the show, such wonderful, intelligent actors,” Larkin says of Burke and Grainger, who also won the approval of Rowling. “Tom was cast before I came on board and he fits the character so well. Then we cast Holliday a couple of weeks later. She is Robin. Ruth [Kenley-Letts], our executive producer, had an idea of who would play Strike and her instinct was absolutely right. The broadcasters loved him. And we didn’t see many people for Robin.”

War & Peace star Burke says that while reading the books, he was struck by how Strike is always eating, putting this down to the character being a fragile man looking for comfort in curries and beer. That need for comfort also comes through in his clothing, particularly his ever-present coat, which also reflects the fact Strike is constantly on the move through the three stories.

Being hidden beneath the large coat gave Burke extra time to bulk up for the role, with the actor taking up weightlifting and increasing his food intake. “I wanted to look like somebody who did drink pints regularly,” he jokes.

Grainger is coy over suggestions of romance between Strike and Robin

Besides his look, Burke had to perfect Strike’s voice, settling on a London accent with some added Cornish notes in a nod to where the character grew up. “That’s how most people sound nowadays – a lot of people just sound London and then you hear a tiny little thing [that hints at their background],” he says. “He has moved all around. It wouldn’t have been right to make him properly Cornish or properly London.”

Then there’s the prosthetic leg Strike was fitted with after losing half his right leg in a bomb explosion, which led to him being discharged from the army. “I was not stressing about it initially but I did think, ‘I need to get that right,’” Burke says of perfecting Strike’s walking pattern. “I spent a good day with this chap who was also military and has the same thing. Sometimes I just put on the sock they use on the stump, this rubbery kind of thing, and the tightness of it slightly slows your knee. That’s what you see [in Strike’s walk].”

In contrast, Grainger (The Borgias) didn’t have to look far for her inspiration to play Robin. “It’s funny, I have heard someone say there’s a lot of Jo [Rowling] in Robin – and when I read the book, I thought she was just like me, and every woman I speak to thinks Robin’s just like her,” the actor says. “I think that’s the great thing about Robin – she’s got all the likeable qualities you want to have. She’s compassionate, brave, practical, intelligent. Nice girl! I was a massive Harry Potter geek but I’d never read them until I got the part. Then I read them all in a week.

“It’s an interesting journey, as Robin’s just a layman when she starts and so she’s learning on the job, but there’s not a sense that Strike patronises her. There’s mutual respect. It’s not the usual competition you get because it’s a different balance from most detective dramas.”

While Strike and Robin share a close working partnership, there’s also a deeper connection that threatens to spill over into romance – though the actors decline to reveal whether viewers will see them hook up on screen.

“In a lot of shows like this, there’s an ‘are they/aren’t they’ thing, and I just think they are,” Burke admits. “There’s something there from the beginning and it’s a permanent blur in their periphery. It’s not like Mulder and Scully [in The X-Files], where you think they’re not but then maybe they are. It’s always there. I don’t know [whether they will]. You surrender to whatever she’s [Rowling] going to do.”

The show’s stars also share a lot of trust on the set of Strike, something they say is down to the fact they have lifted the characters they play directly from the page. “Tom feels like he’s on the same page as Jo on Strike and I feel like I was with Robin and, therefore, you are with each other because I know my idea of Strike is his idea of Strike,” Grainger explains. “When you trust you’re both thinking along the same lines, it makes decisions on set very easy. There isn’t really one to be made most of the time.”

Whether Strike and Robin do finally get together will be down to Rowling, who is currently working on the fourth book in the series, Lethal White. Until then, Burke and Grainger are left to contemplate viewers’ reactions to a show that Rowling fans will have been looking forward to with as much anticipation as a new Harry Potter novel.

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All over

Damon Lindelof looks back at three seasons of The Leftovers after the HBO drama finished earlier this year.

He tells DQ about why he was drawn to Tom Perrotta’s book for a TV adaptation, how he worked with the author to create the critically acclaimed series and why the show was reset in a new location when the book’s story was exhausted by the end of the first season.

Lindelof, whose credits also include big screen blockbusters Star Trek: Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, discusses why fear and anxiety are key to his writing process and what differences he sees between working between film and television.

The writer also looks back on hit series Lost and reveals what lessons he learned from the show, which ran for six seasons on US network ABC.

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A house divided

Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss have ruffled some feathers by revealing their plans for life after Westeros. Stephen Arnell analyses their proposal for a new alternative-history drama about the Civil War.

The announcement by HBO of Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss’s new alternative-history drama Confederate has generated headlines.

With the final, truncated six-episode season of GoT still a year off, Benioff and Weiss (pictured above, Benioff on the right) appear to have lost no time in lining up their next project for the cablenet.

Coming off the back of their successful world-building in GoT, Confederate presents another scenario where the duo can create their vision of a complex society from the ground up.

According to HBO’s press release, the show “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”

Weiss and Benioff’s Game of Thrones is currently in its penultimate season

Tackling an original concept without source material (differing in this regard from GoT), Benioff and Weiss obviously believe in giving themselves enough time to map out the story in a considered fashion, especially now they have reportedly relinquished any role in the many mooted GoT spin-off series and movies.

The subject matter of Confederate is inherently controversial and the pair have already responded to the criticism they have faced since the series was announced by drawing attention to the fact that their writing partners – Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire)– are black.

In an interview with Vulture, Spellman commented on the genesis of the show: “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here.” But in acknowledging this, he also said: “As people of colour and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”

Tramble Spellman continued: “There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With The Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union.”

In the same interview, Weiss stated: “It goes without saying [that] slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. That sin is still with us in many ways. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama.”

British actor David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl) echoed the thoughts of some on social media that African-American and non-US Black performers may well boycott Confederate. On hearing the announcement of the show, Harewood commented on Twitter: “Good luck finding black actors for this project.”

The reboot of Roots aired on History last year

The current polarised situation in the US recently led Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein to opine that the country was experiencing a ‘Cold Civil War,’ which gives some idea of the background to the furore surrounding Confederate.

Meanwhile, the arguments over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy in the southern states continue to rage, with sporadic acts of violence, illustrating the toxic atmosphere into which Confederate will launch.

Last December, TNT dropped Civil, its planned take on a contemporary US civil war, due to concerns that it may have felt “too close to home,” given the agitated mood of the US after the election of Donald Trump as president.

With the recent reboot of Roots (History), the movie Free State of Jones (2016) and 2015’s miniseries The Book of Negroes (BET), Confederate’s depiction of a fictional modern-day slave society could be viewed as insensitive, if not regressive – depending on how the material is handled.

Although blindsided by the immediate reaction to Confederate, Benioff and Weiss must now be fully aware that they will be under intense scrutiny and are presumably cognisant of the pitfalls that lie ahead of them.

Although alternative-history TV adaptations such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) have become increasingly popular, the subject of the slave-owning South either winning the Civil War or remaining in a stalemate with the North has proved understandably contentious in terms of TV and film, although it has spawned a cottage industry of novels.

The Man in the High Castle’s marketing campaign caused controversy

The granddaddy of these was Mackinlay Kantor’s 1961 If The South Had Won the Civil War, which led to a slew of American Civil War alt-history books from writers including Alex Scarrow, Larry Niven and Stephen L Carter.

The lack of a source novel of critical repute for Confederate leaves Benioff and Weiss relatively exposed – there’s no original author to use as a shield.

Confederate’s closest comparator is 2004’s low-budget feature-length mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America (presented by IFC Films and Spike Lee).

Written and directed by occasional Spike Lee co-writer Kevin Willmott, CSA combines jet-black humour and social commentary to explore what life would be like in the present day if the rebel South had won the Civil War.

Due to the biting satire of the movie, which includes mock online Slave Auctions and racist TV adverts, it has been rarely shown outside festivals and IFC, but is available on DVD.

Aside from CSA, there are two US dramas that have a passing resemblance to some of Confederate’s themes: HBO’s 1997 parodic The Second Civil War and Amerika, an ABC miniseries from 1987.

Penned by Martyn Burke (The Pentagon Wars, Pirates of Silicon Valley) and directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins/Small Soldiers), The Second Civil War played the setup of a US “overrun” by immigrants and refugees pretty much for satirical laughs, although one wonders what kind of reception the TV movie would receive if shown today.

The Handmaid’s Tale is another example of the current trend for depicting alternative societies

Amerika was a much more serious proposition, centring on a Soviet EMP attack on the US that disables all computer equipment and electronic communications followed by the subsequent turmoil when the country faces occupation, division and possible nuclear extinction as resistance to the Russians grows.

Playing over seven consecutive nights and apparently attracting up to 100 million viewers during its run, Amerika is a curious relic of the 1980s late Cold War era, although some may find in the series an element of prophecy, bearing in mind the cyber-wars currently being waged across the world.

Possible alternate outcomes to the Civil War were tackled in a broader fashion in TV series including The Time Tunnel and The Wild Wild West, while action movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter improbably gave the author of The Gettysburg Address a side-line in slaying the undead.

As Confederate has yet to reach script stage, the burden of expectation the show faces is perhaps unfair – but could HBO in effect be ‘lancing the boil’ by announcing it so far ahead of its likely 2019 transmission date?

One potentially major problem will be in the marketing of the show. Back in 2015 the first season of The Man in the High Castle’s ad campaign proved extremely controversial and Nazi and Imperial Japan-themed subway ads in NY had to be pulled.

How will HBO promote Confederate? It’s going to be an unenviable challenge, but HBO has always prided itself on its ability and willingness to break new ground.

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On the Boardwalk

Formerly a writer on The Sopranos, Terence Winter is best known as the creator of fellow HBO drama Boardwalk Empire.

In this DQ interview, he discusses the origins of the latter series, his approach to showrunning and how he emulated the style of his mentor, The Sopranos creator David Chase.

He also discusses the fate of Vinyl, the HBO music industry series he created with Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger that ran for just one season, and his future plans in television.

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There will be blood

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.”

Mega-hit The Walking Dead is one the most violent and gory shows on TV

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 body count is always high on Game of Thrones, which is similarly uninhibited in its depictions of sex

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.

HBO’s Westworld features robot prostitutes

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
being gross.”

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].

Centring on a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience understandably features a high level of sexual content

“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.

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Lindelof joins Drama Summit West line-up

Damon Lindelof, the prolific showrunner, producer and film screenwriter behind cult series The Leftovers and Lost, is the latest high-profile speaker to join the line-up at Drama Summit West, which takes place in LA on May 19.

You can see the full line-up and register online by CLICKING HERE.

Damon Lindelof

Lindelof will front a showrunner keynote Q&A at the event, discussing the third and final season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, his current work and his approach to the craft. The session will be chaired by The LA Times television and entertainment writer Libby Hill.

As well as TV work on Lost with JJ Abrams, Lindelof has also served as as a writer and producer on a number of science fiction films, including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland.

Elsewhere at Drama Summit West, a high-profile showrunner panel forms part of the creative line-up featuring Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, Unreal), Ilene Chaiken (Empire, The Handmaid’s Tale), Courtney Kemp (Power), Naren Shankar (The Expanse) and John Wirth (Hap & Leonard, Hell on Wheels). This panel sees the writer-producers discuss their evolving role and how they are creating, writing, developing and producing stories in new ways to meet audience and channel demands.

Delegates will also learn about the programming priorities for the top programming chiefs at AMC, Showtime, Starz and TNT at the event and how they are working with the international market, in a cable superpanel. The programming chiefs will also discuss challenges in the market and provide a sneak peak into some of 2017’s hottest new dramas, which they have commissioned, including Twin Peaks, American Gods, The Alienist and The Son.

Streaming giant Netflix also hosts a session at the event on its global coproduction and international originals strategy. This will be fronted by Elizabeth Bradley, VP of content, and Erik Barmack, VP of international originals, respectively. They will discuss how they are using Netflix multimillion-pound content budget to boost its library with original home-grown content in the 130-plus territories it now serves, as well as work with international partners on global coproductions.

British TV executive and former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson will take part in a Next-Generation Producers panel, discussing his latest role as head of television at JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot. He is joined by The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory’s co-CEO Stephen Cornwell, American Crime Story producer Color Force’s senior VP television Nellie Reed and Anonymous Content’s Rosalie Swedlin, who’s latest projects include Caleb Carr adaptation The Alienist and The Wife, starring Glenn Close and Christian Slater.

The panel will discuss how some of the US’s hottest independent studios and seasoned producers are developing, producing and packaging next-generation drama, defining new models akin to the feature film world, finding new stories in a saturated market and working with creatives and writers.

A special focus on the Latin American market also forms part of the event. Execs from HBO Latin America, Globo, Fox Networks Latin America and Keshet Latin America will discuss the growing ambition for drama in the region, as well as the opportunities in this dynamic market.

Business sessions on coproduction and finance and the big questions in scripted TV also form part of the day with execs from BBC Worldwide, Lionsgate, Eone Entertainment, CAA, WME, Studiocanal TV, All3Media North America and Sonar Entertainment taking part.

The day will close with a networking cocktail party between 6pm and 9pm, organised in association with CAA.

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End Game

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss discussed on-set disasters, character deaths, celeb cameos and plans for life after the fantasy series during a keynote chat in Austin.

Game of Thrones (GoT) showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss set the scene for one of the most anticipated series finales in TV history during a discussion at the South by Southwest festival.

The duo filled to capacity the Austin Convention Center’s 2,400-person main ballroom for a Q&A, moderated by GoT stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams (who play Stark sisters Sansa and Arya, respectively, in the show), that was for the most part loose and playful.

Nevertheless, the talk revealed a few news items for hardcore fans – notably that GoT’s final season will consist of just six episodes, and that the forthcoming seventh season will see musician Ed Sheeran make a cameo appearance.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark alongside Kit Harington as Jon Snow

Topics ran the gamut from Benioff and Weiss’s favourite on-screen deaths to tales of on-set disasters. Discussing the show’s controversial portrayal of women, Weiss said the writers had been drawn to the strong and complex portrayal of female characters in George RR Martin’s books, the source material for the series, from the start.

“We realised it’s an awful world this story takes place in, but there were more compelling female characters in the books who had agency, who were out there,” Weiss said. “They weren’t secondary to anybody – they weren’t anybody’s women or wives. They had their own storylines in this world. It seemed like a very actress-centric show from the source material.”

Elsewhere, Benioff expressed exasperation at the prospect of trying to stop spoilers leaking out each season, given the show’s huge cast and crew. “Even the CIA can’t keep information private, so how can we do it?” he joked, adding that, ultimately, it is up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to spoil the show’s revelations. “I’m not someone who reads the last page of a book first,” he said.

Maisie Williams plays Arya Stark

The showrunners also revealed that GoT’s four writers had argued over who would get to write what for the drama’s final season. “We have two of the writers on the staff, and the four of us get together in a room and break down [the story],” Weiss said. “Usually it takes two minutes to decide. This time it took 18 emails back and forth, because we realised it was the last time we’d be doing the show.”

He added that Dave Hill, who began writing for the show on season five, would pen the final season’s premiere.

Benioff said the aim for the drama – which returns to HBO for season seven on July 16 – from the beginning had been essentially “to tell a 70-hour movie.” He added that he was “relatively happy that we’ve managed to keep everyone together and tell it the way we want to.”

As for the post-GoT future, Weiss said his focus was entirely on finishing the series. “We’ve discussed things but, honestly, this show is a 24/7 thing,” he said, adding jokingly that his only real plan was “sitting in a cool, dark room for two months” once the show wrapped.

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Kings of the wild frontier

Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.

Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.

The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).

Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).

Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.

Tim Roth in forthcoming Sky Atlantic drama Tin Star

The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.

As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.

The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.

Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.

After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.

Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).

The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.

Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.

At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).

Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.

The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.

As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).

But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.

Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.

Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).

The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.

BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.

And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.

From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.

In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.

Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.

Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.

Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.

Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.

Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.

It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.

FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.

That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).

David Farr

However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).

As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.

This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.

Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.

Donald Glover

The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.

In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.

In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.

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Drama behind bars

As Prison Break returns to television after an eight-year absence to bolster the line-up of jail-set dramas on air, DQ explores why viewers love to lock themselves up with convicts.

Television drama has the power to transport viewers to exotic new worlds, turn the clock back to visit the past or fast-forward to futuristic fantasies.

But there’s one location in particular that can be a hotbed of action, thrills, drama and romance, despite being a less-than-salubrious setting.

From Australia’s Prisoner: Cell Block H and Bad Girls in the UK to German soap Hinter Gittern –Der Frauenknast and French Canada’s Unité 9, prison dramas can send audiences to a place full of intrigue, yet one most people hope never to visit in real life.

The return of US drama Prison Break to Fox early in 2017, eight years after the last season concluded in 2009, bolsters a trend that suggests viewers can’t get enough of life behind bars and the diverse cast of characters who are forced to eat and sleep together in decidedly close confines.

One of the biggest prison dramas of recent years has been Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that debuted in 2013 and now comprises four seasons. Created by Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the show is set in the all-female Litchfield Penitentiary and has proven such a hit for the streaming service that, in February this year, it placed a three-season order taking the show through to 2019.

Disclosure of viewing figures has never been Netflix’s strong point, but that massive commitment points to Orange is the New Black being among the platform’s biggest hits. Similarly, Penny Win, head of drama at Australian pay TV broadcaster Foxtel, described the network’s own prison drama Wentworth as a “ratings blockbuster” when she confirmed it would be back for a fifth season in 2017. Wentworth also airs in 141 countries around the world and has spawned remakes in Belgium (Gent-West), Germany (Block B – Unter Arrest) and the Netherlands (Celblok H).

Aussie 'blockbuster' Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017
Aussie ‘blockbuster’ Wentworth will be back for a fifth season in 2017

Also set in a women’s prison, Wentworth was conceived as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran on Network Ten down under between 1979 and 1986. The new series, which debuted in 2013 on Foxtel’s SoHo channel, focuses on Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) as she is forced to learn how to survive in the eponymous prison.

“A prison is a hothouse for drama because it’s such a concentration of story,” says Jo Porter, FremantleMedia Australia director of drama and Wentworth executive producer. “People have broken the rules and why they break the rules is often interesting. They’re having to face the consequences of their choices and they cannot escape them.

“In Wentworth, you enter another world through Bea Smith. You cannot help but think, ‘How would I cope if life had dealt me a different hand?’ We take the audience by the hand with these different women. There are archetypal big characters – they are recognisable and that’s why as an audience we care for them.”

Wentworth writer Marcia Gardner continues: “A prison drama is a safe way of delving into an unknown, dangerous world. It’s also a microcosm of any society – but within a confined space, everything’s heightened. It has the potential to be a powder keg of emotion. That’s why it has the potential for drama.”

Like the prisoners, writers on these shows also find themselves locked up within the confines of the prison grounds, unable to escape into the world that surrounds them in terms of story. But the revolving prison door serves as a perfect way to say goodbye to some characters while also introducing new ones.

“We don’t have the outside world, we’re in a confined space, but one of the virtues of Wentworth is the cast can come and go and we can bring in guests,” Gardner notes of the series, which is distributed by FremantleMedia International. “People get released; people get convicted and come in. There’s a means to refresh and bring interesting people in. We have quite a large core cast compared with most shows – there’s up to 74 main cast members, so there’s always something going on because we have got to make sure everyone has a character arc or story.”

fangar_prisoners
Iceland’s Fangar (Prisoners) follows a woman convicted of the attempted murder of her father

If Litchfield’s orange or Wentworth’s blue jumpsuits don’t appeal, how about yellow? Inmates featured in Spain’s Vis a Vis (aka Locked Up, pictured top) must don the brightly coloured outfits when they join the population of Cruz del Sur prison.

 

The show follows Macarena (Maggie Civantos), a young woman who commits tax fraud and must quickly navigate the emotional shock of being in prison and the complicated relationships among the inmates. It is produced by Globomedia for Antena 3 and distributed by Imagina International Sales.

With Breaking Bad among his inspirations, co-creator Alex Pina says a prison is the perfect setting for a television thriller: “A prison is supposed to be too rough a place for many other things but it is perfect for a thriller. No character can ever be certain they are safe from every other character.

“And creating those characters is a richer process when they are in prison. They are not normal people going to buy bread or walking to work. They are criminals, murderers and thieves. They speak and behave very differently from an ordinary citizen and this is very interesting from the perspective of writing – and it’s also very entertaining.”

While some prison dramas are entirely confined behind bars, others – including Orange is the New Black, Vis a Vis and HBO’s recent hit miniseries The Night Of – give viewers considerable time on day release. The same is true of Icelandic series Fangar (aka Prisoners), in which a woman is convicted of the attempted murder of her father. She is sent to a women’s prison, where she harbours a dark secret that could tear apart her family – including her politician sister – and set her free.

“Originally it was just a prison series but as it developed, it became more of a family drama,” director Ragnar Bragason says of the show. “The women’s prison is not a standard prison – it’s the only women’s prison in Iceland and only holds 10 or 12 inmates at once. There are no uniforms and they make their own meals and watch TV together. It’s more like a dysfunctional family than a prison but it has the same hierarchies and violence.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a strict prison drama. What was interesting was to go into the world of politics, society and power and to mix that with the other aspect of the prison and criminal justice system. The dynamic of the series is the friction between the two.”

Alex Pina
Alex Pina

Work on the show, which is produced by Mystery Productions for RUV and distributed by Global Screen, included 30 days filming at the prison, which presented its own challenges.

 

“We expected it to be nice and easy but it was so small,” admits producer Davíd Óskar Ólafsson. “We had so many crew members – by the end, everyone was pleased to be released. But we were extremely lucky to use it. The prison had been closed down because they’re building a new mixed prison. We remodelled it a little bit and kept it close to what it was. It made a huge difference that we didn’t have to build it or make another location look like a prison.”

However, Wentworth producer FremantleMedia Australia had to build that show’s set from the ground up, not once but twice, as production moved to a new location at the end of season three. “It’s quite claustrophobic when you get in there,” reveals production designer Kate Saunders. “The cells are quite small because they are in reality. We’ve had to be quite inventive with the camera ports and walls that float. There are lots of bits of the set that float [to allow cameras in]. We certainly learnt as we went along.

“There’s not a lot of things we can dress on the walls to make it interesting so we used lots of textures with brick and concrete render. It’s not like you can hang up a picture or add wallpaper. We used strong colours – dark greens, greys and blues – to suggest different areas. We don’t have a lot of outside light so everything is very enclosed. The prisoners cannot see outside, except if they look up at the sky, and we cannot see inside.”

Much like in period dramas, props in prison series must be extremely specific, as Saunders found out when she first tried to dress the Wentworth sets. “Everything they have inside a prison is up to certain standards – like the phones, they’re much more solid – and everything is anti-ligature so prisoners can’t hang themselves,” she explains. “It was difficult when we first started because the people who make those items wouldn’t talk to us until we got the greenlight from [government department] Corrections Victoria.

“They also have special cigarette lighters that don’t have an open flame and specific speaker grills and intercom points. It’s a whole new world of stuff you didn’t know existed. But once we got in, most people were so lovely – it’s been fantastic. Once you open up that world it’s amazing, but you have to find it.”

You’ve probably noticed that this feature has overwhelmingly discussed dramas set in women’s prisons as opposed to men’s. So why is it that, with the exception of Prison Break, The Night Of and HBO’s groundbreaking drama Oz [see below], prison dramas tend to focus on female incarceration? The reason, it seems, is universal.

“When we were doing research, the prison guards we spoke to who had worked in both male and female prisons said that, physically, male prisons are stronger and there’s violence,” Ólafsson says. “But, mentally, female prisons are much rougher. They said it’s more difficult to work with women who have lost their kids – and in Iceland the prison was actually next to a kindergarten.”

Similarly, Wentworth’s Porter explains that why male battles are physical, women use psychological games to gain the upper hand: “They’re hard to control and manage and are more unpredictable. The truth of that is what’s so fascinating. Many of these women have been given a tough hand from their circumstances so they have to choose how they’re going to defend themselves and it’s a real defining time in their lives. It’s great fodder for high-stakes drama.”

With Orange is the New Black and Wentworth set to run and run, it seems viewers can look forward to a lengthy stay inside, whichever show they prefer.

Vis a Vis’s Pina sums up the popularity of prison dramas when he adds: “At the end of the day, evil bastards, uncertainty and tension, combined with everyday stories of girls with a sharp tongue and constant use of black humour, always seems to work in fiction.”

Prison box-2

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Stranger than fiction?

As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Stephen Arnell questions the future of political dramas under the new president.

It’s no understatement to say the election of Donald Trump (pictured above in The Apprentice) as the 45th president of the US has had reverberations around the world.

Although hardly on a scale with the anxieties related to areas of such importance as global security, the world economy and climate change, Trump’s elevation has caused an almost immediate effect on US political drama.

After being repeatedly being delayed before the November 8 election, Unstoppable – an episode of Law & Order: SVU starring Gary Cole (The West Wing, Veep, The Good Wife) as a Trump-like presidential candidate who faces damaging sexual allegations – may now have been scrapped for good, or at least been kicked down the road for the foreseeable future.

Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live

Is this a worrying sign of self-censorship on the part of broadcaster NBC, or the simple recognition that the network can’t afford to alienate those who elected Trump, despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote?

After all, Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) already earned a tweeted rebuke from the then candidate: “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”

This past weekend, the president-elect renewed his attacks on SNL and opened up a new front on the cast of the popular stage musical Hamilton.

So there appears to be a delicate balance for NBC and other network broadcasters in the US. Is it time to tread lightly?

Previous experiences under Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and the Bushes have shown they or their surrogates have not been not afraid to push back against the media.

Nixon, of course, was a hater par excellence, whose notorious ‘enemies list’ included actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall and Gregory Peck.

Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons
Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons

He frequently criticised the broadcast media, so it must have been with some satisfaction that ABC adapted Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company as the scathing Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.

A thinly veiled portrait of Nixon’s administration, the miniseries was notable for the magnificent performance of Jason Robards in the role of the paranoid, hard-drinking President Richard Monkton, which gained him a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Back in 1992, then-POTUS George Bush Snr said: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”

This prompted The Simpsons’ writers to goad the elder Bush in several episodes.

George Bush Jr had his critics too, and for the first six years of his presidency liberals had the comfort blanket of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett (Bill Clinton without the scandals) presided over an idealised version of a Democratic presidency, in a world where even the occasional Republican was portrayed sympathetically, most notably Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick.

At the pre-9/11 dawn of George W’s presidency in 2001, the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom That’s My Bush, which gently lampooned the president, being more of a spoof of sitcom conventions than a biting satire.

The West Wing
The West Wing aired during George Bush Jr’s administration

Wisely, Bush Jr preferred to outsource his attacks on broadcasters to the likes of Fox News, rather than engage directly – with some success, as evidenced when CBS was forced to drop biopic The Reagans back in 2003.

Rather more seriously, prior to this month’s election, Trump was also firing shots across the bows of Amazon/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for perceived bias against him.

Bezos, who had heavily criticised Trump, has unsurprisingly become more conciliatory after the Apprentice star became president-elect, as evidenced by a recent tweet: “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.”

Trump has also laid into the proposed AT&T/Warner merger, saying before the election that he would block the deal. He has accused Comcast-NBCUniversal of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter” and has stated that he would not have allowed the companies to combine if he had been in charge.

The election of such an overshadowing character as Trump has presented TV’s creative community with a host of dilemmas, both in terms of shows already on air and those in development.

Trump’s sheer outlandishness, unpredictability and cartoonish persona have seemingly rendered much, if not all, of current US political drama obsolete.

Graves
Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former president, began airing in October

Recently, Robert De Niro likened the president-elect to the character of General Jack D Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Needless to say, this was not a flattering comparison.

Some have seen echoes of other fictional characters in Trump, including Martin Sheen’s unhinged presidential candidate Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone (1983) and Barry Morse’s Reagan-esque president Johnny Cyclops in the UK comedy series Whoops Apocalypse (1982).

The sheer volume of coverage of the US political scene may make viewers averse to watching a fictionalised version at the end of their working day.

This must be particularly dispiriting to new shows such as Graves (Epix) and Designated Survivor (ABC).

Graves, which began in October, stars Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden former POTUS seeking to right the wrongs of his terms in office, reminiscent in some ways of the Starz comedy Blunt Talk (starring Patrick Stewart).

Peppered with political cameos from the likes of Barney Frank, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Steele, the show has earned only mediocre reviews, while the idea of a conscience-stricken president seems quaint in an age when Trump has publicly stated that he has never felt any need to ask God for forgiveness.

Designated Survivor’s premise of a low-ranking, soon-to-be-sacked cabinet member becoming commander-in-chief after virtually all branches of government are wiped out at the State of the Union address is a strong one, but audiences have tailed off since the show debuted on ABC, with live ratings falling from 10 million for episode one to 5.6 million for episode six.

Madam Secretary
How will shows like Madam Secretary react to Trump’s tenure?

Despite the star power of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of president Tom Kirkman, some clunky dialogue and a very conventional approach may be in part responsible for this decline, in addition to possible general fatigue with all things political in the US.

It will be interesting to see how established shows such as House of Cards (Netflix), Veep (HBO) and Madam Secretary (CBS) will cope with the Trump presidency. Do they up the ante to reflect the new political orthodoxy, or pivot, West Wing style, to an alternate reality?

It’s unlikely House of Cards can do much other than weave in some Trump-esque references before season five debuts early in 2017.

Producers and writers with new political dramas in production or development in the US such as HBO’s Capitol Hill (Washington graft) and TNT’s Civil (conflict after a hotly contested US election) are presumably in a state of some anxiety – what could possibly be more dramatic than real-life events?

All things considered, it’s probably safer to stick to reboots of familiar franchises such as MacGyver, Magnum PI and Lethal Weapon.

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Classic sci-fi novels – TV’s new frontier

Over the years there have been scores of great science fiction-based series, ranging from Star Trek and The X-Files to Doctor Who and The Prisoner. But it’s interesting to note that very few of them have been based on sci-fi novels. It’s as though the soapy plots and larger-than-life characterisations of TV sci-fi have operated in a parallel universe to the best sci-fi literary works.

As with so many areas of TV, this distinction is now blurring because of the rise of the high-end SVoD/pay TV-style limited series. Books that could never have been adapted in the pre-Netflix era suddenly look ripe for reimagining.

This week, for example, cable channel Syfy revealed it was adapting Robert Heinlein’s classic 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land – widely regarded as one of the greatest of all sci-fi novels. The story of a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, it will be produced by Paramount TV and Universal Cable Productions.

To celebrate the news of this ambitious project, we’re looking at classic sci-fi novels that have been adapted for television already or that are – like Heinlein’s novel – now in the works.

The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle’s second season launches on Amazon next month

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon’s series is based on a 1962 alternative-history novel by the screen industry’s favourite sci-fi author, Philip K Dick. The first season launched in early 2015 and was an immediate hit for Amazon, generating an 8.0 rating on IMDb. The second run launches on December 16. Dick’s work also inspired the Minority Report movie and subsequent Fox TV series of the same name, though the show strayed a long way from the original concept and probably suffered as a result, quickly being axed. Also coming up is Electric Dreams: The World Of Philip K Dick, an anthology series that will be based on some of Dick’s works. Until recently, Dick’s work was mostly adapted for the movies.

The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids sits slightly outside the classic sci-fi canon – rather like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Time Machine (HG Wells), War of the Worlds (also HG Wells) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). The story of a blind humanity battling killer plants has proved popular with TV producers. A small-screen version was originally created in 1981 and another was made in 2009. The latter version, which aired on the BBC in the UK, had a strong cast including Dougray Scott. It attracted a strong 6.1 million audience for episode one.

11.22.63
11.22.63 is based on a story by Stephen King

11.22.63: This 2011 time-travel story from Stephen King was adapted into a TV series by Hulu in 2015. It tells the story of a schoolteacher who goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of president John F Kennedy. With James Franco in the lead role, the series proved popular – generating an 8.3 rating on IMDb and playing on Fox internationally. King’s epic novel series The Dark Tower is also being adapted by Sony as a feature film for release in 2017. There are reports that this will then be followed up a TV series set in the same fantasy world.

The Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury’s famous short-story collection was published in 1950. It has been adapted for most media, including a 1979 miniseries commissioned by NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK. Bradbury himself wasn’t a fan of the TV adaptation, which starred Rock Hudson, calling it “just boring.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End aired on Syfy last year

Childhood’s End: This is a 1953 sci-fi novel by Arthur C Clarke about a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious ‘Overlords.’ Stanley Kubrick looked at doing a film adaptation as long ago as the 1960s but it wasn’t until 2015 that the novel was adapted for the screen. Instead of a movie, Syfy commissioned a four-hour TV miniseries, which you can still find sitting in pay TV platform box sets. The show didn’t get a particularly strong response – with its IMDb rating just 7.0. Part of its problem, according to critics, was that the adaptation came too late to really grab viewers. Although still quite fresh and original in its day, the novel’s alien invasion theme has now being played out in countless other TV projects.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood’s troubling view of a future US society, where women are property of the state, was first published in 1985. It is now on the verge of being launched as a TV series by Hulu. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the show will debut on March 29 next year. Out of all the upcoming book adaptations doing the rounds, this has the feel of one that might work – because it is more about human interaction than sci-fi imagery like spaceships, aliens and extraterrestrial terrain (all of which can either distract from storytelling and characterisation or look like poor imitations of Star Wars).

The 100: The 100 is interesting because it’s an example of a TV sci-fi show based on a book series that is still in the process of being written (by Kass Morgan). The first book came in 2013 and the debut TV season appeared a year later on The CW. The fourth book comes out next month, while the fourth season of the show will air in 2017. The series is set three centuries after a nuclear apocalypse, with survivors living on a colony of spaceships in orbit around the Earth. One hundred teenagers are then sent down to investigate whether Earth is habitable. The last season of The 100 attracted a reasonable 1.3 million viewers.

The Expanse
The Expanse centres on Earth’s response to overpopulation

The Expanse: Based on James SA Corey’s books series, The Expanse is a Syfy series that imagines a world in which Earth’s population has grown to 30 billion and humans have started to populate the solar system. The first season, which aired in 2015, started well (1.2 million) but faded (to 0.55 million). Nevertheless, Syfy commissioned a second run. Like The 100, this is a living book series. Corey’s first Expanse novel was published in 2011 and the sixth is due out next month.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy book series was first adapted as a radio series. The success of that adaptation soon led to a six-part TV version, which aired on BBC2 in the UK in 1981. There was also a later film version. Although the key reason for the franchise’s popularity was its wit, the science in the books was also pretty interesting.

With the success of epic series like Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, it’s no surprise that even the most ambitious sci-fi novels are now regarded as fair game by writers and producers.

Among the sci-fi novel-based TV projects in the works are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (with Spike), Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (with Syfy) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The latter, which is rightly regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th century irrespective of genre, is being adapted for Syfy by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television. The 1931 novel has also been turned into a film twice, while there are reports that Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio are planning a new movie version.

In 2014 it was also reported that Jonathan Nolan was going to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO – an epic project if ever there was one. This story has since gone quiet, presumably because Nolan is involved in HBO’s current epic Westworld.

Other sci-fi novels that really ought to be on a to-do list for producers include Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Iain Banks’ Culture and George Orwell’s 1984.

Note: This column has not attempted to cover fantasy classics like Game of Thrones, Outlander, American Gods, The Magicians and the Shannara series, all of which have been adapted for television.

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Scripted series battle to get noticed

Humans' season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing
Humans’ season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing

The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.

The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…

The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.

The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic
The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic

This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.

This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.

Riz Ahmed in The Night Of
Riz Ahmed in The Night Of

Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.

The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.

Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic
Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic

Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.

Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.

Goliath looks likely to secure a second season
Goliath looks likely to secure a second season

Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”

In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.

offspring
Offspring will get a seventh season next year

One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.

Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.

In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.

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Tackling the darkest subjects

Jeff Pope (left) receiving a Bafta alongside actor Steve Coogan
Jeff Pope (left) receiving a Bafta alongside actor Steve Coogan

Child murder and disappearance are common starting points for crime dramas, as series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Guilty, The Missing and The Five have shown in recent times.

This is no surprise given that the loss of a loved child is just about the worst thing that most people can conceive of ever happening to them.

All of the above shows are fictional. But there are also a few shows coming through right now that deal with real-life stories. One of them, which we have discussed in this column, is HBO’s upcoming series about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Another is an HBO/Keshet coproduction about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

Real-life child murder is an especially shocking subject, so it’s clear that it can only be approached by television if there is a substantive point to make. In the case of the Emmett Till story, for example, the underlying theme is the role that the boy’s death played in the emerging civil rights movement.

In the case of Keshet’s drama, it is the protracted unrest in Israel and Palestine that informs the story. Without these bigger themes, it would be hard to justify producing TV dramas about such grisly subjects.

Cilla
Pope was also behind Cilla

In the UK, a current example of real-life child-murder being used as the base of a scripted series is Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama for ITV about the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot in the back by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007.

Rhys’s parents, Melanie and Steve Jones, have given the drama their blessing and released the following statement to explain why: “We wanted to get involved in this drama because we thought it was important for people to understand what really happened – how close Rhys’s murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys’s murder. The part Merseyside Police and especially Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly played in this cannot be overestimated. But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the ‘closure’ of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story.”

The job of telling the story appropriately and sensitively has fallen to award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Jeff Pope. A former journalist who worked his way up through the UK’s factual TV business, Pope has written and produced a number of dramas rooted in real-life stories. Among these are Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, Cilla and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.

See No Evil: The Moors Murders
See No Evil: The Moors Murders told the story of killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady

The latter, written by Neil McKay, was also made with the backing of the victims’ families and was based on two years of research – including interviews with detectives, relatives of the victims, and Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith.

Pope also co-wrote the 2005 movie Pierrepoint, in which Timothy Spall played the UK’s best-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

Pope received the Alan Clarke award at the 2015 Baftas, with Bafta TV committee chairman Andrew Newman calling him “one of the finest exponents of his craft.” Accepting the award, Pope said: “Writing is all about facing down the tyranny of the blank screen, but my message to all aspiring writers is that once you’ve hit that first key, you discover it’s really not so difficult as you imagined.”

Another new drama that deals with similarly tough subject matter is Damilola, Our Beloved Boy, a 90-minute production that will air on the BBC in the UK on November 7. This drama centres on the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and was made with the consent and support of Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor OBE.

The film does not depict the crime that ended Damilola’s life, but goes behind the headlines to explore the emotional repercussions of Damilola’s death on his family and their quest for justice. It was written by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Levi David Addai, who calls it a story about “family, fatherhood and hope.”

Addai broke into the business via theatre, initially putting on a play at the Royal Court. His previous television work includes the E4 series Youngers, which follows a group of London teens aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene.

Damilola
Damilola will focus on the aftermath of Damilola Taylor’s murder

Next up he is writing a TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel Noughts & Crosses, produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC. Clearly, Addai has the right credentials to tackle such an emotive subject – and he is well aware of the importance of pitching it right. Commenting on the sensitivity of the subject, he said: “Albeit a huge responsibility, I am very determined to do it justice.”

Elsewhere this week, Channel 4 in the UK is launching a new talent scheme aimed at writers and directors from groups that are currently under-represented in TV drama –women, disabled people and those from BAME and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Called 4Stories, the scheme will give three directors and three writers the opportunity to work on a new three-part series of half-hour interconnected films. It will tell one main story from three perspectives and is being produced by Touchpaper Television.

The opportunity is open to writers who have not had an original single, serial or series broadcast on UK TV. Writers who have contributed to episodes on soaps, series or serials are eligible to apply but can have had no more than two hours of credits.

David Addai
David Addai

Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s off-screen diversity executive, said: “4Stories is a unique talent initiative that will showcase the work of emerging writers and directors who bring a distinct and alternative view of Modern Britain. Writers and directors play a key creative role; their voices have a huge impact both on what we sound and feel like as a channel, and how we connect with diverse audiences. 4Stories talent will be immersed in a development programme that aims to land [successful applicants] brilliantly into the wider industry post transmission.”

Rob Pursey, MD of Touchpaper Television, added: “We’re looking for bold, unique voices that can deliver ambitious, witty, fearless entertainment. This is an opportunity to find diverse talent and bring a fresh perspective to UK drama.”

As part of the paid development programme, writing trainees will participate in a writers room that will create the series. They will be tutored by, and work with, experienced drama producers at Touchpaper TV where their scripts will be developed. They will also be mentored by high-profile drama talent, and will take part in a bespoke training programme to run alongside and beyond the production of the series. It will include masterclasses, networking sessions, coaching, career development and access to key events.

The closing dates are November 14 for writers’ applications and December 12 for directors’ applications.

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Amazon, BBC, HBO spend big on scripted

JK Rowling (photo by Daniel Ogren)
JK Rowling (photo by Daniel Ogren)

In September 2016, the BBC announced that it had commissioned three event dramas based on JK Rowling’s crime novels, which she publishes under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. This week, HBO announced it had also come on board for the US and Canada.

The three dramas are being produced by Rowling’s UK-based company Brontë Film & TV, which previously adapted her novel The Casual Vacancy for the BBC and HBO. They will star Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike, a battle-scarred war veteran who is now a private detective. All told, nine hours of television will be extracted from the three books: The Cuckoo’s Calling (3×60’), The Silkworm (2×60’) and Career of Evil (2×60’).

Commenting on his casting, Burke said: “I’m overjoyed to be immersing myself in the role of Cormoran Strike, who is as complex as he is larger than life. I know I’m joining an extraordinary team of people on a series that, for me, is peppered with moments of real emotional depth and meticulously grounded in the page-turning momentum of these novels. Cormoran Strike’s world is rich and raw.”

JK Rowling added: “I’m thrilled about the casting of Tom Burke, a massively talented actor who’ll bring the character to perfect life. Strike is pure joy to write and I can’t wait to see Tom play him.”

Also this week, US cable channel Spike TV acquired a six-part drama about the Waco siege that left 76 people dead in 1993. Waco is a Weinstein television production and is based on the events surrounding the two-month siege of a cult headquarters in Texas, which ended in tragedy when the FBI stormed the complex. The show will start production early next year and is being written by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.

Waco
The Waco siege ended with 76 people dead

This is not the only project Spike and The Weinstein Company are working on. Also coming up are Time: The Kalief Bowder Story and The Mist, slated for 2017. The latter is based on a Stephen King story.

Cults are becoming something of a theme in the US scripted business. Recently, we reported that Vince Gilligan and HBO had joined forces on a scripted series about the Jonestown massacre, while Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) has been attracting critical acclaim for his role in Hulu’s cult-based drama The Path.

There are also reports this week that Amazon has handed a straight-to-series order to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and The Weinstein Company. The show will be Weiner’s first project since Mad Men finished its seven-season run on AMC last year, and is reported by Deadline to have a budget of around US$70m.

Details on the new eight-part show are sparse, but it is believed to be a contemporary anthology series set in multiple locations around the world. Weiner is reported as saying: “In a time when there are so many options for entertainment, it’s been tremendous to see how [Amazon Studios boss] Roy Price and Amazon have taken centre stage by distinguishing themselves through bold choices.”

Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner

Elsewhere, indie producer Eleventh Hour Films has signed a coproduction deal with Luti Media to develop a slate of distinctive, exciting and original television dramas. Jill Green, MD of EHF and producer of hit dramas including Safe House, Foyle’s War, New Blood and Vexed, has teamed up with Luti Fagbenle, the founder of Luti Media, an award-winning production company known for music videos for artists such as Zayn Malik, Rita Ora, One Direction and Kanye West.

The intention is to pool their expertise to develop a slate of projects – both fiction and non-fiction – and work with some of the most exciting up-and-coming talent in the entertainment industry.

The partnership has already secured its first script commission with Channel 4, in the form of Laylah and the Universe, a comedy drama penned by actor/writer/director O-T Fagbenle (who recently played one of the leads in Sky1 drama The Five). They are also working with Director X on a music-driven project.

Green said: “Luti and I are very excited to produce content that will push boundaries, resonate with different broadcasters and attract a large, diverse audience. Our skill sets are very different and I know we’ll make a formidable team.”

O-T Fagbenle in The Five
O-T Fagbenle in The Five

Luti Fagbenle added: “We are blown away by the prospect of working with Jill Green and EHF. I know that this partnership – with our background in producing high-end visuals and understanding of youth and music culture combined with their enormous wealth of experience in television – will produce some distinctive work.”

While there haven’t been many new commissions this week, there have been a few interesting stories on the finance and development front. One doing the rounds is that BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) is close to doing a £50m (US$60.9m) deal with Danny Cohen’s Access Entertainment to create a portfolio of high-end dramas.

If the deal comes off, it won’t be the first time BBCWW and Access have come together. In August, they backed the launch of Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell’s new production company House Productions, which plans to build a slate of television and feature films. BBCWW took a 25% stake in House and will act as the company’s global distributor. Should the Access deal go through, the plan would be for BBCWW to act as distributor for any shows Greenlit by Access.

Also notable this week is the news that the Paris-based Series Mania Coproduction Forum has created a €50,000 prize for the best TV series project in development – available from 2017. The Coproduction Forum, which will take place from April 18 to 21 next year, chooses around 15 projects seeking additional financing, which are then presented to more than 400 decision-makers from some of the world’s leading production companies and broadcasters.

Shooter stars Ryan Phillippe
Shooter stars Ryan Phillippe

“Since its beginnings, the Series Mania Coproduction Forum has set out to identify ambitious projects with international distribution potential. Through this prize, we want to make this aid more concrete by putting a spotlight on and giving a significant financial boost to the writing of the winning project,” said Laurence Herszberg, MD of Series Mania.

On the acquisition front this week, Canadian broadcaster Quebecor has acquired the thriller series Shooter from Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing. The show, which is based on a 2007 movie of the same name, stars Ryan Phillippe as a US Army-trained sniper who is coaxed back into action after learning of a plot to kill the president.

“This gripping series has everything our audiences look for: great acting, superb production values and a compelling, binge-worthy story,” commented Yann Paquet, VP of acquisitions and partnerships at Quebecor Content.

The show is due to launch on USA Network in the US on November 15.

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Grisham gets the TV treatment

The 1997 Rainmaker movie
The 1997 Rainmaker movie

For decades, John Grisham has written great novels about lawyers. And some of them have been turned into classy movies. The Firm is the most obvious example, but the likes of The Client, The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury were also entertaining films.

For some reason, however, Grisham’s works have not translated well to television – which is a surprise given that US networks are always on the hunt for series with a legal underpinning. The Client was turned into a TV series in 1995 but only lasted one 20-episode season. Eight years later, The Street Lawyer was piloted but got no further. And in 2011, there was a TV version of The Firm, which imagined the central characters 10 years on from the film. Again, this only lasted one 22-episode season before being pulled.

Now, though, there is to be another attempt to bring Grisham’s magic to the small screen. This time it is the turn of The Rainmaker, a popular novel that was adapted into a 1997 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. The original starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes and Mickey Rourke and told the story of a young lawyer who finds himself fighting a court case against a huge law firm that he previously aspired to work for.

Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film
Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film, which is being adapted by ABC

The Rainmaker is being adapted by Code Black creator/executive producer Michael Seitzman, who will write it with Brett Mahoney. Seitzman said: “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book. One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show – a young lawyer right out of law school, no money, no white-shoe law firm scooping him up, forced to work for a crooked lawyer named Bruiser, representing criminals one minute and chasing ambulances the next. Then he stumbles on a big case against an impossible adversary, with high stakes that are both professional and personal. That just feels like a show I want to watch.”

Another legal drama in the works is Reversible Error, an NBC show from Barbara Curry and Chris Morgan. This one is about a former attorney who is freed from prison after her conviction for murdering her husband is reversed. Now she must find her husband’s real killer, before a vindictive district attorney finds a way to prosecute her again. Curry, who used to work as a federal prosecutor, is writing the project and will executive produce.

Barracuda
Barracuda has been picked up by BBC3

Still in the US, there are reports of another movie-to-TV reboot, with ABC planning a series based on the 1998 feature film Enemy of the State. The show is being produced by ABC Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, who was also behind the original movie. The new version will focus on an attorney and an FBI agent who try to stop state secrets being exposed. Bruckheimer’s deal with ABC is the first that the veteran producer has signed since the end of his exclusive 15-year relationship with Warner Bros Television.

NBC is also looking at a movie-to-TV adaptation about hackers (a subject that has been in demand since the success of Mr Robot). The project is Sneakers, which started life as a Robert Redford movie back in 1992. There are also reports this week that NBC is talking to Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child about a drama called Last Hope. Child is working with screenwriter Andrew Dettmann on the project, which is about a former military police investigator who seeks justice for people with nowhere else to go.

Guilt
Guilt will not return to Freeform

Fox is also busy, with reports of a new cop show called Kin. This one centres on a Florida law-enforcement family who become the main suspects in the disappearance of a drug cartel leader following a DEA plane crash. Kevin O’Hare will write the project.

And CBS has ordered a 13-part summer series from Alex Kutzman, executive producer on the new Star Trek series. Called Salvation, it centres on an MIT student who discovers that an asteroid is on course to collide with Earth. News of the CBS series comes in the same week that summer dramas BrainDead and American Gothic were cancelled by the network. Also on the cancellation front, Freeform (previously ABC Family) has announced there will not be a second season of Guilt, a thriller set in London about a young American woman accused of killing her roommate. The show, loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox story, rated pretty poorly.

The Young Pope
Jude Law in The Young Pope

In Europe, FremantleMedia-backed production The Young Pope has secured a second series. The show, which was launched to widespread acclaim this year, stars Jude Law as a maverick American-born Pope. The show was set up as an HBO, Sky and Canal+ copro with FremantleMedia International handling sales. FMI secured a sale into the Japanese market at Mipcom last week.

It’s been a busy week on the acquisition front thanks to the recently-ended Mipcom event in Cannes (see this column). One deal completed after our market round-up was BBC3’s acquisition of Australian drama Barracuda from NBCUniversal International Distribution. The four-part series, based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), tells the story of a 16-year-old boy attempting to become an Olympic swimmer.  Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, said the show “is a compelling, complex and emotional drama – beautifully filmed and performed.”

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Lethal Weapon, Westworld start strongly

Lethal Weapon's first season will now comprise
Lethal Weapon’s first season will now comprise 18 episodes

Fox will go to Mipcom in Cannes next week with a spring in its step thanks to Lethal Weapon, its TV reboot of the classic movie franchise.

Now three episodes into its first season, Lethal Weapon is one of the US fall season’s top-performing shows. It’s currently  pulling in 7.3 million same-day viewers, a figure that rises to 11.5 million after a week’s catch-up viewing is added in.

The network has responded to the show’s strong start by giving it an additional five episodes, taking the total for season one to 18. This is less than the traditional 22-episode US network model, but Fox is still describing it as a full-season order – something that may reflect a wider trend towards shorter-run scripted series.

Commenting on the award of the extra episodes, announced this week, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “Lethal Weapon delivers an explosive and wildly entertaining core relationship between two cops, with dynamic performances by Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford, surrounded by cinematic action, endearing humour and true heart. It has proven to be a self-starter and solid companion to Empire.” (Lethal Weapon directly follows Fox hit series Empire in the schedule.)

Westworld
Westworld has opened strongly on both HBO and Sky Atlantic

Another movie reboot that has got off to a strong start is HBO’s Westworld. Blessed with a talented cast, a strong creative team and cult name recognition, the first episode attracted 3.3 million for the first showing via cable and streaming. The second episode dipped to 2.7 million, but some of this decline has been put down to competition from the second US presidential debate.

Strong ratings in the US were mirrored in the UK, where Sky Atlantic reported a record-breaking performance for the show’s first episode.

A statement from Sky said: “After being watched by an overnight audience of 458,000 on Tuesday October 4, more than 1.38 million viewers have taken advantage of catching up on the show flexibly over the following seven days [i.e. 1.84 million total].”

HBO will be encouraged by the fact the show has attracted a strong 9.2 rating on IMDb. However, it is early days for a series that is thought to have cost US$100m to produce. HBO would like Westworld to build the same kind of momentum as Game of Thrones, but it is built on a much sparser mythological foundation. For this reason, it is difficult to prejudge how much traction the show will gain with the audience. The true potential of the franchise should become clearer around episode six or seven.

Another US series that merits a mention is FX’s long-running American Horror Story anthology franchise, which this year is sub-titled My Roanoke Nightmare. Four episodes in, the show is averaging 3.58 million viewers. The figures are on a slight downward curve but they are similar to last year’s series Hotel, suggesting the show has a pretty robust core audience.

American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare
American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare

This year’s series takes the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina as its storytelling starting point. During the 1590s, the colonists vanished. Moving to the present, a couple’s new home near the settlement is full of paranormal activity. The cast includes Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr, with a special guest appearance from Lady Gaga (who also appeared in Hotel).

Away from the US, Zodiak Rights is reporting strong sales for Public Enemy, the Belgian drama that won the inaugural MipDrama Screenings Buyers’ Coup de Coeur Award in April.

Produced by Belgium’s Entre Chien et Loup and Playtime Films for RTBF Belgium, the 10-part drama centres on the story of Guy Béranger, a dangerous child murderer at the end of his prison sentence. His release on parole to the custody of the monks at Vielsart Abbey leads to an outcry from the nearby small village and to the rest of the country. Then when a young girl disappears on the outskirts of the Abbey, the entire village is in uproar.

The French-language show was a ratings hit for RTBF Belgium, securing an audience share of more than 25%. Now Zodiak has sold it to Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany; free-to-air broadcaster TF1 in France; Movistar Series Xtra and Movistar VOD in Spain; and Ale Kino Channel (Canal+ Group) in Poland. It will also air on Scandinavian broadcaster C More’s linear and premium SVoD services in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Public Enemy
Zodiak Rights is shopping Belgian drama Public Enemy

Producer François Touwaide of Entre Chien et Loup said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium, we are happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by the Zodiak Rights team. Zodiak Rights believed in the show from the beginning and has been a great support.”

Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, added: “The demand for innovative, globally relevant drama that works across platforms continues to be very strong and we expect these deals to be the first of many for this compelling series.” The sales also underline the promotional value of the new MipDrama award.

Still on the subject of distribution, SVoD platform Netflix has acquired global rights to Syfy space drama The Expanse. Season one will be available to Netflix members outside North America and New Zealand from November 3, with a second run due in 2017.

The Expanse is set 200 years in the future, after humanity has colonised the solar system. It follows a tough detective and a rogue ship’s captain who stumble across a huge conspiracy while looking for a missing woman.

The Expanse has been picked up by Netflix
The Expanse has been picked up by Netflix

The first series aired on Syfy in 2015 and didn’t rate especially well, starting at 1.19 million and dropping to 0.55 million. The show is a good indication, however, of the new economic model that exists in the Netflix era, where modest ratings on a US host channel don’t necessarily result in automatic cancellation because of the opportunity to secure a secondary revenue stream from an SVoD partner.

More generally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings warned this week that the chance of the SVoD service entering China “doesn’t look good.” The company has been plotting an entry into China for a couple of years but seems to be suffering the same barriers to entry as other US brands. “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down. It doesn’t look good,” he said at the New Yorker TechFest conference last week.

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Israeli and Icelandic formats crack US

Casey Bloys
HBO’s Casey Bloys

Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.

“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.

HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”

The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”

Iceland's Réttur is being adapted for NBC
Iceland’s Réttur is being adapted for NBC

Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).

Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.

Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.

This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.

Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu's East Los High
Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu’s East Los High

Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.

Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.

Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”

The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK
Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK

There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.

Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”

Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.

Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”

Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services
Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services

Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.

There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”

The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.

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HBO civil rights drama gets writer

Steven Caple Jr
Steven Caple Jr

The US TV industry’s growing willingness to showcase black talent and address black issues has led to some great drama in the last couple of years, with shows including Empire, Power, Roots, Atlanta and Queen Sugar.

Now HBO is adding to the oeuvre with a miniseries about the death of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was killed in Mississippi in 1955. His tragic death is generally regarded as a key trigger for the emergence of the civil rights movement in America.

The untitled miniseries comes with a very influential production team attached, namely Jay-Z, Will Smith, Casey Affleck and Aaron Kaplan. And as of this week, it also has a writer attached – namely Steven Caple Jr.

Unlike the illustrious production team, Caple Jr is a relative newcomer. His most recent credits include an online youth drama called Class (which he directed) and a feature film called The Land, which he wrote and directed.

It’s the latter that secured Caple Jr his HBO gig. Premiering at Sundance in January 2016, it tells the story of four teenage boys from Cleveland who want to be professional skateboarders. Along the way, they discover a huge stash of drugs, which they start selling. But before too long, they run into trouble with the gangsters who lost the drugs in the first place.

The film received mixed reviews but carries with it a youthfulness and energy that HBO and the producers presumably want to inject into Till’s story.

Caple Jr won’t go into the project unaided. His script will be based on the book Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked The World And Propelled The Civil Rights Movement, by Devery Anderson.

Jess Brittain
Jess Brittain

In contrast to the issues of race and poverty that Caple Jr has explored so far in his career, Jess Brittain (Skins) has created a series for BBC3 in the UK that looks at the other end of the social spectrum. Called Clique, the drama centres on two best friends – Holly and Georgia – drawn into an elite clique of alpha girls led by lecturer Jude McDermid in their first few weeks at university.

Brittain, who is writing the show with Kirstie Swain and Milly Thomas, said Clique is a seductive, intense drama about friendship tested to extremes: “It is about the different ways ambition plays out in young women at university. It’s a heightened version of a certain type of uni experience, pulled from my time at uni, then ramped up a few notches into a psychological thriller. Clique goes to some pretty dark places but returns, always, to the key female friendships of our characters.”

Filming on Clique has begun in Edinburgh this week. Produced for BBC3 by Balloon Entertainment, the series will be distributed by All3Media International.

BBC Studios executive producer Christopher Aird said: “Clique is drama for a new generation of viewers and starring a new generation of brilliant young actors. Jess Brittain has created truly authentic characters and propelled them into a seductive and by turns shocking story.”

There was a lot of criticism when the BBC took the decision to make youth channel BBC3 an online-only service. The channel’s ratings have certainly been dented – but it is still managing to carve out a decent niche in youth-oriented drama, and as a nursery slope for emerging writers.

Previously in DQ, for example, we’ve talked about Marnie Dickens and her drama Thirteen.

Patrick Ness
Patrick Ness

And set to launch next month is the much-anticipated Class (nothing to do with Caple Jr’s web series). The series is spin-off from Doctor Who and has been written by acclaimed youth-fiction novelist Patrick Ness, whose titles include The Knife of Never Letting Go, Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. .

In a short interview just released on YouTube, Ness said the appeal of Class, which is set in a school, was “being able to look at the Doctor Who universe from a different perspective,” adding: “What effect does [a visit from Doctor Who] have on the people left behind? I think Class will be funny, moving, exciting, scary, sexy and true to what teens feel like their lives are.”

Among the week’s other interesting stories, Hulu is turning the Top Cow comic franchise Postal into a TV series, with the production handled by Matt Tolmach Productions and Legendary TV. The show is being written by Seth Hoffman, co-executive producer of The Walking Dead.

Hoffman’s other scripted TV credits include Prison Break, Flash Forward and House. Originally created by Matt Hawkins and Bryan Hill, Postal is set in a town populated and run by fugitive criminals with a secret past.

Progress is also being made on Jimmy McGovern’s new drama Broken (working title), with Anna Friel, Paula Malcolmson, Aisling Loftus and Adrian Dunbar joining Sean Bean in the cast.

Jimmy McGovern
Jimmy McGovern

Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, a Catholic priest presiding over a northern urban parish. Modern, maverick and reassuringly flawed, Father Michael must be confidante, counsellor and confessor to a congregation struggling to reconcile its beliefs with the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain.

Friel, who also stars in ITV’s Marcella, said: “The Street [McGovern’s BBC1 drama] gave me one of my most rewarding roles and afterwards I promised myself that I would collaborate with Jimmy McGovern again. When the chance came up to work on Broken, I jumped at it. Sean is a great actor, it’s a brave and truthful script from Jimmy and I’m back up North.”

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The bumpy road to success: Drama’s most troubled productions

With HBO preparing to debut the much-anticipated Westworld, Stephen Arnell finds that, despite its troubled production history, the show looks certain to be the cable channel’s latest hit.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s eagerly awaited re-imagining of Michael Crichton’s classic sci-fi movie Westworld premieres on HBO on October 2.

The 1973 hit film has already spawned both a lacklustre sequel (1976’s Futureworld) and a short-lived CBS TV series, Beyond Westworld (1980).

Now Nolan and Joy’s Westworld (pictured above) has been plagued by production woes – including a two-month shutdown earlier this year, the departure of cast members Miranda Otto and Eion Bailey and a protracted development process since HBO ordered the pilot way back in August 2013.

At one point it was reported that HBO had persuaded Nolan to ‘put aside his ego’ to get the show back on track.

Earlier rumours of graphic rape and sex scenes in Westworld also gave fuel to widespread condemnations of HBO’s depictions of sexual violence against women, with critics citing other shows such as The Night Of, Game of Thrones, Rome, Deadwood and The Sopranos, in which this appeared to be a recurring theme.

Anthony Hopkins (left)
Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jeffrey Wright are among Westworld’s high-profile cast

Despite this, word of mouth around the show is exceptionally strong. Early reviews have given Westworld an aggregated score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics predicting a Thrones-style worldwide success for HBO.

In his September 19 review, IGN Movies’ Eric Goldman wrote: “From its standout cast to its excellent visuals to one hell of a hummable score by the great Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), this is top-notch television in every respect.”

In SFX magazine on September 14, Patrick Goss also heaped praise on the show, commenting: “The first hour audiences spend in this park is, to my mind, one of the finest pilots of the last decade. A stellar cast certainly helps.”

With a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, the series is certainly not stinting on talent, while the trailer’s eye-popping visuals confirm Westworld’s hefty budget (rumoured to be north of US$54m) should be plain to see on screen.

Of course, troubled TV productions are hardly rare – and a fair percentage defy initial misgivings to go to become hits.

Game of Thrones original pilot was branded 'shit'
Game of Thrones’ original pilot was considered disastrous

Indeed, the original unbroadcast Game of Thrones pilot was deemed “a piece of shit” by Craig Mazin, a screenwriter associate of showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, whom the duo asked to give his thoughts on the show.

After rewrites, reshooting and some recasting, Winter is Coming (the pilot’s title) hit the ground running and the rest, as they say, is history.

BBC2’s epic ‘state of the nation’ drama Our Friends in the North (1996) gave Daniel Craig his breakthrough role and is generally regarded as a TV classic, but production was anything but smooth.

Numerous re-shoots, re-writes, apparent clashes between cast members, directorial changes, legal complications, budget problems and an off/on attitude from senior BBC management should have created a disaster, but the alchemy of the cast and its ambition created a show remembered fondly by many, albeit with the acknowledgement that Our Friends could be a trifle po-faced at times.

In the same year, with the epic period drama Rhodes, BBC1 unhappily experienced some of the same problems as it did with Our Friends – this time without the upside of either high audiences or favourable reviews.

In development for the best part of a decade and costing £10m (US$13m) for 10 hour-long episodes, Rhodes was one of the UK’s most expensive dramas but found little traction with viewers.

Christopher Eccleston alongside Billie Piper in Doctor Who
Christopher Eccleston alongside Billie Piper in Doctor Who

Perhaps this was unsurprising, as the titular character of empire builder Cecil Rhodes (played by Martin Shaw) has a dubious place in British history, regarded by some as a racist imperialist fuelled by greed, with an alleged unhealthy penchant for underage male company.

So, all in all, a difficult character for viewers to warm to, especially in a Sunday evening timeslot usually reserved for undemanding period drama.

The Sunday Times critic AA Gill wrote: “Rhodes, the epic story, started with everything against it and then they made it all worse,” while David Aaronovitch in the Independent on Sunday said: “The BBC’s Rhodes is a man who cannot take a leak without the assistance of the Berlin Philharmonic.”

“It was very odd,” added Lynne Truss in The Times.

Back in 2005, the rebooted Doctor Who suffered from on-set tensions and the exit of star Christopher Eccleston (who had also starred in Our Friends) after just one season, with additional rumours of budget problems due to the then relative inexperience of showrunner Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Casanova).

Despite these setbacks, the show went from strength to strength, with the Doctor now in his fourth incarnation (played by Peter Capaldi) since Eccleston’s sole season.

Netflix's The Get Down cost US$120m to make
Netflix’s The Get Down cost US$120m to make

Downton Abbey is a genuine copper-bottomed international hit, but the show had more than its fair share of problems, including the sudden departures of stars such as Dan Stevens, together with unresolved and increasingly soapy storylines all adding to the impression of a production that was seen by some commentators to occasionally be running on fumes.

The worldwide success of Sherlock is belied by the troubles surrounding the pilot, A Study in Pink, which was junked (at a cost of almost £1m to the BBC) and completely reshot, seeing its running time extended from 60 to 90 minutes in the process.

Most recently, Baz Luhrmann’s 1970s rap/disco drama The Get Down has been seen as something of a folie de grandeur. Its huge US$120m budget is the highest ever for a Netflix original drama – caused in part by a lengthy production process, music costs and frequent changes in creative direction as the show progressed – and earned it the nickname ‘The Shut Down’ among the writing team.

And finally, AMC’s The Walking Dead, the most popular drama series in the US and a huge show around the globe, has at times had almost as much drama behind the scenes as on screen.

The firing of showrunner Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) before the debut of season two, when the show had already become AMC’s breakout hit, was a shock, with multiple explanations circulating as to exactly what happened.

Accusations of budget cuts and interference from executives beset The Walking Dead’s early seasons, also leading to a parting of the ways with Darabont’s successor Glen Mazzara after season three.

So Westworld is not alone in its travails – but on the strength of initial reviews, it will have been worth the struggle in getting the show to our screens.

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