Tony Jordan, CEO of Red Planet Pictures, got his break writing for BBC soap EastEnders before creating shows including Life on Mars, Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper, Hustle, The Passing Bells, Dickensian, Hooten & The Lady and Babs.
In this video, the showrunner offers his views on the drama boom, why the genre continues to define television networks and why there will always be an appetite for scripted series.
He also talks about the challenges of balancing broadcaster ambitions with strict budgets, how he learnt his craft on EastEnders and why he’s most excited about merging genres.
The team behind globetrotting new drama Hooten & The Lady want viewers to escape reality with a mix of daring adventures and intriguing characters.
In television, adventure series can be something of a poisoned chalice. As our heroes cross the globe in search of secret treasure, historical remains or ancient relics, only a few have lived up to the popcorn capers enjoyed by Indiana Jones and tomb raider
US series Warehouse 13, Alias and The Librarians have enjoyed success, while the Tia Carrere-fronted Relic Hunter was cancelled after completing its three-season contract. UK drama Bonekickers was buried after just one season.
Now comes Hooten & The Lady, an ambitious new series that follows the adventures of maverick Hooten and fearless historical expert Lady Alexandra Lindo-Parker as they travel the world in search of hidden treasures from the past.
From the mythical Amazonian golden City of Z to the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great, each episode in the eight-part series follows the duo on a new adventure through jungles, deserts and underground cities.
Michael Landes and Ophelia Lovibond star as Hooten and Lady Alexandra respectively, with support from Jane Seymour, Jessica Hynes, Jonathan Bailey and Shaun Parkes.
“Adventure is seen everywhere as a movie genre because television sometimes struggles with the lighter tone a show like this needs,” explains series creator Tony Jordan. “Luckily, that’s my style of writing, that’s what I do.
“There’s nothing else in this space. That’s what’s exciting about it. I love films like African Queen and Romancing the Stone – but I haven’t got anyone with a hat and a whip!”
Hooten & The Lady is fully funded by broadcaster Sky1 and distributor Sky Vision, which has given Jordan the freedom to push the series to its limits while taking in locations such as Rome, Moscow, Cambodia and Cape Town. It’s a huge undertaking for his production company, Red Planet Pictures, but Jordan says this show represents the kind of television he has always wanted to make.
“I’m a bit fucking fed up with serial killers,” he admits. “I’m fed up with how many different ways you can kill someone and how fucking long you can draw out finding out who killed all those children. I don’t mind that, let’s do that as well, but there was a time when television had both ends of the spectrum. There’s nothing like ‘Hooten.’
“When people have done this genre in the past, I always feel like they’ve tried to make an excuse for it. So they thought, ‘We can’t just do fun or adventure, can we make it supernatural?’ The thing about Hooten & The Lady is we’ve said there’s no supernatural. These are real things they’re looking for – the lost city of Eldorado in the Amazon, the missing scroll of Buddha, the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. All these real things, but with romance and imagination. You want to be with Hooten and the Lady. You just want to spend time with them and watch ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
With a £2m (US$2.64m) budget for each episode, the show is also filled with an array of dazzling stunts. “We’re killing the actors on a daily basis,” jokes Jordan, who co-writes the series with James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. “As a writer and producer, I want to do big shows. I want to set the world on fire.”
Having previously appeared in shows including Upstairs Downstairs, Love Soup and CSI: Miami, Landes has enjoyed “the adventure of a lifetime” starring as Hooten.
“It’s got a bit of the Indiana Jones-style genre and treasure hunting,” he says of the show. “There’s a bit of mystery about Hooten, which is fun. Tony gave me a whole backstory. Audiences want more than banter and we slowly peel away the story. You don’t even know his first name. He’s a mystery man and Tony does a great job to reveal his story.”
Landes jokes that while he’s “no Tom Cruise,” he enjoyed the opportunity to do his own stunts as often as possible – though on one occasion he was left grounded when the script called for a skydive.
“The action stuff is fun but it’s physical and that becomes tiring,” he explains. “Fighting in a helicopter sounds like a great idea but after 10 hours it’s physically demanding. Just the
grind of working all day every day, you have to have stamina.
“But I love to travel so I enjoyed that aspect. We went to the Kremlin and I love Rome so spending a week there was great. I got to travel through the city with a police escort on the back of a Vespa.”
“I watched Michael for years,” Jordan says of his leading man. “He’s this clean-cut American boy and I thought, ‘One day someone’s going get hold of him and mess him up.’ But no one ever did. So when Hooten & The Lady came around, I got hold of him and he’s a revelation. He’s a movie star.”
On Lovibond, the writer adds: “I was always a huge fan of Ophelia – she’s just got this quality about her; she’s really watchable. I think she’s got a touch of Katharine Hepburn about her. And then you put them together and watch Hooten & The Lady and you think you’re watching a movie. The dynamic between them and the way they spark off each other – American alpha male adventurer cut against an aristocrat lady – it’s great, it’s fun.”
The task of creating the world of Hooten & The Lady was handed to Michael Ralph, a long-time collaborator with Jordan who has previously worked on Red Planet series Hustle, Death in Paradise and Dickensian.
Ralph says he was immediately thrilled at the concept of Hooten, which he compares to Saturday-night matinee adventures shown on television during the 1950s and 1960s.
His challenge, however, was to create locations and sets around the world that viewers hadn’t seen before. “That meant we had to go deeper underground and further into the jungle, and higher and farther away,” he says.
“People are willing to embrace that and the genre means you can get away with more and have a rollicking good time. Scale was everything for me on this show – but people also have to believe it. That was the key.”
Alongside location shooting, Cape Town doubled for the desert, the Himalayas and the Egyptian city of Alexandria. For one scene that featured a village found on the edge of cliff, Ralph and his team built the set beside a dam and reservoir in the mountains.
“The characters are larger than life and where they go is more adventurous than ever before,” he says. “I had licence to create locations as big as the characters. Once I did the concept art, people would say, ‘Does that exist?’ and I would say, ‘No, but we can do it.’ People got such a thrill on the set. The actors thought they had walked into a 1940s black-and-white film and expected to see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. That’s the joy of it.”
For another scene in which Hooten falls through a rope bridge, a quarry was found to double as a deadly gorge. The steel frame of the bridge was subsequently pre-built and then transported by road to the location 12 hours away from the production base.
“Sometimes we have got to stop people from being too serious and remove them from the concept of realism,” Ralph says of Hooten & The Lady’s escapist ambitions. “It was like doing science-fiction for me because that’s the most exciting form of design. No one knows what it will look like. It’s something I can invent. I had the freedom to create a fantasy. Don’t do it by numbers, do it by heart.”
Working with Ralph was locations manager Luke Longmore, who says the concept of the series “took my breath away.”
“A massive amount of research is part of it,” he says of his role. “Most of the locations I hadn’t been to, but Google becomes your best friend. You research pictures of locations, but you’ve also got to understand the different lifestyles and cultures. You start with the research and then you marry the script to what you’ve researched and then try to find a local location. And once you’ve found it, other elements come in like logistics, permits and catering.
“With Hooten & The Lady, it was very challenging. It’s 90% planning, 10% work. When you’re shooting in the Cambodian and Amazon jungles, you’re dealing with the rain and trying to keep everyone warm and dry. Each location has got its own challenges but we had a fantastic production team and locations team, which made my job much easier.”
In practice, the real locations were used for exterior shots, while matching landmarks were found across South Africa for other scenes.
“Michael Ralph is a master of it,” Longmore continues. “He had seen most of the locations and we would take his lead on it, knowing what he wanted and trying to marry locally in South Africa with what was needed and what he required. Marrying up locations was fun. We’re privileged and blessed to have the whole world in South Africa. You can be in Bangkok or in the jungle.”
Landes adds: “The production value of it was very ambitious and we accomplished a lot during the seven-month shoot. When we call it a globetrotting, treasure-hunting drama, it really is. Alias never left the lot. There’s no faking what we did. It’s going to be a fun adventure.”
As networks invest in drama to define their channel, it’s this fun adventure that Jordan believes could become Sky1’s calling card when it launches tomorrow. “Look at what Mad Men and Breaking Bad did at AMC, and House of Cards at Netflix,” he concludes. “Sky Atlantic has done really well with the HBO vibe but then you think, ‘What’s Sky1?’ I think Sky1 is Hooten & The Lady.”
Mexican media giant Televisa is the largest producer and distributor of Spanish-language content in the world. But now it wants to play in the English-language market.
Having recently announced plans for an English-language version of Spanish drama Gran Hotel (to be produced by its US-based Televisa USA division), it has now revealed plans to “greenlight production of multiple English-language series to fuel its own demands as well as those from the global on-demand and TV markets.”
The first title to be announced is Duality, starring Dougray Scott (Taken 3). Working with Vancouver-based Odyssey Media, Televisa says the show will be one of the first to utilise the 1991 Mexican-Canadian tax treaty for scripted series. Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA; Jorge Aragon; Eduardo Clemesha, Televisa´s general director of new content and formats; Odyssey film and television producer Kirk Shaw (The Hurt Locker); and Scott will executive produce.
According to Televisa, Duality will centre on an elite, top-secret team of State Department, CIA and Mexican intelligence agents within Mexico who wage war against the most dangerous villains operating in Latin America. The series, based on an original story from writer-producer Barry Schkolnick (The Good Wife, Law & Order), “depicts characters on dangerous missions while battling their own personal demons.”
Clemesha added: “Televisa brings to this venture access to award-winning producers and directors; the economies of scale of shooting in Mexico with Televisa’s facilities and crew; as well as the latitude to adapt formats from both Televisa’s massive library and third-party rights holders.”
Elsewhere, UK pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered an Indiana Jones-style drama from Red Planet Pictures. Titled Hooten & The Lady, the 8×60’ series follows an adventurer called Hooten who teams up with the British Museum’s Lady Alexandra to track down lost treasures, including an Amazonian city, the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great. Filming will take place in Rome and Cape Town. Writers include Red Planet founder Tony Jordan, James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. The show will be distributed internationally by Sky Vision.
This week has also seen the emergence of another movie-to-TV project, with Fox ordering a pilot from Warner Brothers based on the 1980s/90s hit movie franchise Lethal Weapon. If Warner Bros decides to stick close to the movie storylines then it will have a lot of content to work with. Aside from the original film, there were three sequels – and a fifth that never got out of development.
In other reboot news this week, reports suggest US network CBS is planning to revive 1980s TV series MacGyver.
In addition to new projects, there have been a couple of interesting drama renewals this week. In Denmark, crime series Dicte is about to go into production on a third season. Produced by Miso Films for TV2 Denmark and written by Dorte W Høgh and Ida Maria Rydén, Dicte is a crime series that centres on journalist Dicte Svendsen, plus her family, friends, colleagues and sources within the police.
This season will have an international dimension, with part of the series taking place in Lebanon and Syria. “We are so happy to be able to present a new season of Dicte,” said Katrine Vogelsang, head of fiction for TV2. “Danish viewers love the character of Dicte and the series has performed fantastically in TV2’s primetime slot on Monday nights. In Denmark, we measure viewers’ evaluations of episodes and Dicte is at the top of all Danish TV series.”
Meanwhile, CBS has greenlit a second season of Zoo for summer 2016. Based on the bestseller by James Patterson, Zoo is a thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans across the planet. “Zoo’s thrilling stories clicked with audiences each week during a very competitive summer,” said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. “We’re excited for viewers to see where our writers and cast take them as the adventure continues to unfold during season two in the fight of man versus beast.”
Zoo is an interesting show, because it is part of a deal involving CBS and SVoD service Amazon Prime Instant Video. In a nutshell, Amazon helps fund the series and gets the right to stream the show in the US just a few days after it airs on CBS. The deal works for CBS because audiences are lower in the summer, so it is able to get a decent-quality drama at a relatively low price.
CBS and Amazon first created this model for Under the Dome, which has just ended after three seasons, and also used it for Extant. Now, the two parties have extended the arrangement to cover the next three summer periods. This will give Amazon access to new seasons of Zoo and a new series called BrainDead. “Prime members have loved having access to series like Under the Dome and Extant just four days after broadcast, and we’re excited to continue to offer in-season availability of more great CBS summer series over the next three years,” said Brad Beale, Amazon’s VP of digital video content acquisition.
Another interesting commissioning story this week came from the UK, with the BBC announcing that it has ordered another spin-off from sci-fi drama Doctor Who. Written by Patrick Ness and destined for BBC3, Class (8×45’) will be aimed at young adults and centres on a London school where sinister enemies are “breaking through the walls of time and space.”
It is exec produced by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffatt, Ness and Brian Minchin. Moffat said: “No one has documented the dark, exhilarating world of the teenager like Patrick Ness, and now we’re bringing his brilliant storytelling to Doctor Who.”
With autumn programme market Micom starting today, there has also been a lot of activity in terms of drama acquisition deals. The biggest story of the last week is that US cable channel Esquire has acquired the rights to ITV Studio’s new epic drama Beowulf. This follows a previously announced deal that saw Esquire acquire the Tandem production Spotless.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a 13×60’ series that is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It is set in the mythical Shieldlands, a dangerous place populated by humans and fantasy creatures. The first episode sees Beowulf return to Herot after many years as a mercenary warrior to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane Hrothgar. But when Herot is attacked by the monster Grendl, Beowulf has no choice but to hunt the beast down.
Matt Hanna, EVP of development and production for Esquire, said: “Beowulf exemplifies our commitment to delivering well-produced, vivid and engaging programming. We’re thrilled to bring an impressive assembly of artists and visionaries to our line-up when the series unveils next year.”
Other acquisition deals this week include a raft of sales for German drama Naked Among Wolves, which has sold to Mediaset in Italy and KBS in South Korea others. There’s also been activity around Dori Media’s Ciega a Cita, a romantic comedy format that has been sold to AB Groupe in France.
On the service front, Channel 4’s new foreign drama on-demand service Walter Presents (launching in partnership with GSN) has acquired a number of Nordic dramas from Fremantle Media International, including Dicte and Acquitted. More deals are on the cards from Walter Presents at Mipcom this week. Meanwhile, Netflix has announced that it will launch in Spain on October 20, Portugal on October 21 and Italy on October 22.
Finally, there was news of a cancellation this week, with USA Network calling a halt to Graceland after three seasons. The Fox Television Studios-produced series told the story of a rookie agent who had to investigate his mentor. Reports suggest the show was iced because of low ratings.