Tag Archives: Hugo Blick

Blick’s Earth rises

Michaela Coel stars in Black Earth Rising, Hugo Blick’s long-awaited follow-up to his award-winning drama The Honourable Woman. The actor and Blick discuss this international thriller with a unique mother-daughter relationship at its heart.

Four years have passed since the UK’s BBC2 and SundanceTV in the US first aired The Honourable Woman, the award-winning political drama starring Maggie Gyllenhaal that explored the relationship between Israel and Palestine.

During the intervening years, writer, director and producer Hugo Blick’s appetite for personal stories told within a global setting appears to have gone unabated, as he is now returning to screens with the long-awaited Black Earth Rising, an eight-part international thriller that looks at the prosecution of war crimes and the West’s relationship with contemporary Africa.

But while The Honourable Woman saw one woman struggle to right her father’s wrongs, this time it’s a mother-daughter dynamic at the centre of proceedings. Set across the UK, Europe, Africa and the US, the fictional series centres on legal investigator Kate Ashby (played by Michaela Coel, pictured above), who was rescued as a young child during the Rwandan genocide and adopted by Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter), a world-class prosecutor in international criminal law. Both work in the legal chambers of Michael Ennis (John Goodman).

When Eve takes on a new case at the International Criminal Court (ICC), prosecuting an African militia leader, the story sends Michael and Kate on a journey that will change their lives forever. The series, produced by Forgiving Earth (a partnership between Eight Rooks and Drama Republic), is once again written, produced and directed by Blick.

Black Earth Rising producer Greg Brenman (left) and creator, writer and director Hugo Blick

From the start of the first episode, Black Earth Rising is an intelligent and absorbing series, beginning with a dramatic animation of the Rwandan genocide that leads into the first scene, in which Walter’s Eve Ashby is forced to defend her role and that of the ICC. It’s an exchange that’s echoed at the end of the first hour, too, when Eve again defends her work to daughter Kate, who is angry that her mother has agreed bring a prosecution against a militia leader hailed as a hero for his involvement in bringing an end to the near-decade-long genocide.

This plot came straight from Blick’s research for the series, which followed on from similar work he had done for The Honourable Woman. Interested in trauma and its aftermath and looking at the subject of war crimes, he began studying the ICC, which was formed in 2000, after the genocide. In particular, he was surprised to discover a large number of ICC indictments for war crimes are against Africans, notably black Africans. That in turn led to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a large number of the indictments originated.

His research found that while the ICC was seeking war crime prosecutions of people from the DRC who had participated in the Rwandan genocide (the court cannot take retrospective legal action against crimes that took place before it was ratified or before a country signs up to it), it was also chasing people who had brought the genocide to an end, again for war crimes.

“For a dramatist, this is fascinating because both villains and heroes were being pursued by the same institution and I couldn’t understand why,” Blick says. “So I was really interested to work that out and obviously draw that back down the line to what I do, which is to try to find geopolitical issues as in The Honourable Woman but personify it in the world of our lead character.

The series stars Michaela Coel alongside John Goodman

“So Michaela plays a woman who was taken out of the aftermath of the genocide, and events conspire to throw our character into our relationship with the West and Africa today. It’s a kind of platform for asking what our relationship with modern Africa is, but it’s an absolute story about one woman’s search for identity and the reconciliation with her hidden past.”

Blick, whose other credits include The Shadow Line, spent six months researching the basis of the series, says the final story was not what he set out to write. “Sometimes when you write a project of this size, you absolutely know the destination – that’s where you’re going to hit. On this occasion, I found the destination changed due to both the experience of research, writing and filming and the surprises along the way,” he says, noting that the story will be resolved in Africa, rather than by Western influences.

“It takes away this idea that we’re there to instruct what’s already an incredibly contentious issue, just on a massive political scale. They don’t need to be instructed in the way we think they do, so that’s one of the destinations of the story that surprised.”

At the heart of Black Earth Rising is the relationship between high-flying barrister Eve and her adopted daughter Kate, who is forced to confront her past across the eight-episode series.

Coel, the Bafta-winning writer and actor behind Channel 4 comedy Chewing Gum, says she was initially “perplexed” at her lack of knowledge about the Rwandan genocide. “Then as I sat down trying to find some kind of redemption for my ignorance, I tried to meet this character who had so much going on, and I was a world away from her. That’s what attracted me to it.

Coel plays Kate, who was rescued during the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide as a child

“Every character I play, a little bit stays with me like residue, and I think Kate is one I’m determined to keep. Her resilience, her defiance… she is the strongest person I know – I do know she’s not real – and her pursuit of the truth is unique and she should be praised and comforted for that. I think I’m a bit stronger, I think I’m a more defiant and I’m a bit more curious.”

Blick says he often casts actors with a comedic sensibility for dramatic series, describing them as “jazz players” who bring a looseness to their performances. This approach goes all the way back to comic Rob Brydon’s role in Blick’s BBC2 mockumentary Marion & Geoff, and also saw Coel and Hollywood star Goodman brought on board as central characters in Black Earth Rising.

“We had struggled to cast Kate, it’s quite a dextrous role,” Blick recalls. “Then Michaela was at the Baftas. I’d seen her in Chewing Gum so hadn’t been thinking of her much for this role. But she is a woman of agency and certainty. Some aspects of the character of Kate struck me as a total fit for the way Michaela presents herself and character.

“John brings his wonderful New Orleans-inflective voice. He’s such a professional performer. He’s playing a barrister and has a lot of words to say. But what’s very impressive about him is when you get into the edit and you’ve got eight hours to put together, he’s got a singular line of character going all the way through, right to the last scene.”

In production, Ghana doubled for both Rwanda and the DRC to give the series an authentic feel that might have been lost had it instead used somewhere like South Africa, for example. Filming also took place in Switzerland, France, Paris and the UK.

Hollywood star Goodman on the set of the BBC and Netflix coproduction

Drama Republic executive producer Greg Brenman says that with any new drama from Blick, there’s “excitement that it’s going to be unusual, different, extraordinary and challenging. It will always be super stimulating.”

It will also be very much Blick’s own vision, with his fingerprints over every part of the story. “The brilliant thing about him writing and directing is that, in order to move from writing to directing, he’s written all the scripts. From a practical point of view, it’s fantastic because you see the entire work,” Brenman says.

“He’s also one of those writers who totally understands what he’s going to do and how he’s going to write it and achieve it. He’s quite private when he’s writing a script because he also needs to find it from moment to moment for himself, while he has a complete, firm understanding of where it’s going and how it’s going to end. So he likes to present and see what everyone thinks, rather than discuss, chew it over and then do something that is a consensus piece.”

Blick agrees that, in a very crowded market, he gives his shows an individual voice. “It’s not a voice for everybody, but both the BBC and Netflix know they’re getting a distinct point of view because it’s coming from one person. It’s like a Tiffany jewel in the department store – it is what it is, no one else makes it and you may not like it, but it’s there and it helps the department store say who it is.”

A coproduction between the BBC and Netflix, Black Earth Rising will premiere on BBC2 in the UK on September 10, with the streamer offering it to its users everywhere else.

Blick ultimately believes the strength of the show – and the greatest challenge it faces – is viewers’ unfamiliarity with the story and modern Africa, adding that the series explores both the lack of engagement and responsibility when it comes to the continent but also the failings of African life and governments.

“It’s that two-way street of engagement,” he says. “This is a story that’s a thriller, it’s built to be a compulsive thriller, but it’s asking some difficult questions. And that’s what I hope the audience will engage with too.”

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Oliver Stone and the politics of drama

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

Anyone who was at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity this week would have been able to hear Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Oliver Stone talk about his new movie Snowden, which tells the story of Edward Snowden, the computer whizz who leaked huge amounts of classified data from the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), his former employer, in June 2013.

Stone, who is not shy of tackling controversial political subject matter, was speaking during a session organised by Guardian News & Media. For him, the fascination of the Snowden story seems to be what it has to say about the power of the state and its increasing reliance on tools of mass surveillance, which he referred to as “Orwellian” on more than one occasion. For Stone, the terrifying world of 1984 and the Ministry Of Fear has arrived and Snowden, exiled in Russia, is one of the few to have kicked back.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden

Interestingly, Stone doesn’t see the current state of affairs as purely a product of government. In an analysis reminiscent of Noam Chomsky’s work on the military-industrial complex in Western societies, Stone railed against the expansion of the US military and its reliance on war (including the War on Terror) as a justification for its existence. He also implicated a number of other parts of the establishment for their role in normalising the current unstable state of affairs. With a few exceptions (such as The Guardian), he criticised the media for pandering to the state’s power and online companies for acquiescing to state-sponsored surveillance. He also took a pop at Europe, for its subservience to the US, and the US movie studios that collectively refused to back his latest feature film outing (it took German and French financing to get Snowden into production and a patchwork of 20 distributors to get the film to an international audience).

Outside his immediate fanbase, Stone is often thought of as a filmmaker with a loaded political agenda. But this is an accusation he refutes. Commenting on the detailed analysis that goes into his development, he said: “I’m a dramatist. I can’t take sides. I do a lot of research and tell the story that evolves. With my films on Nixon and Bush, I actually had complaints that I was too sympathetic.”

Born on the Fourth of July
Born on the Fourth of July

One of the big challenges with Snowden was taking a story that is, at its core, about a computer geek downloading information and turning it into a drama that could live on the big screen. Part of the way Stone did this was by building up the personal drama around Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills – dismissively referred to in the media as a pole dancer. He also looked at why a young man who had been so pro-establishment in his formative years would suddenly elect to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower (a story reminiscent of the journey in Stone’s film Born on the Fourth of July). “I had to walk in Snowden’s footsteps and try to feel what he was feeling. The end result, I hope, is a gripping political thriller.”

The lion’s share of Stone’s work has been in film – notably titles like Salvador, Platoon and JFK. His one outing into TV was a documentary series for Showtime entitled The Untold History of the United States, through which he shone a light on some of the less admirable part of US history.

The lack of scripted TV series from Stone may suggest he is more free to express himself through film. But there is a growing body of great work on TV that shows it is possible for writers to tell complex political truths on the small screen. Here are a few of the best examples that underline this point. Hopefully in the near future Stone will also be tempted to join the growing number of filmmakers who have decided to try their hand at TV series. Perhaps he could took take a break from fact-based storytelling and be the man to reimagine 1984 for the small screen…

House-of-Cards-4House of Cards
Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ novel for Netflix is a superb exploration of the Machiavellian nature of modern American politics. Starring Kevin Spacey, it shows the corrupting influence of the quest for power and raises questions over the extent to which policy decisions are driven by ambition.

The Deuce
An upcoming series from David Simon for HBO, this show will tackle the legal issues around porn and prostitution in 1970s and 1980s New York. However, it will also address other social issues such as the real-estate boom, the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug use. Simon is probably the closest thing the TV business has to an Oliver Stone – having previously written The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme and Show Me a Hero, the latter an exploration of social housing that aired at the end of last year.

borgenBorgen
Adam Price’s exploration of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg to become prime minister of Denmark is widely recognised as one of the best political series of recent years. Written for Danish public broadcaster DR, it provided a fascinating insight into party politics while addressing the challenges of being a female politician. Price is tackling the subject of faith in his latest show Rides on the Storm.

honourablewomanThe Honourable Woman
For the country that gave us James Bond and John le Carré, the UK doesn’t deliver that many dramatic exposés of the establishment. The original House of Cards, Edge of Darkness and State of Play are a few standout exceptions. Possibly this is because the Brits tend to fall back on period pieces or comedy satire when criticising politicians – though this may explain why the country is not very good at interrogating its political class. One recent show that stands out is Hugo Blick’s acclaimed drama The Honourable Woman, which beautifully explores the interplay between personal ambition and geopolitical conflict.

billionsBillions
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, Billions is an intelligent attempt to get under the skin of the US financial sector. Starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, it tells the story of a corrupt hedge fund manager who uses insider trading and bribery to build his empire. With an IMDb rating of 8.4, the show has been well received and recently earned a renewal.

Fauda
Hard-hitting Israeli series are now part of the landscape of the international TV industry (Homeland, False Flag). The reason YES’s Fauda stands out is that it is tries to bring both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the series focuses on an elite undercover unit of combat Israeli soldiers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. It is regarded as the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted terrorists as people with wives and children.

The New Odyssey
Colin Callender’s production company Playground recently acquired the rights to Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Throughout last year, Kingsley traveled to 17 countries along the migrant trail, meeting hundreds of refugees making their journey across deserts, seas and mountains to reach Europe. His book is an account of those travellers’ experiences. At the time of writing, no screenwriter has been attached to the project.

1992_Still1992
TV has a habit of treating politics as a period subject. Often this leads to interesting shows. But apart from a few allegorical references to the present, it doesn’t really cut to the quick of the contemporary debate. One exception is 1992, a series for Sky Italia created by Ludovica Rampoldi, Stefano Sardo and Alessandro Fabbri. The series looks at the political upheaval in the Italian system in the 1990s. However, similarities to the current situation in Italian politics give the show a particular resonance.

Assembly
Korea is best known for its romance and historical drama, so KBS series Assembly is something of a novelty. It features a brave and honest shipyard welder who gets elected to the country’s national assembly. He is out of his depth until helped by an aide. The show is based on screenwriter Jung Hyun-Min’s own experience working as an aide for 10 years before breaking into TV.

secretcitySecret City
This new political drama from Australian pay TV platform Foxtel is based on Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’s novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. Adapted for TV by the writing team of Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, Marieke Hardy, Alice Addison, Tommy Murphy, Kris Mrksa and Greg Waters, it follows a journalist who uncovers an international political scandal while investigating the death of a young man.

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BBC heads in the write direction

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.

A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.

Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.

Charles Dance in And Then There Were None
Charles Dance in And Then There Were None

The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.

Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”

The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”

Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.

The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett
The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett

Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”

Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”

Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”

Jimmy McGovern's Banished will not return
Jimmy McGovern’s Banished will not return

One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.

“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.

“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”

The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.

Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”

Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White
Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White

Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.

David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”

Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.

The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”

Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”

Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.

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The write way: How can the UK improve its writing practices?

DQ hears from the writers behind several UK dramas about the differences between US and UK writing and production methods, and how the UK could improve its practices.

If you want to explain the fundamental difference between US and UK dramas, you might need to point no further the credits.

For while long-running American series, with up to around 22 episodes a year, have a team of writers piecing together plot lines in a writers room, British shows commonly have a single author telling their own story across a range of formats – from TV movies and two-parters to six-episode miniseries.

This difference in writing and production methods was the subject of debate at this year’s Royal Television Society (RTS) Cambridge Convention, in a session entitled The Single Voice and the Showrunner.

Bryan Elsley
Bryan Elsley

As described by writer Bryan Elsley, the role of showrunner emerged through the highly seasonal nature of the US production cycle where a pilot season leads into a number of commissions placed in May, with shows expected to be on air that fall.

It’s a “mass production model to produce large volumes of television,” Elsley explains, where the showrunner sits at the top of a hierarchy of staff to ensure scripts are written and produced.

“The showrunner role is not just to do with the writing room. The showrunner is effectively the producer, is responsible for all aspects of production and post-production and delivery of the show, and is in charge of those processes. That high level of organisation is a big feature of the American model.”

Elsley is best known for creating E4’s controversial teen drama Skins, which he later adapted for US cable network MTV in 2011. However, the US version was cancelled after one season following falling ratings and a number of off-screen problems.

“I’d been learning some showrunning skills on season four of Skins, as I was in charge of the writers room and was effectively in charge of production,” he says. “When I got to the States and was handed a US$16m budget and told to start, I was literally given a room in Manhattan with some desks in it and told when they wanted the show.

“At that moment I realised I was lacking in some of the basic skills. It was a very chastening experience. Much has been said about my difficult relationship with MTV. I was having real problems. I wasn’t absolutely clear how to do things and I struggled with phone calls on which there would be 15 executives, none of whom were in the same city as me.

The UK version of Skins. Bryan Elsley ran into several difficulties recreating the show for the US
The UK version of Skins. Bryan Elsley ran into several difficulties recreating the show for the US

“Then we ran into editorial problems with lawsuits and right-wing pressure groups, and all of those things put us into the ground. It was quite tough. But I did think as I walked away – and Armando Iannucci (Veep) has proven this is possible – it must be possible for British writers to exist in that mania and not sink. In an environment where big US productions are coming to our country and hiring in, we need to be skilled in order for them to have confidence for us to be in some of the primary positions in those shows.”

Tahsin Guner’s credits include long-running UK dramas Doctors, Holby City, Casualty and EastEnders. More recently he developed BBC1’s Father Brown, based on the novels by GK Chesterton and starring Mark Williams as a crime-solving priest.

Guner says his experiences have differed across the shows on which he has worked. These range from times he has felt supported and has received constructive feedback, to others when notes hindered the writing process and each new script draft felt like a first draft.

“It’s not a great position to be in because you don’t feel like you’re doing your best work,” he says. “Sometimes it’s for logistic reasons or because an actor can’t make it, but other times it feels like you’re being given notes on a whim and being asked to change the script and they’ll shoot whatever’s left at the end of the process.”

Tashin Guner has worked on shows including long-running soap opera EastEnders
Tahsin Guner has worked on shows including long-running soap opera EastEnders

In particular, Guner says writers on continuing dramas, who often only gather once every few months at “story conferences,” should be brought more into the production.

“One thing that doesn’t happen but should is for the writer to meet with the director before the shoot,” he argues. “It’s absurd to me that that doesn’t happen as standard practice. The week before it shoots, the writer should have a meeting with the director just so you can clarify your thoughts on particular scenes and they can point things out in the script. It would save a lot of heartache because you do rewrite after rewrite. You get notes from the director via the script editor and you’re kept as far away from production as possible. It seems a case of picking your battles. You don’t want to be too difficult but you want to be a bit difficult.”

However, Guner is clear that continuing dramas provide great training for upcoming writers, who get to see a script they have written on air within months.

“They’re machines,” he says. “You constantly have to pull the rabbit out of the hat very quickly, and the deadlines are ridiculous. I’ve never worked so hard. Just from that process, you develop tools and tricks and you really do improve your writing. Doing somebody else’s show, you still need to put your stamp on it. You want to feel like it’s your episode.

“There’s more flexibility with Holby and Casualty because you have to create your guest stories that integrate with your serial. But even with something like EastEnders, if you get five or six writers to do that same episode from the same storybook, you’ll get five or six different episodes. They’ll be tonally different; their focus will be different. You learn a hell of a lot working on continuing drama.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

If there’s one way to maintain a single voice throughout a television drama, it’s for the writer to also produce and direct the series. That’s the case for Hugo Blick, who performed all three roles on The Honourable Woman and The Shadow Line (both BBC2). But it takes a unique filmmaker to make this approach work.

“I have a compartmentalised personality,” Blick says. “If, as a producer, I have a problem where a sequence goes to four or five takes, I’m starting to think it’s the script. Most writers wouldn’t, they’d say it’s everybody else. So my producer is saying it’s the script, let’s move this on. And whatever it’s moved on to is usually better than the script was. That compartmentalisation is a little unique but it helps with the efficiency of telling what is hopefully a distinct, bespoke, authored Tiffany jewel for BBC2.”

But surely that production model can only work on short-run dramas where one person can oversee all three areas? Blick agrees it would be very different on a multi-season drama.

“If you were making an authored piece, it has to go top down from writers,” he explains. “It can’t go from the execs. All I’m trying to do is say, ‘I’ve got a thing of wonder that I think you should be a part of.’ That clarity is so important. The Honourable Woman was looking for reconciliation on the world stage because she couldn’t find it in herself – that’s it. Then I’m going to put on top of it the most irreconcilable conflict you can think of – Israel and Palestine.

“The other thing is that there are 300 people who come with you on the journey, but there are 13 heads of department you have to work with. To get this to function efficiently, I always say that there’s a nail in the middle of the desert – the nail is my vision and everybody’s got to gather around it. And we all have to strike it, crucially at the same time. But they have to strike it for themselves. Once I’ve given the vision, what the designer does to this vision is up to them. On The Honourable Woman, I only saw the designer on the last day of a 100-day shoot, because he was entrusted to do exactly what he thought supported that vision.”

Regina Moriarty
Regina Moriarty

Regina Moriarty came to TV through Sammy’s War, part of Channel 4’s Coming Up strand for new writers, and BBC3 TV movie Murdered by my Boyfriend – the story of a 17-year-old victim of domestic abuse that won the RTS award for Best Single Drama in 2014 and the Best Leading Actress Bafta for star Georgina Campbell earlier this year.

“To have two single dramas to start off with is quite unusual because other writers I know haven’t been as lucky,” Moriarty says. “For me it was a great experience and very nurturing. I was really helped along and it was a hugely positive experience in both cases. But for a lot of people I know, their first jobs are in continuing drama and it’s a tough way in and quite demanding. It’s also a fantastic learning experience, but perhaps not quite so nurturing as the experience I had.

“Schemes like Coming Up don’t mean anything’s going to be made but they’re a fantastic point of entry and there probably aren’t enough of them. It is really competitive but if you can get one thing into that scheme, it can set you up.”

Elsley, who also wrote Channel 4 drama Dates, says there’s a lot that’s great with the way British drama is made: “It’s an environment where someone like Hugo Blick can emerge quickly, resolutely and fully supported.”

Murdered By My Boyfriend
Murdered By My Boyfriend

But the key thing, he says, is to have a needs-based approach, where the industry remains flexible to the requirements of different productions.

“You need to look at what your show is, how many episodes there are and who the central creative forces behind it are – they might be writers or something else – and properly organise around that,” Elsley explains. “We need to step towards properly focused, budgeted, processed drama production that can happen on a tiny scale, and this has to happen on a massive scale.”

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Good Fellowes

Fellowes 001
Julian Fellowes leaves Downton behind

Julian Fellowes is one of the hottest writing properties in global drama thanks to the success of Downton Abbey. So when it was announced that Downton’s next series will be its last, there was inevitable speculation about what he would do next.

The answer, revealed this week, is that Fellowes is working on a three-part adaptation of Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope’s novel about a doctor and his talented but penniless niece. Produced by Hat Trick Productions for ITV, filming starts later this year.

Trollope’s works don’t get as much attention as other 19th century authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But there have been high-profile adaptations of The Pallisers, The Barchester Chronicles, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right. Explaining his choice of project, Fellowes says: “As a lifetime devotee of Trollope – my own favourite among the great 19th century English novelists and certainly the strongest influence over my work that I am conscious of – it is exciting to know that my adaptation of one of his best-loved novels is coming to ITV.”

While many of Fellowes’ screen credits, including Downton Abbey, are original works, Fellowes is no stranger to novel adaptations. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for Vanity Fair, a 2004 film version of the classic 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.

EPSON MFP imageAs a three-parter, Dr Thorne won’t occupy Fellowes for too long. So it will be interesting to see if he continues his partnership with ITV into 2016. In 2012, there were reports that he was planning a Downton Abbey prequel, focusing on the youthful romance between central characters Lord and Lady Grantham.

Other writer-based developments in the UK include news that in-demand Hugo Blick has been signed up to write a series for BBC2. In a vague statement, the BBC says the show is about “a compelling set of characters caught up in a very human moral dilemma and plays out in a setting drama rarely takes us to, contemporary Africa.”

Although details are currently under wraps, audiences can expect the complex conspiratorial storytelling that Blick gave us in The Honourable Woman, a political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Guardian, “Viewing a Blick series is like someone coming to you with a ball of horribly knotted and twisted wool and promising to knit you a sweater.”

In the US, the civil rights and abolitionist movements continue to provide rich sources of material for writers. Kirk Ellis, writer of HBO miniseries John Adams (2008), has joined forces with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV, to pen a biopic for HBO about famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Based on Kate Clifford Larson’s book Bound for the Promised Land, the production will highlight Tubman’s involvement in leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad and later fighting during the Civil War.

Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney
HBO’s John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti (left) and Laura Linney

The John Adams miniseries was a multiple Golden Globe and Emmy winner, which explains why Ellis was a shoe-in for this new project. He was also credited as a co-writer with Stephen David and David C. White on Sons of Liberty, History US’s three-part miniseries about the early years of the American Revolution.

Fellowes, Blick and Ellis are all A-list writers these days. In terms of rising stars, this week saw James Wood (Rev, Ambassadors) named as writer on Game Changer (working title), a BBC factual drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Bill Paxton. Aimed at an adult audience, this 90-minute drama tells the story of the controversy surrounding video game franchise Grand Theft Auto.

Stateside, Bravo Media is boosting its scripted output (like every other cable broadcaster). A new slate of shows includes White Collar Wives, which looks at the ripple effect of an FBI investigation into insider trading, as the women married to the financial elite go to extreme lengths to save themselves. The project is from BBC Worldwide-owned Adjacent Productions and is being written by Vanessa Reisen (Weeds, Californication).

Bravo’s new orders also reflect the way in which writing talent is crossing from movie to TV. One of its new shows, My So Called Wife, is co-written by Adam Brooks – whose movie credits include French Kiss, Wimbledon and Definitely Maybe. Brooks and writing partner Paul Adelstein previously scripted Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for Bravo and are reuniting for My So Called Wife.

house of cards
Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

In terms of projects that need writers, the big story is that Fox 21 Television Studios and Kevin Spacey are linking up to produce a TV drama adaptation – The Residence, by Kate Andersen Brower, a best-selling non-fiction book about life at the White House. At the time this story was published, no writer had been attached to the show.

Some good news for British writers, meanwhile, is this week’s decision by commercial broadcaster ITV to raise wages for drama writers. They will get a 5% pay increase following negotiations between ITV and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The rate for a one-hour drama will rise to £13,283, up from £12,650. Rates for writing series increase to £10,395 per episode, up from £9,900. Presumably this is a minimum, with the likes of Mr Fellowes able to command a much higher pay packet for Dr Thorne.

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