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Rewriting history

James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.

At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.

Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.

Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.

This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.

US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.

The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.

The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.

It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.

As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”

Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”

Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.

“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”

Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.

“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”

With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”

If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.

“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.

“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”

But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.

“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”

Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”

For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.

“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.

“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”

After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.

“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”

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On the Case: Baldvin Z on his new Icelandic drama

Icelandic director Baldvin Z tells Michael Pickard how he used music to piece together new crime drama Case and reveals how the script tempted him to venture into TV.

When it comes to making television drama, music is usually one of the final elements brought to the process, deep into post-production.

But for new Icelandic crime drama Case, it was used to set the atmosphere for the series and help the cast understand the characters they were playing.

The idea came from the show’s director Baldvin Z (aka Baldvin Zophoníasson), who had previously used the technique on the set of his film Life in a Fishbowl.

Baldvin Z on set shooting Case
Baldvin Z on set shooting Case

“We started working with the music way before shooting,” he tells DQ. “I presented the idea and how I wanted to approach the project, and I started to make some music that I used to get people on board with the atmosphere and to show them the kind of TV show we were going to make. It helps a lot.

“In the shooting and rehearsals, sometimes I would put the music on to help the actors imagine where they were and what would be playing on the show at that moment. I use music a lot. I’m hands-on all the way. After we have shot something, I’m there all the way to the end. But I allow everybody to bring their heart into it. I want everybody to participate and put everything into it.”

A spin-off from legal series Réttur (The Court), Case opens with the apparent suicide of a promising young ballerina, and follows the battle between her biological parents and her foster parents to uncover the truth behind her death – with everything seen through the eyes of the lawyers involved.

The nine-part drama, produced by Sagafilm and helmed entirely by Z, is due to premiere in mid-October on Iceland’s Channel 2.

With his background in feature films, the director had never considered a television crime drama – until he read Case’s script. “This is something I couldn’t imagine myself doing two years ago,” he says. “I don’t really watch much crime drama. I’d always told myself I wouldn’t do a TV series like this, and now I’ve directed Case.

“I received scripts for three episodes about two years ago. I read them and I was really drawn to the show. It’s about teenagers and a situation that’s going on in Iceland’s underworld. I also saw it as a crime story but with a big drama in it. That was something that appealed to me – it was more about the drama than the crime. It’s not a typical crime drama – it’s not a ‘whodunnit.’ It’s about the ‘why,’ so it has a lot of unusual twists and it takes you to different places compared with other crime shows.

Case focuses on the death of a ballerina, following the fallout through the eyes of lawyers
Case focuses on the death of a ballerina, following the fallout through the eyes of lawyers

The slow-paced nature of the series has led to comparisons to fellow Scandinavian series Forbrydelsen (The Killing), and Z says Case sits comfortably alongside other Nordic noir shows.

“It’s much more about the characters than the actual events,” he explains. “It starts with this girl who is found hanged but the case is much bigger than that, and that’s what’s interesting. You get to follow these characters and when we reveal the ‘monster’ in the middle of the series, it takes you on a new adventure that is really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing reactions to that.”

On set, Z says he’s keen to work with the actors as much as possible to make the story as realistic as he can: “I really work a lot with the actors and try to take them to the next level, and I want them to take me to the next level with them. I wanted to have believable characters and make it as realistic as possible. I didn’t want to drive a scene to the edge because it had to be really exciting – I’m always trying to find the truth in everything. And if I succeed in that, the rest comes with it. It’s exciting because the suspense comes naturally. You don’t want to force it into the scenes.

“It’s been really interesting to go into this drama. I have approached it like I do for everything – it’s a drama with storytelling and characters. I’m not making a crime series, I’m making a drama with crime in it and that takes it to another level.”

Z notes that the time and space Scandinavian dramas allow for character development contrasts with faster-paced series, particularly those produced in the US. “The difference compared with US shows is you have this opportunity to realise that all the characters are made of flesh and bone and you breathe with them. You see them making decisions. You see something more than in American shows, where everything’s so pacy and everyone’s so witty and clever.

The nine-part drama begins this month
The nine-part drama begins this month

“The characters in Case are broken. They always make the wrong decision – they’re so imperfect and that is what makes it interesting. The cops are not cool, they are just people. They’re getting into situations they’ve never been in before and they don’t know what to do. Iceland doesn’t have the biggest underworld scene so I have to make it realistic for Icelandic people, and I think it will be interesting for foreigners to see it.”

Z says the first season’s conclusion leaves room for a second run and that he is now keen to work more in television. He has also directed three episodes of Trapped, another Icelandic drama from director Baltasar Kormákur and produced by RVK Studios and Dynamic Television. The Weinstein Company has picked up US rights to the show, which will air domestically on RUV and centres on a troubled cop investigating a murder when his small town is hit by a blizzard.

The BBC, ZDF and France Televisions have also picked up the series.

“It’s a very young industry in Iceland, we’re in the teenage phase,” says Z. “For the first time we’re really emerging onto the scene and we have quality stuff – equal to other content being produced in Scandinavia and Europe.

“We’ve been bringing a lot of foreign projects to Iceland and we’ve been learning from them. Our directors are getting better and better and there are so many young people doing incredible things. There’s something about our landscapes, animals and behaviour that appeals to foreigners but we are increasingly telling our own stories.

“I hope we will not quit doing our Icelandic content but we have to blend in with the universal and contemporary programming. We’re going to get bigger and bigger over the next few years. We have a lot to stay.”

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The Saga continues: DQ talks to Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson

Kjartan Thor Thordarson, CEO of Sagafilm Nordic, tells Michael Pickard how the decision to expand Sagafilm’s business is helping Icelandic drama make its mark on the television industry.

In an increasingly competitive market where coproductions are no longer an exception to the rule, one production company is hoping to reap the rewards of its European expansion.

Kjartan Thor Thordarson: Appetite for Scandinavian drama 'still growing'
Kjartan Thor Thordarson: Appetite for Scandinavian drama ‘still growing’

Iceland’s Sagafilm made the decision in February this year to open a new office in Sweden, to capitalise on the close links between Scandinavian broadcasters and with ambitions to impose itself further in Europe and beyond.

Announcing the move, Sagafilm Nordic CEO Kjartan Thor Thordarson said the decision to establish a new base in the centre of Stockholm was, in part, due to Icelandic broadcasters’ inability to meet the rising costs for series: “Our focus remains TV drama, but chances to grow domestically have been hampered by the national stations’ ability to pay the full production cost for local series. At the same time, there is a huge appetite from foreign broadcasters for original scripted drama and remake opportunities.

“Our goal is to up the game by accessing different markets from Stockholm where we will develop more ambitious projects with international partners and handle our remakes around the world.”

Now, just a few months on, Thordarson says Sagafilm’s new international strategy is already beginning to pay off, with the company’s flagship new drama Case (main image) being prepared to hit screens later this year.

He tells DQ: “It has changed everything. I’m closer to the Scandinavian buyers, which is very important if we’re to expand. I have seen quite a difference – a lot of people come to visit Stockholm to meet producers and channels, which you don’t see in Iceland. All the US channels seem to be looking at Scandinavia in a big way, and I profit from that. It makes sense being close to the market. It has done dramatic things for us.

“We hit it at the right time. The appetite for Scandinavian content is not losing ground – it’s still growing. What we’re seeing this year is there are so many more channels interested in buying this type of content and also getting in earlier, which is great for producers.”

Thordarson identifies a trend of European broadcasters moving away from the US content that has readily filled primetime slots in recent years and towards dramas from other countries that are proving to be ratings hits among domestic viewers. And it’s a trend of which many European territories are taking advantage.

Upcoming drama Case, which Kjartan says will 'change everything' for Sagafilm
Upcoming drama Case, which Kjartan says will ‘change everything’ for Sagafilm

“The US content seems to be giving way in Europe, so more slots are opening up for other things,” explains Thordarson. “When that happens, people look towards the successful markets, so both UK and Scandinavian content is benefiting, as are French shows. Italy has come in with Gomorrah and 1992. Germany is also getting more international recognition, so I think Europe is getting stronger.”

But it is in Scandinavia where Thordarson has seen first-hand the evolution of many networks’ attitudes towards homegrown drama, with an increasing number of nets throwing themselves into the arena.

“We have seen dramatic changes in Scandinavia,” he says. “All of a sudden in Sweden there are channels like Kanal 5, TV3 and HBO Nordic commissioning drama, which is new. Most of the people here in Sweden have previously said there were only two channels commissioning drama, and now there are five. The same thing is happening in other Scandinavian countries, including Iceland. We are seeing TV2 in Denmark adding more slots for local drama. The US content is giving way there, for example. I see this trend growing and the demand for unique content that’s not available everywhere is the reason for this. Channels are looking for more exclusive content.”

Sagafilm’s slate includes political drama The Minister for Iceland’s RUV, a fourth season of The Press (aka Pressa) for Channel 2 and an adaptation of a novel by author Stella Blómkvist.

But the series Thordarson says will be a game-changer for the firm is a new nine-part drama called Case, a thriller spin-off from its legal series Réttur (The Court).

Case opens with the apparent suicide of a promising young ballerina, and follows the battle between her biological parents and her foster parents to uncover the truth behind her death – all seen through the eyes of the lawyers involved. It is due to premiere in mid-October on Iceland’s Channel 2.

“The themes in the series are very much to do with what’s going on with social media – the problems of young people being too open online and the fact young girls are being manipulated to do things they’re not supposed to do. We expose a lot of dirt and filth along the way, not necessarily all connected to the death of this girl.

“We believe this series will change everything for us. If you take the UK, we saw BBC Four starting to air content they believed was for niche audiences, like Wallander, The Killing and our series The Night Shift. But it turned out a lot of British people want to watch international series not spoken in English. We’re like that everywhere, we just want good content – it doesn’t matter what language is spoken – and that benefits smaller markets. This year and next year you will see Icelandic, Finnish and Eastern European series doing very well internationally.”

Case follows the aftermath of a ballerina's suicide
Case follows the aftermath of a ballerina’s suicide

A consequence of, or perhaps the motivation for, greater coproduction is the increasing budgets television dramas now demand, and Thordarson says Sagafilm is already adapting its own financing model.

“We used to look at Iceland as our primary market, but now we look at Europe as our primary market,” he says. “We’re financing our series completely differently now. In the past we financed 90% in Iceland and perhaps brought one Scandinavian channel on board. Now we’re looking at projects where we’re financing half out of Iceland and the rest internationally. It’s a completely different way of approaching things.

“The projects have changed as well; they’ve become more international. We look for stories we know will work in more than one country. We are even looking to commission things that are set in Iceland, but are not commissioned for Icelandic channels. Maybe we will sell it to an Icelandic channel. So we’re definitely doing things differently and looking for things that are global and fit into this coproduction model with characters from more than one country.”

Sagafilm’s expansion into Sweden, coupled with the growing appetite for Icelandic drama – BBC Four previously acquired Trapped – means it is now well placed to make its case for being a major player in the international market.

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