The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.
Nigel Lindsay and Catherine Flemming reveal the secrets of ITV period drama Victoria as the series, starring Jenna Coleman as the British monarch, returns for a second season.
The second season of Victoria opens in Afghanistan, with shivering soldiers fending off the freezing conditions by huddling together beside a fire. It’s a world away from the monarch’s privileged existence inside Buckingham Palace, though she appears increasingly frustrated at the number of servants on hand to comfort her as she is pushed about in a wheelchair, just weeks after giving birth.
The opening scenes reveal a glimpse of the challenges facing Victoria as she learns to juggle her new responsibilities as a mother with those of a dedicated Queen. In the next room, Prince Albert is among a large group of politicians, including prime minister Robert Peel, as they discuss the next move for their troops abroad, preferring not to trouble Victoria with news of foreign affairs until the headstrong monarch barges in, going against both medical advice and her mother’s wishes.
Picking up one month after the end of season one, Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes reprise their roles as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they face challenges at home and abroad across eight new episodes. Produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, it is written by series creator and executive producer Daisy Goodwin.
Once again, the show is exquisitely shot and designed from the outset, with the stunning backdrop of the palace belying the real filming location, a disused aircraft hangar in Church Fenton, Yorkshire.
Coming to the fore this season is actor Nigel Lindsay, who plays Sir Robert. The politician initially enjoyed a fractious relationship with Victoria but she slowly warmed to him during season one. Now the series is back, Lindsay promises viewers will see a lot more of him now that he is prime minister.
“I’m in every episode, although there are a couple of episodes where they go off to France and Scotland and I stay at home to run the ship, but I’m around the whole time,” he says. “I’m in charge, basically. I think they were thinking of changing the series to Peel & Victoria but I said no, it was too embarrassing!
“In season two, you see Victoria and Peel finally getting to understand and like each other. It takes a long time but you finally see that. There are still a lot of scenes where he’s pretty stuffed up and going into the office just telling her what the order of the day is and they’re not bonding, but they do by the end.”
As ITV’s spiritual successor to fellow hit period drama Downton Abbey, there was a lot riding on the success of Victoria. But after season one drew critical acclaim and record ratings, Lindsay says the atmosphere on set was more relaxed this time around.
“There’s a little less pressure this year, although you want to keep the standards up,” he admits. “But a lot of the crew is same, you know the other actors and you know your character, so everything is a bit more relaxed and I think that helps with the filming. If you’re happy and relaxed when you’re working, it tends to be borne out by the drama and shows how good the drama can be. I’ve had a really good time this year and I’m sorry to leave it.”
When is a spoiler not a spoiler? When it’s a historical drama, perhaps. As season two ends around 1845, it tallies with the end of Sir Robert’s premiership and will see Lindsay written out of the series should it move forward with a third season in 2018. The real Sir Robert died in 1850.
“When I did my last ever scene on Victoria, I was expecting the traditional send-off – when a person finishes on set, you get a round of applause and it’s all very moving,” he explains. “But it was lunchtime and everyone forgot. As we finished the scene, they’d all buggered off to get their sandwiches. But Jenna, bless her, called everyone back and said, ‘You do know this is Nigel’s last scene.’ So they call came back to say goodbye, which was very nice.”
It’s a story that speaks to the relationship Lindsay enjoyed with Coleman as their characters shared more time on set. Their final scene together saw the pair sitting around a large table discussing the queen’s impending visit to France. “It was lovely,” Lindsay recalls, adding that Coleman has really grown into her character this year.
“There was a lot of pressure on Jenna in the first season, playing Victoria in a series called Victoria. She got ill in the first season because she worked so hard; it was quite tough. But this season is more relaxed and I thought Jenna and I got a real rapport going by the end.”
The same can’t be said for Lindsay and the horse he had to ride during filming, with the actor finding himself literally left behind by Hughes in one horseback scene. “I sat in a carriage last year but this year I rode a horse in three different scenes,” he says. “It was quite fun but Tom likes to give it a go on his horse so the trouble is, once he’s off, my horse will follow because I don’t know what I’m doing.
“There was one scene where Tom suggested we ride off either side of the camera. I thought that was a really good idea but I didn’t realise quite how fast he was going to be going, so I followed on behind as gamely as I could. My hat flew off but I think that was off camera.”
Currently filming Netflix’s forthcoming mystery Safe, also starring Michael C Hall (Dexter) and produced by Red Production Company, Lindsay says he finds it easier to embody a character in a period drama than in a contemporary series where a character might be similar to his own personality or situation.
“Obviously it’s a little less naturalistic when you’re doing a period drama but you get so much help on Victoria, from the set to the costumes to the language,” he explains. “Something like [ITV crime drama] Unforgotten, I find quite difficult because I was playing what I am – the husband of somebody. When it’s very near to yourself, I always find that more difficult. But you have to trust yourself that doing nothing is OK. If he speaks like you, that’s fine. Whereas with Victoria, I get to take myself away into a different century with different clothes and a different accent. I find that easier to make myself believe that I’m somebody else.”
As Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, German actor Catherine Flemming enjoys a combustible on-screen relationship with Coleman, as the monarch often chooses to ignore her motherly advice.
“Very often, children find it extremely difficult to accept what their parents think is best for them,” she says. “In the case of Victoria, everyone seems to want something different from her, pulling her one way and the other. And as her mother, the Duchess tries to protect her child, but the child has other ideas. She is in the process of becoming a queen but, for the Duchess, she is still her little child. No wonder there are conflicts between them.”
Off screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth as Flemming describes Coleman, who picked up a Golden Nymph award in Monte Carlo earlier this summer for her role as Victoria, as “a really great young actress.”
She continues: “She gives 150% in every scene she’s in and it is a gift to play opposite an actor like that.”
In the first episode of season two, which debuts on ITV this Sunday, Victoria appears to be as dismissive as ever of her mother and her advice, but Flemming hints at a rekindled relationship between the pair.
“There is a beautiful scene where I am allowed to hold my grandson, Victoria’s youngest child, and I look at him and say to Victoria, ‘He has your eyes.’ At first she seems sceptical, but then she looks over my shoulder at the baby and seems to get soft all over, and says simply, ‘Perhaps,’ and her eyes get a little misty. This is the beginning of a new relationship between mother and daughter.”
Understandably, the actor describes the greatest challenge on set as mastering English, admitting that, like her character, she came to England without a perfect command of the language. “But it was a great privilege to take part in the series. It is a dream to play the mum of Queen Victoria. I love history and am able to learn so much about this particular period of British and German history.”
As German dramas become more popular among international audiences, Flemming is keen to work outside her homeland again in the future. For now, though, she is back in Germany working on Rübezahl, a family drama based on a local fairy tale, in which she plays Baroness Ottilie von Harrant, adversary of the gnome Rübezahl.
“It is true that German productions are gaining in popularity and in quality, especially when they tell their own stories instead of copying them from abroad,” she adds. “For me it was a great education to see how such an amazing television series was produced in Great Britain and, yes, I would love to work abroad again.”
A new ITV drama finds its name and setting in Scotland’s Loch Ness, where the only monsters are the ones lurking on land. DQ chats to the cast about crime series The Loch.
When actors Siobhan Finneran and Laura Fraser (pictured left and right respectively above) are asked to describe their time on The Loch, they both recall the same experience from filming the six-part crime drama.
“I absolutely love Siobhan — she’s a scream,” Fraser says. “We laughed so much that I think it got really annoying for the crew. At first it’s good because it’s a nice atmosphere and people are giggling. But we just couldn’t get it done half the time! Take after take, I just couldn’t stop laughing.”
“We were very giggly,” Finneran adds. “We were surprised they got any footage with both of us in shot at the same time when we’re not laughing. They must have hours of outtakes of us roaring with laughter, which is not good when the subject matter is so serious.”
As Finneran suggests, their illustration of a relaxed, harmonious atmosphere on set – both in studios outside Glasgow and on location in the Scottish Highlands – is at odds with the tense, edgy tone on screen, where the search for a serial killer grips a small community living beside the beautiful but haunting Loch Ness.
Fraser plays local detective Annie Redford, who is enjoying a day off when a man’s body is found at the bottom of a mountain and a human heart washes up on the loch’s shore. Under the watchful eye of her boss, DCI Frank Smilie (John Sessions), Annie begins to feel the strain of her first murder case when DCI Lauren Quigley (Finneran) arrives to lead the investigation.
Commissioned by ITV in the UK, The Loch is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude, Vera). The executive producer is Tim Haines, the producer is Willy J Wands, and Brian Kelly and Cilla Ware direct. The series is produced by ITV Studios and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Finneran has been a regular fixture on British TV recently, with credits including The Moorside, Happy Valley and a three-season turn as the scheming maid Sarah O’Brien in Downton Abbey. As for The Loch, which debuts on Sunday June 11, the actor says she was drawn in by the murder mystery at its heart – and the chance to play a police officer for the first time in more than a decade.
“I really enjoyed reading the scripts, and sometimes that is a big green light to me,” she says. “Sometimes with scripts, you can lose the will to live after a couple of pages, or you just think, ‘This is not for me,’ or you can’t see yourself in the role.
“With this one, I enjoyed reading it and I was also delighted it would be shot in Glasgow, because I’d never been. So it was lovely to be able to go up there – I fell in love with Glasgow and its people. I loved the architecture. If it didn’t rain more than it does in Manchester [where she is based], I could live there because I loved it so much. But it does rain all the time!”
Finneran describes her character as an outsider who comes in and takes over – a move that doesn’t sit well with Sessions’ DCI Smilie, with whom Quigley shares a chequered history.
“How I play a character usually comes from conversations I have with the director and the producer, and sometimes the writer,” she explains. “But I tend to find clues in the script as to who she is, and they’ll come either from her lines or something other characters say about her. With The Loch I’ve got quite a wealth of that, even in the first episode. She’s got some cracking lines, and John Sessions’ character has a history with her, so before I’ve even been introduced on screen, somebody’s already given their description and opinion of the character. That’s how I tend to work; I didn’t have input into how she was written at all but I do pick up clues in the script.”
Having made her name in the US on shows such as Breaking Bad and Black Box, it’s been a busy couple of years back in the UK for Scottish actor Fraser. She appeared in ITV feature-length drama Peter & Wendy and BBC shows One of Us and The Missing before filming The Loch last summer.
“I’m starting to think I can solve crimes now,” she jokes, having previously played police officers in both One of Us and The Missing. “I enjoy playing them because it gives you another context – as well as your emotional drama, you have this other thing going on.
“In The Loch, I liked the idea that Annie’s a newbie. She’s been working all her life but never really moved up the ranks; she’s made certain decisions that have kept her from moving up, so there’s a pent-up potential that is verging on bitterness. She’s teetering on the edge of being furious at herself. I liked that idea, and the fact her first murder case becomes this serial killer investigation is pretty overwhelming.”
Fraser describes the series’ Scottish Highlands setting as a “stunning” backdrop to the events that unfold within this close-knit community.
“You’d think I’d have been to Loch Ness, as a Scottish person, but I hadn’t ever visited,” the actor admits. “It’s beautiful. It’s quite interesting the fact it was built on a fault line, so while there are ruptures in the land, there are also ruptures in the community [in the series]. It’s like this paper-thin veneer of civilisation is ripped apart, and the ruptures are felt in my character’s family. It’s all very exciting! It’s interesting, this idea of things lurking just beneath the surface, whether that’s metaphorically or physically.”
Completing The Loch’s leading line-up is Sessions, who has enjoyed a long career in film and TV, with small-screen credits including Sherlock and Outlander. But when it comes to choosing his next role, he admits that unless you happen to be Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston, “you do what comes along.”
The Loch, however, was “a very good piece” and, as he hadn’t previously appeared in a TV drama revolving around a serial killer, he was keen to join the production.
“Nobody thought of me for Broadchurch, Shetland or the others,” he says, before adding that he’s not too comfortable with the dark subjects often at the centre of television shows. “It slightly disquiets me that a huge amount of drama now is to do with murder, rape, torture and child-targeted crimes and that becomes the bread and butter of television. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy.
“It was great to be in these incredible locations [for The Loch] and to be playing Frank – you cross all the boxes with him. He is sexist and is capable of telling a pretty obscene story. Then along comes not only a woman [Finneran’s Quigley] but a woman he’s had a professional embarrassment with some years before. We gleam fairly rapidly that the friction between them is engendered by the fact she knows he fucked up rather badly [in the past] and she saved his arse, and he doesn’t like that he’s beholden to this woman.”
Sessions is also full of praise for lead director Kelly, who runs “a very relaxed but very tight ship.”
“He has a wonderful sense, which is particularly important on a show like this, for knowing exactly what your character is thinking at that moment. Brian is one of those guys who can keep that all in his head,” he says.
“We progressed more or less chronologically through the story, which was good. Obviously you’re also trying to play little moments where your character is looking uncomfortable and you want viewers to wonder whether that’s because he’s guilty or because he’s a bit remiss. You try to suggest ambiguity. It’s also tricky because you’re trying to suggest this and that are possible while at the same time maintaining an overall logic to the likelihood of what is going to happen.”
Finneran points out that, despite the show’s content, the cast and crew kept things light on set. “The subject matter might be serious and we might have big dramatic things to do but we didn’t take ourselves seriously and were always up for a bit of fun,” she says. “Sometimes you do just question what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s a ridiculous day – you’re stood looking at bits of bodies and you wonder, how do people actually do this? We’re pretending.
“I can absolutely leave things at work. I can take a bad day home with me if I don’t feel like I’ve done a scene as well as I’d hoped or if something’s gone wrong, but that’s not taking the show home with me, just my disappointment. And you can have draining days, where the subject matter has been exhausting, but they tend to be days where you’re very emotionally charged. And a lot of the time you’re just exhausted. But I didn’t have any of those days on this.”
But while she has been enjoying a fruitful period on screen over the past few years, Finneran recognises that not all actors have the same opportunities.
“For the past 10 years, I’ve been very lucky and worked on some incredible dramas,” she adds. “But if you’d talk to a couple of [actor] mates of mine, they’d say it’s a shocking situation to be in. I just have to think myself very lucky that I’m working. There is good stuff being made all the time – I just don’t watch it!”
Co-creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman reveal the journey they took to bring Harlots, a period drama about rival brothel owners, to the small screen.
An 18th century mansion on the outskirts of London proved to be the perfect location for a period drama that presents a new take on what Rudyard Kipling described as the world’s oldest trade – prostitution.
But Harlots, which was co-commissioned by UK broadcaster ITV and US streamer Hulu, is more than just a sex saga.
Set against the backdrop of 18th century Georgian London, the eight-part series follows Margaret Wells and her daughters as she juggles her roles as mother and brothel owner. When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley, a rival madam, she decides to fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.
Harlots is based on an idea from head writer Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the drama is the first commission for Monumental Pictures.
“One of the things we always wanted to do with Harlots was to tell the story of these women from their point of view – it’s a story of survival,” Newman explains. “We often called it ‘misery porn,’ and while these women’s stories are awful, horrendous and difficult, especially to a modern audience, they did happen and we just wanted to truthfully tell the stories of the world.”
Buffini adds: “We have honoured their tenacity and courage and ability to survive, rather than dwelling on the ‘poor them’ aspect.”
Harlots had been in development, in some shape or form, for four years before finally getting the greenlight. Part of the delay was down to Buffini and Newman’s insistence on making the show they wanted to make and finding partners to support that vision. With US SVoD platform Hulu and ITV, they finally found the freedom to bring their ideas to life.
The pair first worked together on 2001 play Loveplay. Written by Buffini and starring actor Newman, it centred on transactions between men and women across the centuries. From that starting point, they both had ideas of how to take this story forward.
“One of the things about Harlots, which is why we love it so much, is that really this is one profession that never changes,” Buffini says. “Yes, we’re writing about Georgians but we’re absolutely writing about the modern world as well. That feeling really comes through.”
Their aim was to create a drama with a large female cast, telling a story from the female gaze. “Obviously this world is perfect for that,” Newman notes, “and we wanted a cast peopled with characters of all different backgrounds and ages and we’ve managed to do that, which is great.
“Once we really started looking into the world, we did a vast amount of research and discovered that an awful lot of Georgian London was built on vice. These women had disposable income so they put it into property and bricks. At that point, London was the capital of the world; it was a boom town, expanding massively, and the women who were successful in this trade were businesswomen.
“There is nudity,” she adds, “but if people are expecting some kind of cheap thrill, they’re not going to get it watching Harlots. Whatever you think it is, it probably isn’t that thing. If you think you’re going to get a political feminist diatribe, it isn’t that either.”
The main story – with rival brothel owners at its centre – evolved over much time and discussion, they admit, as the pair began storylining ideas before bringing fellow writers Cat Jones, Jane English and Debbie O’Malley, exec producer Alison Carpenter and script editor Katie Kelly into a writers room to thrash out individual episodes.
“I’ve never run a writers room before or even been in one, and it was brilliant,” says Buffini, who is best known for films such as Tamara Drew, Jane Eyre and Byzantium. “We just had such a laugh. It was really tricky, difficult and hard work but it was always a very creative atmosphere. Together, we worked from big sketches to tiny detail and we worked out all our storylines in that room. Then each individual writer went away and wrote their episodes and we all came together again to get them to the screen. What you realise about television when you start on the path of it is that it just becomes a bigger and bigger collaboration as you walk the path.”
Collaboration was a key part of the process for Newman and Buffini, with the latter admitting she is “not the kind of writer that is an omnipotent being.” In the early stages as the writing process continued apace, lead director Coky Giedroic did the bulk of casting. But as filming wore on, the creators found themselves becoming more involved in production, and say they found overseeing the editing process particularly rewarding.
Newman adds: “While we might not have been on set because we were storylining in the writers room, we signed off on everything from casting to design. And now that the episodes are in the edit, to be involved in shaping them is brilliant. It’s fascinating and really enjoyable.”
As befitting the flamboyant Georgians, Harlots was destined to be a big, noisy and colourful affair. “It’s not often you see the finished show and think, ‘That’s it,’ but with Harlots, I do think that,” Buffini reveals. “We’re both so proud of it. It’s the show we talked about years ago, but it’s better.”
The cast is led by Samantha Morton (pictured top), who stars as Margaret Wells opposite Lesley Manville (River) as Lydia Quigley. Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) plays Charlotte, Margaret’s eldest daughter and the city’s most coveted courtesan who is coming to terms with her position in society and her family.
Buffini says the cast were “an absolute pleasure and a privilege to write for,” adding that each of them brought something surprising and different to their character.
“Lydia could have been such a villain but that’s not how Lesley played her,” she continues. “She’s very warm and funny, quite maternal and a horrendous villain. And what Samantha has brought to Margaret in such a subtle way is this sense of relationship between damage and resilience. It’s so beautifully observed and a real credit to Sam. Jess, she’s just absolutely amazing.
“You don’t want to prescribe too much to an actor, especially actors of that calibre, because if you have written the script well enough, it will just be there in the action and in the dialogue. I like very sparse scripts that aren’t full of character description. Usually I allow myself one sentence to describe each character and then you leave it to the actors to find. That’s where a writer can really overstep the mark.”
By the end of season one, which launched on both ITV Encore and Hulu in March, every character has their story resolved, a move designed to ensure viewers aren’t left standing on a cliff edge awaiting a potential second season.
“Statistically there are not enough female stories by female creatives, but we forgot how unusual Harlots is,” Buffini adds, citing all-female directing and writing teams and its female-led cast. “We just got used to it being women producers, women directors, this big cast of actresses, but not forgetting our wonderful men.
“There are so many untold women’s stories. When you think of how many father-son stories you’ve seen and compare that with the number of mother-daughter stories you’ve seen, there just aren’t as many. There are lots of stories about brothers but there aren’t as many about sisters. As a dramatist, it’s amazing because it’s all uncharted territory and you can do anything. There’s so much more that is new and exciting about being in this world where a woman drives story.”
Guy Burt explores the discovery of the boy king’s tomb in four-parter Tutankhamun. DQ speaks to the writer and the show’s executive producers about retelling this famous story for a new audience.
As you might expect from its title, Tutankhamun is a historical series set in Egypt. But the four-part period piece might also be the unlikeliest buddy drama of the year.
Rather than the boy king himself, Guy Burt’s screenplay focuses on British archaeologist Howard Carter – the man who would become world famous with the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb on November 4, 1922 – and his partnership with aristocratic benefactor Lord Carnarvon.
The story opens as the hot-headed Carter’s licence to dig is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service. He then spends years ostracised, forced to sell ancient relics to buy food. But a chance meeting with Lord Carnarvon brings a change of fortunes and they begin an unlikely friendship that leads to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – against all odds and at great personal expense.
Max Irons and Sam Neill star as Carter and Carnarvon (pictured above left and right respectively) in the series, which is produced by Simon Lewis, directed by Peter Webber and executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield for ITV Studios. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing the show worldwide, with SBS in Australia having picked it up already.
Burt admits his inner eight-year-old quickly agreed to write the series when he was first sounded out about the project. “A lot of enthusiasm probably came through on the page because it is something I was obsessed with as a kid,” he says. “I think everybody knows the story a bit, and it’s a magical tale. It was a no-brainer.”
The writer, whose credits include The Bletchley Circle, The Borgias and Jekyll & Hyde, spent many hours researching Carter through the archaeologist’s notebooks and material from digs, as well as his personal archive at Oxford University’s Bodleian library and its centre of Egyptology, The Griffin Institute.
“As far as we could, we wanted to stay true to the history,” Burt explains. “The only significant piece of artistic licence is the portrayal of the romance between Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, which is one of those frustrating bits of history that is hinted at but nobody quite comes out and boldly states it – or at least when they do, historians argue about whether it’s true.
“In my mind there is one letter in particular from Carnarvon to Carter that doesn’t really make sense unless there is some kind of love interest. So the tricky bit for us was just threading our way through the history, making sure we were as accurate as we could possibly be while at the same time telling a story that is gripping as a quest for both treasure and love.
“It’s a fascinating, weird story, full of all the things that writers dream about getting into their scripts – reversals of fortune and moments where you think everything is coming right at last, only to have the rocks pulled out from under your feet. Those are the sort of things you usually craft in the course of a narrative, but here they actually happened.”
Burt says he had a vivid picture of the show during the writing process but admits he has learned to scale back the number of notes he includes in his scripts. “You don’t want to alienate your director by telling them their job,” he explains. “I used to write scripts that were pretty fastidious in terms of what I wanted the camera to do and it took me a while to realise you shouldn’t do that.
“But Tutankhamun is surprisingly close to what I had imagined. The set design nailed it completely. The thing you always have to deal with is the actors don’t tend to look like people you’ve got in your head. So that’s always a bit of a surprise but that’s true on every project. So I have twin Carters and twin Carnarvons – the guys who were with me when I was writing and those on screen. What we got in the end was really impressive.”
Unable to film in Egypt itself due to insurance reasons, the series settled in South Africa where almost all the interiors were built and, most importantly, The Valley of the Kings was recreated.
“This is a production built on the production design department,” admits Oldfield. “They did a fantastic job for us. We couldn’t send a camera to the valleys to get some establishing shots, so they recreated the Valley of the Kings in this abandoned valley on the Namibian border in searing heat. Everything had to be shipped up there – it’s eight hours drive from Cape Town – but we got most of the extras from Springbok, which is only an hour-and-a-half away. On one day of shooting, there was a cast and crew of 350 people out there in the middle of nowhere.”
From the start, Hopkinson says he was adamant Tutankhamun should not be a “pretty period drama” and was encouraged by director Webber’s ambition that viewers should feel the dust and dirt inside the tomb.
“When we talked to Peter, he wanted it to feel quite claustrophobic and hand-held in the tombs and then he wanted to show more scale outside,” he explains. “He was very keen to make it look like old photographs where the colours are slightly faded. Because he’s got a lot of experience in cinema, he gave it the scale and sweep you’ve got to have in a show like this. That’s why we wanted Peter to do it.”
Burt adds: “The valley shots among the workers [uncovering Tut’s tomb] are all done with handheld cameras; they’re quite unsteady and there’s a lot of dust. But the Cairo moments when you’re in the big, old, established buildings are all very steady and framed. There’s a clear pattern to how things are divided. [Webber] also had clever ideas for inside the tomb, never letting the camera lens look back past where the wall would have been. So although you’re flying walls out in order to get your crew in, there’s still that sense of claustrophobia because the lens never pulls out. It’s like you’re in there with them, and it was tremendously gratifying to see that level of precision and skill brought to it.”
With a budget boosted by tax breaks and a drop in the value of the South African rand, Hopkinson says there was more than enough money to ensure Tutankhamun carried the production values now expected of television series.
“I remember the producer ringing me up and telling me that, for just one day of shooting, the designer had built two streets on an old borstal in the outskirts of Cape Town,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I’m just going to warn you we’re building two whole streets for a handful of scenes we’re shooting.’ I just asked if we could afford it and he said yes. It was amazing. This story had to be done with scale. People also expect that now from television – for something like Tutankhamun, you need the scale and production values that cost money. It looks fantastic.”
That’s not to say the production was without some unique challenges – namely a risk assessment that was 40 pages long and led to three ‘scorpion wranglers’ being on set. Amy Wren, who plays Evelyn, was even hospitalised for 24 hours after being bitten by a spider.
“It sounded awful,” Oldfield says of the set. “It’s got spitting cobras, mambas, snakes, spiders, scorpions that will kill you. Every morning when you get up you have to shake all your clothes and hit your shoes together before you do anything. You have to check under your pillow and throw the sheets back to make sure there are no snakes in the bed. They were finding them every day and then moving them to a valley elsewhere. And the heat – I’ve never experienced heat like it.”
Once the biggest news story in the world, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is a story that still has the power to captivate – but how does this new dramatisation hope to attract viewers? “Tutankhamun is a name that will immediately attract people,” says Hopkinson. “I’ve been surprised how many people suddenly admit they are obsessed with Tutankhamun. Our head lawyer, who doesn’t usually do compliance of scripts, said he’d like to do this one because he remembered going to the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in the 1970s. So there are lots of people who are fascinated by the story, and it also has immediate recognition internationally.”
Burt adds: “We’re hoping we can lure an audience in on the promise of treasure in the sand, but by the end of the first episode I hope they will be watching for Howard Carter and he keeps you going through it all.”
Paula Milne discusses her latest TV drama, HIM, which she describes as her attempt at writing a male version of big-screen horror Carrie.
While horror has been a resurgent theme in small-screen drama in recent years – think The Walking Dead, Ash vs Evil Dead and American Horror Story – the stories are almost always rooted in an element of fantasy.
It’s notable, then, that ITV drama HIM is described as a “domestic horror,” with the plot playing out against the backdrop of a troubled family living in the heart of suburbia.
Created and written by Paula Milne, the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy (known only as HIM) who is trapped between the two homes of his divorced parents, each now remarried with new families. He is both a reminder of their failures in the past and a threat to their happiness in the future.
Riding a rollercoaster of emotions, he must also contain the terrifying secret that he inherited a supernatural power from his grandfather – a power that his grandmother urges him to use only for good.
And when his 17-year-old stepsister Faith moves into his family home, HIM is irrevocably drawn to her – but they both know their mutual attraction could have devastating consequences.
The three-part drama, currently on air in the UK, is produced by Mainstreet Pictures and executive produced by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. It is produced by Chrissy Skinns, directed by Andy De Emmony and distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Milne’s writing credits include The Virgin Queen, The Politician’s Husband and White Heat. And, having written political thrillers and cop shows, she was eager to turn her hand to another genre.
“ITV asked me if I would like to write something for them,” Milne recalls of the 2014 conversation that led to HIM. “I wanted to write a horror piece and I think boys get a bad rap, so I told them I wanted to do a male version of Carrie – and, fair play, they went along with it.
“It played to their strengths in the sense that I already wanted it to be set in suburbia and there’s the extended family/divorce stuff and race issues. It’s very contemporary but very ordinary. If the audience believes the ordinariness, they’re more likely to believe [in the lead character’s] power.”
Milne describes genre as “a great friend to a writer,” offering the potential to dress any story up in a variety of different costumes. The daughter of a film critic, the origins of her relationship with horror lie in her watching Hammer Horror and Roger Corman films, though the roots of HIM can also be found in her own family.
Married twice, divorced twice and with four children, the writer says she could see her youngest child Harry struggling with life in his teens and perhaps carrying the disappointment of his parents. She took this foundation and placed on top of it the confusion caused by an attraction to a step-sibling, being replaced by babies in two different homes, and academic struggles – in addition to harbouring a secret power.
“There were various elements I had already thought of and it seemed to be important he didn’t suddenly discover he had this power,” Milne explains. “That’s what happened with Carrie. The shock of that would then drive the whole thing and he would probably have to tell somebody. But if from a very early age his grandmother had seen he could do something, she’d have said his grandfather had the same power and told him to be very careful, so he was.
“But when his parents first split up and he uses his power to throw a cricket ball through the window, that’s when we start to see that his power emerges when he’s deeply emotionally affected and has no way to express it. What can you throw at this boy that could take him on a journey that might end in death – his or someone else’s?”
In the miniseries, HIM has the power of telekinesis – the ability to move objects without touching them. “You should be very specific [with the power],” Milne notes. “By being very specific and confident about the power he has and what he can and cannot do with it, you hope the audience will buy into it.
“But the risk is that the power is lessened by the domestic story. That’s why the nosebleed HIM gets when he uses his power was important – red is anger. But it’s never scary. It’s scary in what could happen to him if he loses control of his power and, arguably, what could happen to somebody else.”
Before putting pen to paper, Milne carried out considerable research into telekinesis and found a whole new world in which to set her story.
“There are people who really do believe it and I needed to know why,” she says. “They feel marginalised and wronged and it was really interesting. So I started with that and then the key incidents of the family and the dynamics. I have a big sheet of Imperial paper and do a storyboard. I always knew it would be three episodes – a trilogy is good, satisfying number. Then you think about the events that lead up to the key incidents. Then there are lots of [story idea] bubbles; I number them, handwrite the scripts twice and then put them on the computer.”
In putting her vision onto the page, Milne also keeps her notes sparse. She doesn’t specify the exact look of a character, instead focusing much more on details such as time of day, or that viewers should not see a character’s face until a certain point in the story, for example.
“I remember on another show, the producer rang and said, ‘Can we change that dinner scene to a breakfast scene,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘No, people have a completely different conversation and are completely different at dinner than they are at breakfast.’”
Milne also forged a strong relationship with director De Emmony, who impressed her with both his technical skills and his interpretation of the emotional material in the script.
“That is quite unusual. Normally you get one or the other, but he was really good,” she says. “He had the challenges. It’s easy to sit there and write it, but he had to do it.
“To get the best out of people, they’ve got to inhabit it, they’ve got to own it. So the key time is in prep. We talk about the concept of the characters and what we’re trying to do. I also got Andy to meet Harry, my son, and showed him pictures of him at that time. So you get him to that place.
I went on set maybe twice. There are some writers who love to be on set, but I’m not one of them. What I really love to do is write. I see the dailies so occasionally I ask for a pick-up scene if someone doesn’t say their line right. But how collaborative the writer is with the director depends on how collaborative the director wants to be, and Andy was [collaborative].”
It’s not those early stages of setting the style and tone of a story that Milne most enjoys, however, but the payoffs that arrive as the plot winds towards its conclusion. She gives one example from the final episode, where HIM’s mother and father discuss him and their regret at how their own relationship fell apart.
“It shows what they went through and that they’re just ordinary people who make mistakes,” Milne explains. “You can’t get a scene like that except at the end when you’ve earned the audience’s interest in them. It’s really important to set things up well and delicately and nuanced, but the real payoffs are always at the end.”
For her next project, Milne jumps genre again and lands in Cold War Germany for 1970s thriller The Same Sky, which debuts in Germany on ZDF in January and then on Netflix around the world. The multi-stranded story concerns an East German Romeo spy sent to the West to seduce a British intelligence officer, a gay teacher trying to escape East Germany and a young girl who turns to steroids as she seeks swimming stardom.
“What was great about writing something like that was [the characters are] ordinary people going through extraordinary times,” she says of the six-part series – a departure from the decidedly extraordinary HIM who finds himself an outcast in very ordinary surroundings.
The Japanese have a good strike rate when it comes to exporting animation and entertainment formats. But they have struggled with drama. There are a few reasons for this but, when it comes down to it, the core problem is that scripted shows that work in Japanese primetime don’t travel that well.
The country’s leading players want to do something about this because the revenues they are generating from the domestic media market aren’t as strong as they used to be. So now they are looking at formats and coproductions as ways of building up their international profile and generating a new revenue stream. They are also starting to ask themselves if there is a way of making shows that can tap into the world drama zeitgeist that has propelled Korean, Turkish, Nordic and Israeli drama around the globe.
There were a couple of examples of the way Japan is seeking to shift its mindset at the Mipcom market in Cannes this week. One was a deal that will see Nippon TV drama Mother adapted for the Turkish market by MF Yapim & MEDYAPIM. The new show will be called Anne and will air on leading broadcaster Star TV. It’s the first time a Japanese company has struck this kind of deal in Turkey.
Also this week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK screened Moribito II: Guardian of the Spirit, an ambitious live-action fantasy series based on the novels of Nahoko Uehashi – likened by some to JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.
Produced in 4K and HDR, this is the second in a planned trilogy of TV series, the first of which consisted of four parts. The show has been attracting interest from channel buyers beyond Japan’s usual sphere of influence, suggesting the country may be starting to have the kind of international impact it wants.
Interestingly, NHK brought the actor Kento Hayashi to Cannes to help promote the Moribito franchise. Hayashi also starred in Netflix’s first Japanese original, Hibana, another scripted show that has captured the attention of audiences and critics around the world.
Away from Japanese activity, companies that had a good week in Cannes included ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which said its hit period drama series Victoria has now sold to more than 150 countries, including new deals with the likes of Sky Germany, VRT Belgium and Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+. It also sold comedy drama Cold Feet – renewed for a new season in 2017 – to the likes of NPO Netherlands, ITV Choice Africa, Yes in Israel, TV4 Sweden and NRK Norway.
Further evidence of the appeal of lavish period pieces came with the pre-sales buzz around Zodiak Rights’ Versailles, which is going into its second season. At Mipcom, the show was picked up by a range of broadcasters and platforms including BBC2 (UK), Amazon Prime (UK), C More (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), DirecTV (Latin America) and Movistar+.
Moving beyond period pieces, other shows that cut through the promotional clutter included Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s time-travel drama Timeless, which sold to the UK’s Channel 4 to air on its youth-skewing E4 network. The show was also picked up by the likes of OSN in the Middle East, Fox in Italy, AXN in Japan, Viacom 18’s Colors Infinity in India and Sohu in China.
SPT also sold new sitcom Kevin Can Wait to Channel 4 in the UK, though perhaps the most interesting Sony-related story at Mipcom was the news that its international television network group AXN has joined forces with Pinewood Television to a develop a slate of six TV drama projects.
The series will be financed in partnership between Sony Pictures Television Networks and Pinewood Television. The plan is for them to air on AXN channels in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a programming emphasis on high-impact action, crime and mystery. The deal was brokered by Marie Jacobson, executive VP of programming and production at SPTN, and Peter Gerwe, a director for Pinewood Television.
Jacobson said: “As we look for alternative paths to expand original series development, Pinewood TV make for the ideal partners. We are look forward to developing projects with them that play both in the UK and on our channels around the world.”
Other high-profile dramas to attract buyer attention at the market this week included StudioCanal’s Swedish-French eight-hour drama Midnight Sun, picked up by ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel and DR in Denmark.
Distributor FremantleMedia International licensed its big-budget series The Young Pope to Kadokawa Corporation in Japan, while Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution licensed The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to French pay TV operator Canal+.
Another show that enjoyed some success this week was DRG-distributed The Level, a six-part thriller that was picked up by ABC Australia, UTV in Ireland, TVNZ in New Zealand and DBS Satellite Services in Israel, among others. Produced by Kate Norrish and Polly Leys, joint MDs of Hillbilly Films, the show follows a reputable cop with a secret that is about to unravel. The show has previously been picked up by Acorn Media Enterprises for the US market.
Reiterating the growing interest in non-English drama, Global Screen enjoyed some success with Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the true story of how brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler set up Adidas and Puma. France Télévisions acquired free TV rights and will air the series in early 2017 on France 3, while Just Entertainment in the Netherlands has landed video, pay TV and VoD rights. Other buyers included DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), LRT (Lithuania) and HBO Europe (for Eastern Europe).
Turkish drama successes included Mistco’s sale of TRT period drama Resurrection to Kazakhstan Channel 31. Eccho Rights also sold four Turkish dramas to Chilean broadcaster Mega. The four shows were all produced by Ay Yapim and include the recent hit series Insider. This continues a good run of success for Turkish content in the Latin American region.
While Mipcom is fundamentally a sales market, its conference programme is also a useful way of tuning into international trends and opportunities in drama. There was an interesting keynote with showrunner Adi Hasak, who has managed to get two shows away with US networks (Shades of Blue, Eyewitness) in the last three years despite having no real track record with the US channel business. He believes the current voracious demand for ideas has made this possible: “This is a small business, where everyone knows everyone. If you create material that speaks to buyers, they will respond.”
Participant Media CEO David Linde also talked about the way his company is starting to extend its influence beyond film into TV and social media. Known for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc, Snitch and Spotlight, the firm’s expansion into TV will see a new series about journalists breaking stories, developed by the team behind Oscar winner Spotlight.
As Cold Feet returns to ITV after more than a decade off air, Michael Pickard speaks to creator Mike Bullen about resurrecting the hit comedy-drama.
It was in 1997 that viewers first became entangled in the lives, loves and friendships of Adam, Rachel, Pete, Jenny, Karen and David.
But now, after a 13-year absence from our screens following its initial five-season run, ITV comedy-drama Cold Feet is back with eight new episodes.
Stars James Nesbitt (Adam), Robert Bathurst (David), Hermione Norris (Karen), John Thomson (Pete) and Fay Ripley (Jenny) have all reunited for the show, which picks up with the friends facing as many challenges as they approach 50 as they did in their 30s.
But amid the current craze for TV reboots and remakes, why did creator Mike Bullen decide to revisit his characters in 2016?
“It started with ITV,” he says, speaking to DQ from his home in Sydney, Australia. “It has been mooted over the years but I’ve only ever wanted to do it if I thought we could do it as well as we did before. But with the passage of time and the point the characters are at in their lives now, I felt there was new stuff to say and enough to justify a new season.
“That was the other thing – we could have come back as a four-parter or a special but I only wanted to do it as a proper season. Initially ITV commissioned six episodes but when we started storylining, I thought there was enough for eight – and one way TV has changed since we were last on is that, with catch-up and on demand, people tend to binge watch. I felt six was no longer a satisfying enough number. That’s two nights’ viewing. So at least with eight you’re getting a more satisfying meal rather than a snack.”
The first episode, which aired on Monday to a slot-busting 6.1 million viewers, saw the gang reunite as Adam announced his impending marriage to Angela (Karen David). Returning to Manchester after years of working abroad, Adam had hoped to bring his friends together to attend his wedding – but not everyone was as excited as him. Meanwhile, Karen told Adam that his son Matt (Cel Spellman) was unhappy at school.
Bullen admits the first script for the new season was “really difficult” to piece together, as he had to re-establish the cast of characters while throwing them into a compelling new story.
“The first episode was the third script I wrote – I had two completely different stories before I settled on that one,” he explains. “It’s a bit unrepresentative of the season because the first episode is really very much about Adam and then episode two goes back to being much more of an ensemble and they’ve each got their own stories going on.
“Most of them are approaching 50 now and their kids are at an age where they’re becoming independent of the parents. I’ve been through that stage myself and I think, as an adult, that’s when you get your life back. It is a quite interesting stage in life because the first season was about the characters settling down and having mortgages, families and careers. This season feels as though again they’re on the cusp of change but now they’re taking stock of their own lives and deciding what they’re going to do next.”
This new run of Cold Feet, technically its sixth season, is neither a remake nor a reboot, Bullen points out. “It’s more like a spin-off,” he notes, “but one that has every character in it. My younger daughter is a big fan of Gilmore Girls [which is being rebooted on Netflix] and I was really interested to see the new trailer because it looks as though their characters haven’t moved on. Really, they’re just putting the old show back on the road again. We haven’t done that. Our characters have absolutely moved on and it’s like a new show but with characters you know before.”
But while ITV was keen to see Cold Feet return to its schedules, some of the cast members were slightly more hesitant. Bullen reveals Norris was the least enthusiastic, though all five stars signed on after seeing the first script and future storylines, reassured that the new episodes would stay true to the original series.
There was also a discussion about bringing back Rachel (played by Helen Baxendale), Adam’s wife and Matt’s mother who died in a car crash in season five, in some form.
“In the very first version, Rachel was present throughout the script where she was like Adam’s conscience,” Bullen explains. “She wasn’t a ghost but she would be in his head. I sent the script to Helen but she wasn’t keen to do it, which I understand. I wasn’t sure we were even going to use her through the season. It would have become very repetitive and dull very quickly so happily for us and her, she said no. It just forced us to be more creative in how we approached her death as an issue for Adam.”
Production on the new season moved rapidly, from news of the commission last November to its premiere just 10 months later. Time constraints meant Bullen had to bring new writers on board, and the series creator jokes that the whole process was “chaotic.”
“At the point of commission, we only had a few months before we started filming,” he recalls. “We went into pre-production in January and we only had three out of eight scripts in reasonably good shape. By the time we started filming, we only had four scripts written so as we were filming, they were catching us up. I liken it to building the track in front of the train. The train was moving faster than us so when we got to the last filming block of two episodes, they were doing a reccy and I wasn’t even sure if we were going to be using certain locations, because we hadn’t absolutely nailed down the story.
“Certainly when we started filming the final episode, I hadn’t finished writing it. I was rewriting while they were filming and it got to the point where, say, I would rewrite a scene but they said, ‘Don’t bother, we’ve already shot it.’ It’s not the way it’s meant to be but it’s fine.”
Perhaps it was risky for ITV to schedule the show so quickly, but Bullen says it was a risk to commission the show, which began life as an ITV comedy pilot, in the first place.
“When you’re up against stuff like Game of Thrones and Homeland, you can see how those shows get commissioned because it’s a very easy pitch,” he says. “But when you’ve got a show that’s basically about ordinary people living their lives, that’s a huge risk for a network.
“Cold Feet is a huge risk because although there will be a big audience who come to the first episode, we’ve got to satisfy them – and if they’re not satisfied, if they leak away, ITV has got a very expensive turkey on its hands because this is an expensive show. The cast are not cheap, and we’ve spent a lot of money on the look of it because it’s always looked really attractive. Hats off to ITV for commissioning it because, in some ways, it was easier not to.”
With a large ensemble cast, creative challenges included servicing each character with enough storylines while also trying to avoid giving them overly distinct plots that could detract from the group dynamic.
But Bullen is adamant that the show, rested and refreshed after its extended break, can run for further seasons. “If the viewers want it, we can definitely do a second season,” he adds of the show, which is produced by Big Talk Productions and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. “Potentially there’s enough for three. I never look beyond the season you’re making because you just don’t know. Occasionally we would paint ourselves into a corner – after the first season, Rachel left Manchester pregnant and we didn’t know who the father was. At the time, I didn’t know either – but when you get the commission for the second season, then you worry about it!
“I just hope viewers will be pleased it’s back; that they don’t go, ‘They should have left it alone!’”
As of this week, US premium cable network Starz has started airing original series on Sunday nights instead of Saturdays. The move appears to have been a good one, with the debut episode of Power’s third season setting a new viewing record.
The show, which tells the story of a charismatic club owner who leads a double life as the head of a powerful drug-dealing business, attracted 2.26 million viewers, significantly up on the 1.54 million who viewed the finale of the second run.
The previous record for a premiere episode on Starz was 1.46 million, for the second season opener of period adventure Outlander.
As soon as the rating news was in, Starz announced it had commissioned two more seasons of Power, which stars Omari Hardwick and was created by Courtney Kemp Agboh – with Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson also on board as an executive producer.
Commenting on the news, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said: “In today’s content landscape, it is challenging for a series to stand out, but Courtney is a singular voice working in television today. In Curtis, we not only have an immense talent but an executive producer who brings a unique perspective, an authentic voice and passionate fan base that has helped propel the success of the series. The fans have let it be known loud and clear that they cannot get enough of [main characters] Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela and Kanan.”
There was mixed news for Starz pirate drama Black Sails, however. The show, which is a prequel to Treasure Island, has been given the green light for a fourth season of 10 episodes – but that season will also be its last.
Black Sails co-creator and executive producer Jonathan E Steinberg said: “It’s a rare privilege in television to be given the kind of creative freedom we’ve enjoyed on this show over the last four years. While it was a difficult decision to make this season our last, we couldn’t imagine anything beyond it that would make for a better ending to the story nor a more natural handoff to Treasure Island.”
Overall, Black Sails will be remembered as a success for Starz, building on the work done by The Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus and Camelot. The show is the first Starz original series to have got as far as four seasons, averaging 3.6 million viewers per episode along the way. It has won two Emmys, achieved an 8.2 rating on IMDb and has been licensed to 130 countries, including a deal with A+E Networks in the UK.
So the question now is whether the network will go in search of another period adventure to fill the gap – or whether the recent Lionsgate deal will point it in a new direction.
San Diego Comic-Con got underway on Thursday and runs through until Sunday. A hugely important date in the entertainment industry calendar, it is an opportunity for film and TV producers to build buzz around their projects by connecting directly with hardcore fans.
Historically regarded as a gathering for geeks, it is now an unmissable event for anyone interested or working in the sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, horror and adventure genres.
At time of writing, the headlines definitely belonged to Star Trek Beyond, the latest movie in the iconic sci-fi franchise. Not only did it put on a spectacular show in San Diego, but Paramount Studios has approved plans for another film.
In parallel, there’s also a huge amount of interest in the new Star Trek TV series, which launches on CBS’s subscription streaming service CBS All Access in the US in January. This week CBS revealed that it has now licensed the show (and the extensive Star Trek back catalogue) to SVoD giant Netflix for the international market.
Netflix will be able to stream the show just one day after it has debuted on CBS All Access.
Coming off the back of this summer’s movie launch, there’s no question the TV series will be one of the highlights of 2017. “Star Trek is already a worldwide phenomenon and this international partnership will provide fans around the world, who have been craving a new series for more than a decade, the opportunity to see every episode virtually at the same time as viewers in the US,” said Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group. “The new Star Trek will definitely be hailing on all frequencies throughout the planet.”
Netflix is also at Comic-Con to promote its partnership with Marvel and gave fans a brief introduction to Luke Cage, the central character of a new superhero series coming on September 30. Luke Cage joins existing Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Earlier this week, in our Greenlight column, we looked at the success of Australian prison drama Wentworth on the international market. Now there is more good news for the show following reports that Australia’s Foxtel has ordered a fifth season for its SoHo channel. FremantleMedia Australia will start production on 12 episodes in Melbourne next month.
Foxtel head of drama Penny Win said: “Wentworth has gone from strength to strength over the past four seasons. It is a ratings blockbuster and fan favourite for Foxtel audiences. It was a very easy decision to commission a further season of this brilliantly constructed and crafted programme. There is a lot in store both for the women behind bars and those on the outside.”
There was also good news for Scandinavian drama Jordskott this week, with DQ sister title C21 reporting that it is to be adapted into English by Amazon for its Prime Video service. That news came just after Sony Pictures Television took a stake in Palladium Fiction, the Swedish production company behind the original show.
A 10-part thriller with supernatural overtones, Jordskott debuted on SVT in February 2015 and was then picked up for distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). ITVSGE sold the show around the world, including to ITV Encore in the UK, and Palladium is now in development on a second season with SVT.
Another show creating a buzz on the international market this week is ITV’s new six-part murder mystery Loch Ness, also distributed by ITVSGE. Despite the fact it has only just started filming in Scotland, it has been picked up by NBCUniversal International Networks for broadcast on its 13th Street pay TV channel in France, Spain, Germany and Poland in 2017.
One possible explanation for the early pick-up is that Loch Ness stars Scottish actor Laura Fraser – a familiar face to many viewers thanks to her excellent turn as the neurotic Lydia in Breaking Bad. The show is written by Stephen Brady (Fortitude) and executive produced by ITV Studios creative director and executive producer Tim Haines (Beowulf).
Loch Ness was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea and head of drama series Jane Hudson, with support from Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund. Fea commented: “Loch Ness is a gripping, tightly plotted drama that focuses on how a serial killer terrifies a local community. Stephen Brady’s compelling scripts utilise the wilderness of Loch Ness perfectly.”
Haines added: “Serial killers are monsters that lie beneath the surface of normal happy communities. Where better to hunt for one than in a place that has thrived off its own monster myth for centuries – Loch Ness.”
Among the many different TV drama formats that exist on the international market, one that seems to work consistently well for the British TV audience is the feature-length story-of-the-week drama (circa 100 minutes) based around a recurring character. Examples over the years include Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Cracker, Prime Suspect and Sherlock.
UK broadcasters don’t commission these shows in very big numbers, usually in batches of three to five on an annual basis. But the successful ones are so durable that, before you know it, there’s a huge library of episodes that can be repeated ad infinitum and sold to broadcasters around the world. Midsomer Murders, would you believe, now runs to 109 episodes, while Morse – starring the unforgettable John Thaw – racked up 33 episodes.
ITV’s Morse, of course, has given birth to a dynasty of dramas. After the initial series (based on the novels by Colin Dexter), ITV launched a franchise around his sidekick Lewis. And then it turned its attention to the adventures of the young Morse in series called Endeavour – written by Russell Lewis, whose many credits include Kavanagh QC, Sharpe, Hornblower and Marple.
When ITV first announced it was making a pilot of Endeavour in 2012, it would have been easy to complain about broadcaster risk-aversion. But the combination of Morse folklore and 1960s Oxford seemed a dead cert to succeed. And so it has proved – after attracting around 8.2 million viewers for the pilot, the first batch of four films in 2013 pulled in an average audience of around seven million.
Ratings have dipped slightly since then, but not enough to damage the franchise. In 2015, for example, the fourth series attracted an average of 6.3 million viewers and a 22% audience share – which is better than most dramas on British TV. So it’s no real surprise that ITV has just announced a new series will go into production in Spring 2016.
Commenting on the decision, ITV director of drama Steve November said: “We’re delighted with the audience’s reaction to Endeavour. It was an easy decision to recommission due to the quality of the scripts from Russell Lewis and the excellent production values from (producer Mammoth Screen).”
While SVoD and pay TV platforms are currently in the golden age of drama experimentation, the success of Endeavour (when contrasted with ITV’s lacklustre ratings for Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands) is symptomatic of how difficult it is for mainstream commercial networks to be adventurous in their programming choices. This isn’t just an issue in the UK, but also in markets like the US, Germany and France, where there’s a clear difference in audience tastes between the established free networks and subscription TV.
Another positive point worth noting about Endeavour is that is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). This means the show is a revenue generator twice over for ITV (unlike Downton Abbey, for example, which was distributed by NBC Universal).
Mammoth Screen’s involvement is also interesting. An ITV-owned production company, Mammoth Screen has developed the kind of track record that would make it very tempting to back if it were a horse. Aside from Endeavour, it has also made Poldark, And Then There Were None and Black Work in recent times. All of that must make ITV feel pretty confident about the prospects for upcoming series Victoria – also produced by Mammoth Screen.
Still in the UK, this week saw the return of Happy Valley, from Red Production for BBC1 and written by Sally Wainwright. The first series is widely regarded as one of the best British dramas of the last few years – so there was some anxiety that the second series might prove to be a let down. However, the new run has started incredibly strongly, attracting 6.5 million viewers for its first episode, the highest for the show so far.
Not only that, the second series is drawing critical acclaim. IMDb’s rating of 9.2 puts the show right up among the best dramas in the business, while The Daily Telegraph was also effusive in its praise. In a five-star review, the paper said: “The plot is already full of suspense and possibilities. Performances were uniformly excellent. Sarah Lancashire was charismatic: fast-talking and teak-tough at work, bursting into tears of anguish when she got home. The cast additions were promisingly classy, too.”
Another strong performance in the UK came from the reboot of Fox US’s iconic series The X-Files, which is airing on Channel 5. The first episode of the six-part show attracted 3.35 million, the highest launch of any US drama on the channel since 2009. In the US, meanwhile, episode four of the new X-Files attracted 8.3 million viewers, very similar to the previous episode’s figure.
Another series that deserves some credit for its remarkable consistency is The CW’s highest-rated show, The Flash. Over the course of a 23-episode first season, the show averaged 3.84 million. Season two started slightly softer, around the 3.5 million mark, but has got stronger as the series has progressed. Now on episode 13, it has just recorded a season high of 3.96m viewers and its highest share of 18- to 49-year-olds to date.
The Flash is based on the DC Comics character and is part of a much broader alliance between The CW and DC that is working incredibly well. At the time of writing, The CW’s number-two show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (which launched in January), while number three is fellow DC-based show Arrow. The CW, it should be noted, is 50% owned by Warner Bros, which also owns DC.
Linking all three shows are writer/producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, who were also both involved in CBS’s reboot of DC’s Supergirl. CBS owns the other 50% of The CW, creating another nice link back into the extension of the DC franchise.
Finally, on the programme acquisition front, UK channel BBC4 has acquired Nordic Noir drama Modus from FremantleMedia International. Commenting on the Miso Films-produced drama, Cassian Harrison, editor of BBC Four, said: “BBC Four continues to bring the very best international drama to its audience. With its gripping storyline and rich, complex characters, Modus is a clever, entertaining Saturday night treat.”
Jamie Lynn, FMI exec VP of sales and distribution for EMEA, said the BBC4 pick-up would help boost his company’s international sales effort on the show: “BBC4 is recognised by the international broadcast community for its quality foreign drama and has landed and launched some of the industry’s biggest Scandi titles in its Saturday night slot, all which have gone on to receive worldwide acclaim. This prestigious slot has become a beacon, and when searching for the next big non-English language hit, the international world looks here.”
DQ goes behind the scenes on ITV’s Beowulf, based on the epic poem.
It’s described as an epic re-imagining of one of literature’s greatest and most enduring heroes. UK broadcaster ITV’s forthcoming drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a western set in a place populated by both humans and fantastical creatures during the Dark Ages of Britain.
The first episode, due to debut on the network in 2016, follows Beowulf who, after spending years as a mercenary warrior, returns to Herot to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane, Hrothgar – the man who raised him. But when Herot is attacked by the monster Grendl, Beowulf has no choice but to hunt it down, in turn winning favour with Herot’s new female Thane and the wider community.
So begins a series about courage, greed, betrayal, revenge, loyalty, power and love, featuring fights, chases, raids and battles filmed on a sprawling set built in the north east of England.
Writer James Dormer executive produces with ITV Studios creative director of drama Tim Haines (Primeval, Sinbad) and ITV Studios executive producer of drama Katie Newman (Primeval: New World). ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing the show.
But just how was this sweeping 13-part drama – which is based on a 3,000-line poem written sometime around the 11th century – brought to life?
Before pitching the series to ITV, Newman wrote a five-season arc showing where the story could go, setting out characters and, importantly, designing a map that imagined the layout of the Shieldlands.
She says: “I was very surprised by the poem’s depth of character and how relevant it is considering how old it is, and just what a great story it is. Both Tim and I liked the world and wondered how to make it into a television show. Although the poem has a certain feel and tone we connected with, we used it as a jumping-off point to then be free to imagine from there.”
Newman says the key to Beowulf’s development was thinking about westerns, with Beowulf returning to a town he left as a child and becoming the sheriff: “Tim and I both got excited because suddenly it all made sense – a frontier town where there’s danger from outside and within.
“We then set about creating the world beyond Herot. Everything grew from there. And because we didn’t want to be historically accurate, the advantage of fantasy is that it allows you freedom.”
Haines describes Beowulf as a classic hero: “He’s the original hero in many ways. For western fantasy, Beowulf is where it all started. He was a name for a hero that becomes the core of heroic fantasy in western storytelling.
“The original Beowulf would be a boastful, sexist, arrogant murderer but we had to give him more nuance. He’s a Beowulf you can recognise and identify with now.”
To build the world of the Shieldlands for television, Haines says it was important to have a central location. “Building a new destination every episode would mean you’d be bankrupt by episode four, so you need to come back to a place. That fits with the idea of home, which is very strong for our character. You want the audience to feel that every week they’re escaping to somewhere. Every drama builds a world, but with ours it’s everything you point a camera at – you have to build the towns, find the wilderness and dress everyone and everything.”
As such, finding a filming location that could present a number of different landscapes was vital. “We wanted it to feel bigger than the couple of kilometres we were filming in so we had mountain people, forest people and nomadic horse people,” says Newman. “The advantage of filming in Northumberland is that it gives you a rather incredible range of landscapes. We tried to make it feel bigger to make it feel epic.”
Haines, who says the production would have shot in Ireland had it not been for English tax breaks, adds: “What I liked about Northumberland is England gets thinner. You go from highlands and moorlands to the coast very quickly though lots of different environments. For a show like this where you want to go to a different place on the map in each episode, you want it to feel different. It’s difficult if you’re in the middle of rural southern England where it doesn’t change that much.”
Central to building the world of Beowulf were costume designer Ralph Wheeler-Holes and production designer Grant Montgomery.
Wheeler-Holes says that although creating clothing for a world of myth and fantasy might sound easy, the impact of the Lord of the Rings film franchise and HBO drama Game of Thrones meant it was important Beowulf should stand apart from them, limiting what he could do. “It was helpful that the executive producers were insistent that the series was not driven by period accuracy but rather by the show’s own sense of style, freeing things up massively,” he says.
The drama is set between 800-900AD in a world similar to the frontier towns of American westerns, so Wheeler-Holes found mixing western themes with those of fantasy as a fun place to start. “Colours are important to me as a designer, allowing a shorthand to be created to link or distance people in the minds of an audience,” he explains. “When looking at a family show like Beowulf, things need to be simplified so that character traits for groups of people can be recognised by all age groups. Put simply, the tribes of the Shieldlands are all colour-coded – green, blue, red, saffron, black… We can recognise who is from where and who their allegiances are to.”
He adds: “Working with the actors, directors and producers to come up with costumes that everybody loves on a show like Beowulf is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. It has been a joy creating a world in which the characters, I hope, wear clothes rather than costumes. One in which you can almost smell the people and one which we’d all, secretly, love to be a part of.”
For production designer Montgomery, Beowulf offered a unique opportunity to create a world from scratch, including sets, furniture, banners, wagons, shields, weapons, glass and pottery. He says his influences ranged from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and production designer Ken Adam (James Bond franchise) to painter Gustav Klimt, as well as 1960s epics such as Cleopatra and Spartacus.
The town of Herot included a giant exterior of Hrothgar’s mead hall (the interior of which is covered with gold), assorted buildings, smelting pits that all begin to smoke at the touch of a button, walkways, a troll arena and a ‘Wheel of Pain’ that is turned by the trolls.
“This was a massive undertaking in design and build terms and took 18 weeks to complete from blueprint stage to finished build,” explains Montgomery. “It was built through the late autumn and winter of 2014 to April 2015. High winds and snow storms hindered the build but a brilliant construction team led by Paul Ward and art director Nick Wilkinson completed the enormous task.
“I designed the town to reflect how the wealth of Herot is bound up with the sweat and labour of many in the smelting pits, so that the audience could relate the two sides of the town.”
Built in a disused quarry, the mead hall set is 35ft high and 150ft long. Wolf heads and columns were sculpted and cast from moulds, while furniture ranging from Hrothgar’s bed to the glassware were made in Europe and Morocco.
Montgomery says Beowulf’s hut, in particular, was one of his favourite sets. “All the shields adorning the walls were designed to represent the separate tribes that inhabit the Shieldlands, along with the troll heads that represent past conquests. The shields and troll heads were sculpted and cast into a lightweight silicon rubber and expanded foam. The whole feel was to create a sheriff jail as if it were a cross between a western and a viking town.”
Beyond the sets and costumes, CGI also plays an important role in the series. Haines says that although there are creatures, Beowulf isn’t a “monster of the week” series, and he’s keen to stress that while fantastical in many ways, this isn’t a magic show.
“In a world-building sense, we’re developing a fauna. The original occupants of the Shieldlands were giants and a whole ecology of what humans call ‘mud born.’ They’re this fantastical group of creatures,” he explains. “These creatures go from wolves up to giants and skin-shifters who are as intelligent as human beings. In season one, you see probably half a dozen. They appear in different shows and they are niche. Their identity becomes more established as you go along.
“Trolls are more sophisticated, gorilla-like creatures that are capable of limited communication. The skin-shifters were the old druids, the priestly class who hate the humans. But there’s no magic in this show. The closest we get is the skin-shifters can change form. That goes back to an idea that people can shape-shift, which is very much of the Dark Ages and, therefore, allowable in our story. Otherwise everything is flesh and blood. There are no wizards or magicians.
“There was a feeling from ITV that they didn’t want another magic show. This is a brutally real series. It makes it easier to stick to the rules. The point of magic is there are no rules. It’s like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver – if you’ve got something that can get you out of trouble like that, where’s the excitement? Whereas if you’re in a fight with a troll, you’d be lucky to step away alive. We wanted to give our creatures biological parameters that make them believable to the audience, just as the characters themselves are believable.”
Ultimately, if it is to become a major international hit, creating a series on the scale of Beowulf demands a sizeable budget, and both Haines and Newman hope viewers will see the vast majority of the money on screen.
Haines says: “This is the sort of programme that ITV is making to compete with popular, internationally successful shows. It’s no good saying ‘we’ll give you £1m (US$1.5m) per episode’ when everything you’re competing with, even if it’s a modern US love story, is probably US$2.5m an hour.
“If you’re competing with Game of Thrones, it’s disingenuous to suggest you’re going to have a big success unless you’re prepared to spend a bit more money. As a producer, you just have to make sure the money appears on screen.”
The Beowulf cast tell Michael Pickard why the new ITV drama isn’t just a monster show, while costume designer Ralph Wheeler Holes reveals the thinking behind the main characters’ get-ups.
Riding horses, sword fights and battles with monsters was all in a day’s work for the cast as they filmed ITV’s forthcoming fantasy drama, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.
But for Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speleers there was more to the appeal of starring in the show than the chance to put their physical skills to the test.
Bew, who stars as the titular character, says: “The appeal for me was what (exec producer) James Dormer had taken from the original poem and run with to create this world. For me personally, as Beowulf, he’d created this backstory that felt very real, very rich and different to the poem. It retained a lot of those core elements but he’d added something in it that was much more enigmatic.
“We’d talked about the difficulties faced by someone who becomes so notorious for being a great warrior and what kind of trouble that attracts. That infamy isn’t necessarily useful in such a dangerous place that’s not just full of monsters but is also very rough to live in – this western-like place where, if you leave the safety of these small towns and go outside, there’s so much that’s unpredictable, which makes for a lot of drama.
“In our show, Beowulf is a reluctant hero and a conflicted, troubled guy who I thought was very real and incredibly exciting to play. And the other characters that have been added also felt very real.”
For Speleers, previously seen in Downton Abbey and Wolf Hall, the appeal lay not only in his character Slean but also in the ambition of the project.
“Slean is a very torn young man, full of turmoil. He doesn’t really know his place. Everything he believed was going to unfold for him hasn’t. He was meant to be made thane by birthright but that’s been stripped away. Instead, his mother, with whom he has an incredibly close bond, has taken that mantel, and that’s another way for his father Hrothgar to stick the knife in from beyond the grave, almost to cause more problems for Slean.
“He also has this very tough relationship with Beowulf, because he came in when they were both young boys and essentially stole Hrothgar’s affection, which downgraded Slean and pushed him into the gutter even more. So he is angry and full of rage, but he’s also conflicted because there’s a real tenderness to him, and there are certain female characters that bring this tenderness out of him.
“The other thing that enticed me early on was the ambition. It was the balls of it. It’s been a really intense and, at times, tough shoot, but I remember the first time I went up to Herot, the township. It’s a massive set they built on top of the Pennines in a disused quarry and it’s epic. It’s relentless. It’s so much fun but there’s no time to think about it, it’s just constant.”
Whalley, who has starred in The Borgias and Wolf Hall, says she enjoyed the western element of the series, characterised by Beowulf’s return to his childhood home to become leader.
“What I really enjoy about the whole thing is that everyone is not as simple as you might first think,” she explains. “Everyone has backstory, everyone’s conflicted. I particularly liked the whole western element of it, but even that’s quite modern because, when you look at the world as a whole, it’s man and the wild and how we’re encroaching on it.”
The size and scale of the purpose-built set also took on a character of its own, creating new challenges for the cast to overcome.
“The weather in the quarry will change every half an hour,” reveals Bew. “When we rehearse, you look at the clouds and you say, ‘In 40 minutes we’re going to be in the cloud.’ It doesn’t pass overhead, it’s around you and you’re in it. There’s nowhere to hide. The quarry has this fantastic cliff edge that’s teeming with life and then the clouds come in and drop over the cliff like ghosts and come in around you. It’s incredible to work in a place like that.”
The presence of monsters in the Shieldlands – from shapeshifters to trolls – meant the cast were also challenged to act opposite something rather less scary.
“When you’re fighting a monster, sometimes you’re actually fighting a man in a green suit. Then they take him away and you do the same scene again without that guy there,” explains Bew. “The acting with the green thing is not that hard – it’s when they take it away and you’ve got to imagine the green thing and imagine it grabbing you (that it can be difficult).
“We’ve got 30 to 60 people working on all the CGI in this show. It’s hugely ambitious to make all these monsters and they’re really delivering on it. It’s phenomenal – for TV, for the speed we film, the action, the sword fights, the horse riding, the turnover, the terrain. Everything has to be considered, and the crew are just heroes.”
Whalley has been equally impressed by the crew: “It was a really special unit. They delivered big time. The first time we saw the promo was at the wrap party and we were all blown away. We couldn’t believe what we had achieved.”
As the leading man, Bew says he faced several personal challenges, such as learning to ride a horse, and suffered a few knocks during the shoot.
“I broke three ribs in week three,” he reveals. “All the running and riding in episode two, that’s real pain. Funnily enough, I could ride the horse OK – it was getting on and off (that was hard). Similarly, lying in bed at night was incredibly painful. So shooting a scene where I’m lying on the ground and seeing this creature and I have to get off the ground really quickly, that was probably the most challenging physical thing I did on the show, which is ridiculous. I do leap off the horse a few times and jump on things.”
Undoubtedly, the ambition of Beowulf – from the scale of the set to the 13-episode order – is something rarely seen on British television, and Speleers says the show is perfectly pitched for families to watch together: “I don’t think we’ve had anything like this for a family audience. There are things that are relatable, there are strong morals and there’s conflict, which is going to be great for a family audience to watch.”
Whalley notes: “If you’re seven, you’re going to watch it and be more into the swords and the trolls, but if you’re not seven, there’s so much more, there are so many layers.”
Bew says the challenge of producing 13 episodes of television has been noticeable but praised ITV’s ambition and “bravery.”
“TV is international now,” he adds. “Everybody’s plugged in and everybody’s turning into TV junkies. It’s amazing how with shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield and Mad Men, the lead characters are conflicted people who do despicable acts but you can’t help but stay with them and live with them, and you want to see more and empathise with them. It’s such a phenomenal time for TV.”
As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.
In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.
Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.
Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.
Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?
ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.
Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.
From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.
Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?
At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.
Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.
One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.
It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).
And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.
Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.
With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.
But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.
As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.
FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.
Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).
After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.
Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.
“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”
Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.
US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.
UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.
Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”
Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”
As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).
In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.
Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.
And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.
Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”
Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”
Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.
One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.
AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.
The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).
This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.
Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.
These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.
With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.
Perhaps best known as a writer and star of sketch comedy The Fast Show, it’s unsurprising that Charlie Higson is adding comic relief to Jekyll & Hyde’s range of monsters and villains. He and the forthcoming ITV show’s exec producer explain why they believe they’ve achieved the right tone.
As Charlie Higson recalls, Jekyll & Hyde came about completely by accident. Called in to pitch ideas for a new ITV family drama that was quintessentially English but that would also appeal to an international audience, he suggested a series based on the iconic characters made famous by author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novel.
At this stage, Higson hadn’t even read the original story about a lawyer who investigates the strange relationship between his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and the evil Edward Hyde. But to his surprise, he walked away with a commission.
“I wasn’t even pitching an idea,” the actor and writer says, “but they said it would be perfect. So having gone to this meeting to tell them I didn’t have any ideas and couldn’t possibly do it, I came away with a commission. Then having written the treatment, I fully expected them to say ‘thank you’ and go elsewhere because I don’t have a long history of producing top primetime drama. But they wanted something different and were happy to take a punt with me.”
The resulting show, produced by ITV Studios, launches this month on ITV. The story, set in 1930s London, focuses on Robert Jekyll, the grandson of the original doctor, who comes to learn of his real identity, his family history and his curse. In Jekyll & Hyde’s opening episode, Jekyll is a newly qualified doctor living with his foster parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). But strange things start to affect him, and when he’s contacted by a lawyer in England concerning his family’s estate, he travels to London – where his past begins to catch up with him.
The series also features a number of spooky creatures, ghouls, zombies, werewolves and vampires as Jekyll faces a conflict between battling real-life demons and the monster within.
ITV Studios director of drama Francis Hopkinson (Lucan, Wallander) executive produces with Higson. The series producer is Foz Allan (Robin Hood) and its distributor is ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE).
Higson, who has acted as a showrunner on the series, writing about half the scripts himself, says he was inspired by the return of Doctor Who as the basis for a family drama surrounded by fantastical elements. “I grew up in the 1960s, which was a fantastic time for experimental fantasy TV – a lot of which ITV made, like The Avengers and The Prisoner,” he says. “There were some great shows that were quite out there but hugely popular. Then we hit the 70s and it all became realist, kitchen-sink drama.
“When I did Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), a BBC remake of the 1960s ITV series, I wanted to bring back that style of fantastical show. It’s not set in the real world on any level. But quite soon afterwards, Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who, which did everything I’d been trying to do. What he did very cleverly was ground it in a strong, recognisable family drama so it wasn’t just for 10-year-old nerds and sci-fi freaks. You cared about the characters.
“That was definitely the vibe ITV wanted for Jekyll & Hyde, where you have all the mad, fantastical horror elements but it’s rooted in drama.”
Reading the book, Higson says he was struck by its modernity. Rather than featuring the traditional gothic tropes of crumbling castles in medieval Europe and “mad monks and sinister, depraved counts,” Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde has a very contemporary idea at the root of its story.
“It’s about the fact that we all have dual personalities – the one we show to the world and the beast inside,” Higson explains. “We all have terrible thoughts and fantasies but we show a different side to the world. It’s a very modern psychological story about all of us.
“So much modern drama is based on someone presenting a respectable front to the world while doing these terrible things they don’t want anyone else to know about. That’s exactly what Breaking Bad and Homeland are. The Sopranos is just a a guy trying to preserve his ordinary family while nipping out to kill people.”
The writer, best known for his work on comedy sketch series The Fast Show and as the author of the Young Bond novels, also draws parallels with comic book superheroes: “There’s the idea of an alter-ego who does all the things you wish you could do and there’s a secret identity that nobody knows about. The Incredible Hulk is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
“I thought I could take this and push Jekyll & Hyde into a superhero story. I’ve created a world where there’s an organisation called MIO, a secret government network whose job it is to catch and destroy all monsters. But against them is Tenebrae, a group of monsters trying to regain their supremacy. Our central character, Robert Jekyll, is trapped in the middle. It’s a constant battle for his soul in which he flips both ways.”
Considering Higson’s television career, it’s no surprise that there’s also a plentiful helping of comedy in Jekyll & Hyde. “I like humour and it’s a useful way of telling stories, particularly if you’ve got quite daft things happening,” he explains. “Things like this don’t work when people are utterly serious and straight-faced. That’s why cheap fantasy and horror films are awful – everybody’s so terribly earnest while these ludicrous things are happening.
“As long as you’re not laughing at what you’re doing, people can have a laugh in it. Also, if you see some huge monster come at you, you might think, ‘fuck me’ and have a laugh about it.”
Though television dramas are becoming more serialised, Higson says he and the production team didn’t want the prospect of alienating viewers coming to the show halfway through its 10-episode run. As a result, the overarching story is complemented by an enemy-of-the-week format, with many of the creatures inspired by the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and The Mummy.
With a brief to create a drama with wide appeal for a family audience, featuring a mix of genres (in this case action, adventure, fantasy, horror and comedy), Higson says the production of Jekyll & Hyde was “massive. It’s 10 hours, very big budget. We’re doing the four most expensive things you can do – period drama, stunts, lots of CGI and a lot of foreign locations.”
Encouraged by ITV and ITVSGE to write a big and bold series, Higson didn’t think it would be made that way, perhaps substituting the mountainous scenes he had set in Ceylon for a location in Wales. But the broadcaster and distributor were true to their word, sending the production to film scenes in Sri Lanka.
“They wanted it to look like money had been spent on it,” he says. “That was part of the appeal for me. Whatever you do on TV, it takes a lot out of you and takes a long time. It’s a large chunk of your life and uses up a lot of energy, imagination and ideas. At my time of life, if I’m putting this effort into something and it’s going to take a couple of years, let’s go all out for it. The stakes are high but, if it does well, everyone’s very happy.We’re really pushing for it to be as cinematic as possible. It looks good, sounds good and has great music.”
Executive producer Hopkinson says there are very few writers who are able to pull together shows of this kind, citing Howard Overman (Merlin, Atlantis) and Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock) as fellow exceptions alongside Higson. Moffat created another version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for BBC1 in 2007, the extremely dark Jekyll, with James Nesbitt in the title role.
“These family dramas have to be thrilling and silly in equal measure and take themselves seriously,” he says. “That’s quite a difficult balancing act to pull off and that’s what Charlie was able to do. He got the tone right.
“We’d been trying to develop something for ITV’s teatime slot, a slot that doesn’t exist anywhere except for Britain. In every other country, it would play at 21.00. We’d been looking for some time and talking to ITVSGE about what to do, as they were putting up some of the money. We had six or seven projects in contention but when I saw Charlie had written an Agatha Christie episode, I felt he could be the fresh voice we were looking for.
“And from the moment he said it was about the grandson of Jekyll, you could see he’d found a way to use the basic premise of the original novel but create something broader and more colourful. ITV commissioned it very quickly.”
Hopkinson describes his role in the series as the person stopping the show “getting too nerdy” and ensuring it can attract a broad section of viewers. “If I don’t understand something, there’s a whole swathe of audience who won’t understand it. I deliberately looked at it in a slightly different way from if I was doing a detective show. I was slightly more objective.”
Discussing the logistics of the production, he adds that filming in Sri Lanka gave him sleepless nights owing to the under-developed filming infrastructure in the country. “It was slightly unchartered waters,” he says. “On Christmas Eve I got a call to say the village set we’d built had been washed away in the monsoon.”
Jekyll & Hyde also uses large amounts of CGI, not only for Jekyll’s transformation into his alter ego but also to create the cast of monsters that turn up in each episode. “The difficult thing is watching something where you have no idea what you will be seeing at the end of it,” Hopkinson says. “The script says ‘creature who is half-man, half-dog,’ but all you’re seeing is a man in a green suit.
“One thing we all agreed on was that the episodes had to work in their own right without special effects, and if they did that, the special effects would enhance them. If we’d relied on the special effects to make it work, we’d have been in trouble. So everyone knew what they were getting and that it could work without special effects.”
Higson is also pleased with the cast that Jekyll & Hyde has attracted, pointing out the star quality of Richard E Grant (Downton Abbey, Withnail and I), Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones) and Natalie Gumede — best known to British audiences for her turn in ITV soap Coronation Street.
Casting the male lead to play both Jekyll and Hyde, however, proved troublesome until a young actor called Tom Bateman came to audition. “We saw just about everyone, every hot young male actor, including names I didn’t think would come in,” Higson says. “It’s not one great role, it’s two. But there were only a couple who convinced as Hyde. It’s hard to do posh and tough — you’re in danger of looking like a public schoolboy who’s got drunk at a party. But as soon as Tom went into Hyde, I knew this was the guy.
“It’s a very high-concept show and if you don’t buy into the central character, it all falls down around him. He’s been absolutely fantastic, incredibly energetic and enthusiastic and just spot on. You genuinely feel for him when things are going badly and he’s quite scary when he’s Hyde. That’s hard when you’ve got monsters arsing about all over the place and a lot of madness. It was important to us that people bought into it on an emotional and dramatic level and he’s got old-school leading-man, matinee idol appeal.”
Wth the show designed as a returning series, Higson is now preparing storylines for season two, having dreamed up ideas for three seasons ahead of his original pitch. Describing the show as an “all-year-round machine,” he adds that he’s adjusting to the demands of a huge primetime drama.
“I’d been out of heavy-duty TV for a while, concentrating on writing books and spending time with my family, but I really wanted to come back and do something big on TV,” he says. “It was the scale that interested me and it came together pretty quickly.
“It’s not just crazy monsters all over the place. They’re organically part of the world it is set in and at the heart of it are very real, physical stories and personal drama for the central characters. It’s been a lot of fun making it work.”
Michael Pickard reflects on Mipcom 2015 and finds that while the huge supply of television drama shows no sign of abating, the business is getting much more complicated.
Was this it? Was this the peak of the latest golden age of television drama? Walking through Cannes this week for the annual Mipcom market, it was difficult to imagine what the next step might look like. What could possibly be around the corner that would make Mipcom 2015 look like a mere stepping stone to an even higher standard – a platinum age?
The evidence was there from day one, or more precisely, 08.00 on day one when hundreds of television executives took every last seat inside a screening room at the Majestic hotel to watch ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s flagship new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.
This was the morning after the world premiere the night before of The Art of More, US VoD platform Crackle’s first foray into original drama that distributor Sony Pictures Television later revealed had been sold to 25 territories around the world.
Further screenings included crime thriller The Last Panthers, shopped by StudioCanal and Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s The X-Files, CBS Studios International’s new Showtime drama Billions, Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Endemol Shine International’s The Frankenstein Chronicles, Electric Entertainment’s period drama Mercy Street and Constantin Film’s young-adult novel adaptation Shadowhunters.
Many of the on-screen stars were also in Cannes to support their shows. Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth were on La Croisette to support The Art of More; Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speelers championed Beowulf; Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen was promoting his new Australian drama Cleverman; and Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton spoke on stage during a session for the BBC’s epic new period drama War and Peace.
Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer also flew into Cannes from the US to promote their Lifetime drama UnREAL, which is sold by A+E Networks, while Riley Keogh was talking about The Girlfriend Experience.
As the market played out, there were also no end of programming deals done and new partnerships formed. SundanceTV joined Sky and Canal+ as a coproduction partner on The Last Panthers, A&E picked up The Frankenstein Chronicles, Globo Brazil’s La Fiesta (The Party) travelled to buyers across Latin America, Asia and Europe, while Ale Kino+ in Poland grabbed rights to Franco-Norwegian political thriller Occupied.
Elsewhere, Germany’s ZDF landed The Missing, Finland’s YLE picked up Mr Robot (arguably one of the most sought-after series at this year’s market), France Télévisions added police drama No Offence and TF1 came on board RTL’s Hitler biopic. There were also more sales for Cold War series Deutschland 83.
But perhaps the deal of the market was pulled off by Israel’s Keshet International, which sold new eight-parter False Flag to Fox International Channels – the first time the broadcast group has picked up a foreign–language series for its global network.
The Palais itself (main image) and the nearby hotels were adorned in billboards promoting drama from around the world. The next big entertainment format might have been there too – it was hard to see.
But we knew this already. We knew there is more original drama being produced around the world than ever before and that audiences have an apparently insatiable appetite to immerse themselves in story. And we knew that, thanks to FX Networks chief John Landgraf’s summer briefing that sparked ongoing debate, this content bubble might burst in the next couple of years. Viewers might never have it so good again.
So despite the glut of international productions being pitched to potential buyers, new challenges emerged. In particular, the necessity for broadcasters to have on-demand and catch-up rights as well as linear is proving a tricky hurdle during negotiations.
During one panel highlighting buyers’ needs, Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom UK, said: “One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is the ability to give our viewers the access when and where they want it. That’s a key focus for me.”
Jason Simms, senior VP of global acquisitions for Fox International Channels, echoed: “It’s not just the rights but where and how you can watch it. Buying wasn’t rocket science when I first started but it’s getting closer because of the technology. You have to keep on top of it.”
However, Jakob Mejlhede, exec VP of European broadcast giant Modern Times Group’s programming and content development, plotted a different course: “We want to secure good, strong catch-up rights but, having an SVoD service, it’s also in our interest that we guide our users behind the subscription window. It’s not in our interest to have a very long catch-up, we want a couple of weeks and then to bring them behind the subscription window.”
Mejlhede went on to say that although there’s plenty of demand for drama, the supply is perhaps too high: “There’s so much I can’t figure out what’s out there and what I haven’t watched. I think it may slow down a little bit.”
And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many dramas are available on the international market if the type of show you’re looking for isn’t there.
Mejlhede continued: “Generally there’s big difference between linear and online viewing. On linear, there’s a shortage of the good old procedurals. The last big launch we had was The Mentalist. Online, there’s much more room for experiments and serialised shows.”
Television drama continues to dazzle and amaze with fresh and innovative storylines, backed up by bigger budgets that are needed to create new, fantastical characters and the worlds they live in. Indeed, we’re running out of precious metals to describe the times the genre is living in.
If a show is good enough, it will always find a home, particularly now in the age of VoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But they can’t buy everything, and if traditional broadcasters can’t find the show that fits their need, or win the rights they want to go with it, we could see either a downturn in production, more development deals between broadcasters eager to own rights from the start, or a mixture of both. We’ll have to wait until Mipcom 2016 to find out how this drama plays out.
A devastating flood at the start of this year’s Mipcom didn’t seem to affect the amount of business being done throughout the week, with the trade in scripted shows especially brisk.
One title that managed to rack up a number of sales was FremantleMedia International’s German-language spy thriller Deutschland 83, which was sold to Channel One (Russia), Sky Italia, Hulu (US), SundanceTV (English-speaking Canada) and Stan (Australia and New Zealand), among others. This follows on from previous deals with broadcasters including SundanceTV in the US, Canal+ (France) and Channel 4/Walter Presents (UK).
A coming-of-age story set in Germany during the Cold War, Deutschland 83 follows Martin Rauch, a 24-year-old East German native who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service. The show is part of a broad trend in the TV business towards espionage-based thrillers – the trigger for which was probably the Israeli scripted format Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which was reinvented as Homeland in the US.
Other espionage-based shows selling well this week included Zodiak Rights’ Occupied, a Nordic series that imagines a situation in which Russia invades Norway to take control of the country’s oil industry. The show, which has debuted strongly in Norway, was picked up for broadcast in Poland (a country that also has an acute interest in Russian foreign policy).
Similarly, there was a lot of interest in Keshet International’s False Flag, which was featured in The Wit’s popular conference session Fresh TV Fiction. This Israeli series centres on five seemingly ordinary Israeli citizens who are accused of kidnapping a senior Iranian politician. It has been picked up by Fox International Channels – which is planning an English-language version via Fox International Studios and has also acquired the rights to the Hebrew version. The latter, which will air in 127 territories via FIC’s channels, is the broadcaster’s first non-English-language series acquired on a global basis.
There has always been a strong trade in non-English-language drama between countries where English is not the first language. But a big change in the business over the past few years has been the willingness of English-language broadcasters and platforms to air such shows. Netflix, Hulu and BBC4 in the UK can take a lot of credit for kickstarting this trend, but it has become a lot more widespread in the past six to 12 months.
One interesting development in this regard is Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama on-demand platform that is being launched in January by Channel 4 in the UK and its strategic partner GSN. Walter Presents was busy at Mipcom snapping up the rights to a wide range of non-English dramas. It struck a deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises for a number of series, including 10-part Belgian black comedy drama Clan, which follows the exploits of four frustrated sisters as they plot to kill their obnoxious brother-in-law, and 10-part Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes. Also acquired from ZDF were eight-part crime drama The Team, six-part Polish crime thriller The Pack and Swedish family saga Thicker than Water.
The platform’s buying spree also encompassed deals with French content providers such as TF1 International and Film & Picture TV Distribution, plus 20 hours of Dutch-language shows from Netherlands-based Dutch Features Global Entertainment.
Rai Com, the commercial arm of Italian public broadcaster Rai, has been another beneficiary of this interest in non-English drama. At Mipcom it secured deals for the new season of its detective series The Young Montalbano, licensing it to the BBC, RLJ (UK video rights) and Hi Gloss (Australia and New Zealand video).
There have been numerous examples of US cable channels commissioning new scripted content recently. But making drama is expensive, so some channels have sensibly decided to explore the international acquisitions route as well. An example we cited a couple of columns ago is Esquire Network, which has picked up Spotless and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. A&E Network did something similar at Mipcom, picking up The Frankenstein Chronicles, produced by Rainmark Films, distributed by Endemol Shine International and starring Sean Bean (Game of Thrones).
SundanceTV is following a similar trajectory, though it prefers to get involved as a coproduction partner, giving it a little more oversight and input into the end product. Having previously partnered up on The Honourable Woman and D83, for example, it was busy at Mipcom picking up a new portfolio of non-US dramas.
One interesting title that it has jumped on board is RTÉ’s historical drama Rebellion, which tells the story of the birth of modern Ireland. It has also linked up with Sky Atlantic and Canal+ on The Last Panthers. Produced by France’s Haut et Court and the UK’s Warp Films, the series centres on the evolution of criminality in Europe, taking place in locations across the continent, from Serbia to Marseilles in France.
More evidence of the vibrancy of the European drama scene right now is the news that Zodiak Rights-supported Versailles has been given a second season, while TF1 in France and RTL in Germany are backing the new UFA Fiction/Beta Film drama series Hitler (working title). Meanwhile, The Copenhagen Film Fund has confirmed it is in talks about financing a fourth season of SVT and DR’s hit crime drama The Bridge.
Out of the UK, notable deals included the sale of All3Media International’s The Missing to German public broadcaster ZDF and FremantleMedia International’s No Offence to France TV.
The Brits are also beneficiaries of the growing demand for drama content from subscription VoD platforms. This week, for example, South African service ShowMax bought 125 hours of content from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, including Jekyll & Hyde, Rectify, Mr Selfridge, Good Witch and Texas Rising.
In terms of US series, the major TV studios were quick to seal deals. Disney Media Distribution licensed ABC Studios’ The Muppets to 122 territories, while the latest Shondaland drama series, The Catch, has been licensed to 186 territories. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers, The Catch is a thriller about a successful fraud investigator who becomes the victim of fraud by her fiancé.
Sony Pictures Television also announced international deals for its shows. Wesley Snipes drama The Player hasn’t started very strongly in the US, but SPT has still managed to sell it into 105 territories, with high-profile deals in France (TF1), Germany (RTL), Spain (AXN) and Australia (Seven). SPT has also had a good start with The Art of More, a Dennis Quaid drama that was created for on-demand service Crackle. To date, the show has been sold into 25 territories via broadcasters such as Viacom’s Colors Infinity channel in India, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. Of the two dramas, The Art of More feels more like a show that may run for a few seasons.
Other US shows to do business this week include NBC’s strong starter Blindspot, which was licensed to Sky Living (alongside Limitless and The Catch). Meanwhile, NBCUniversal thriller Mr Robot was picked up by Finland’s public broadcaster YLE.
While the majority of news from Mipcom 2015 concerned the sale of completed shows, there was also a smattering of commissioning and format announcements at the market. Viacom-owned BET, for example, is reported to be planning a six-part drama miniseries called Madiba, focusing on the life of Nelson Mandela and starring Laurence Fishburne; while StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions is to adapt Code to Zero, the international bestselling novel by Ken Follett (Tandem previously adapted Follett’s Pillars of the Earth epic). Note also the above references to Versailles, Hitler and The Bridge.
On the format front, German network Vox is remaking Spanish drama The Red Band, TF1 in France is to produce a local adaptation of BBC drama The Escape Artist and CTC in Russia is adapting Keshet International’s romantic comedy The Baker and the Beauty.
Perhaps the most exciting format news of the week, however, is that US broadcast network ABC is adapting Janus, a drama from Austrian pubcaster ORF. This deal demonstrates that the powerful US networks are continuing to cast their net far and wide in search of great scripted ideas.
As expected, SVoD giant Netflix has greenlit a second series of its acclaimed sci-fi series Sense8.
Fans were starting to get worried because of the long time the company seemed to be taking over an announcement. Usually, Netflix makes a decision within a month of a show’s completion – but this was a scary two-month gap.
Sense8 was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski, who are widely expected to come back on board for season two. The trio have previously said that they planned the series to run for five seasons, Netflix audience data analysis willing.
While much attention is paid to Netflix’s US originals, the company is also ordering an increasing number of international series to support its global roll-out. This week, for example, it ordered its first original series from Brazil, which is set to debut in 2016.
Produced by Boutique Filmes and directed by Cesar Charlone, 3% is billed as a “dramatic futuristic story set in a world divided between progress and devastation.” In 2011, Boutique Filmes released a three-episode pilot of 3% on YouTube that attracted more than 400,000 views.
Tiago Mello, the show’s executive producer, said: “Netflix’s willingness to invest in Brazilian content, local talent and creative storytelling is key for our growth as an industry. The story was created a few years ago and now I am thrilled that it will turn into a new original Netflix series.”
A lot of attention has been paid to the original commissions strategy at Netflix and Amazon, but there are a growing number of other on-demand/streaming services seeking to establish their credentials as sources of event drama.
Sony’s Crackle, for example, has just released a trailer for The Art of More, its first scripted drama. Starring Dennis Quaid (who is also an executive producer), Christian Cooke, Cary Elwes and Kate Bosworth, the 10-episode series will delve into “the surprisingly cutthroat and glamorous world of premium auction houses.”
The series follows Graham Connor (Cooke), a blue-collar upstart who leverages his way into this exclusive realm by exploiting connections to antiquities smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. Also inhabiting this rarified world is Sam Brukner (Quaid), a self-made billionaire who was somewhat ruthless on his way up the food chain in the real-estate world. Now he’s a tycoon with access to everything he desires and he wants everyone to know it – he’s a collector of both art and people.
The writers of The Art of More are Gardner Stern (NYPD Blue, Law and Order) and Chuck Rose. They are also executive producing alongside Quaid, Laurence Mark (Last Vegas, Julie & Julia, Dreamgirls), Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Shield) and Tamara Chestna.
This week has also seen a number of announcements from US cable channel FX. Chief among them was news that Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s thriller The Strain will return for a third season.
Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Guillermo and Carlton have delivered two thrilling seasons of The Strain that are captivating and visually arresting, doing justice to the original novel trilogy and meeting fans’ high expectations in the process.”
FX has also set the premiere dates for a number of its hotly anticipated new series. Kurt Sutter’s new drama The Bastard Executioner will start on September 15. The show is described as “a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.”
Other FX series coming up are American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts on October 7, and the new edition of Fargo, set to premiere on October 12. If that sounds like an exciting line-up of drama then you should probably enjoy it while you can.
At the recent TCA (Television Critics Association) event in the US, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf caused a stir when he said “there is simply too much television.” He predicted that the number of original scripted series will reach a peak in the next two years before starting to decline. FX currently has 20 original scripted series across FX and sister network FXX.
Economics dictate that it won’t go any higher, though Landgraf had originally hoped to take the total up to 24. One inference from his comments is that the scripted industry will soon experience a retraction, which may in turn lead to some company closures or consolidations.
Big news on the international coproduction front is that The Weinstein Company (TWC) and ITV Studios Global Entertainment have joined forces to make a 10-part gangster series set amid the fall of the Soviet Union. Called Mafiya, the series is being written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) and produced by Archery Pictures, the UK producer set up by Kris Thykier and former Scott Free UK chief Liza Marshall. Set in Moscow in the 1990s, the mob series will follow the rise of a street trader who becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.
This week also brought news that the Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter is being reinvented as a TV series. The small-screen version of the 2007 Paramount film will star Ryan Phillippe and is being written by John Hlavin. Phillippe plays a former Marine sniper who is brought back into action to thwart the killing of the president.
Other greenlights this week include Wanted (working title), a thriller for Australia’s Seven Network. Scripted by Timothy Hobart, John Ridley and Kirsty Fisher, this story follows two strangers who intervene in a deadly carjacking and are swept up in a chase across Australia in a car full of money. Shooting starts in October in Brisbane, with Screen Queensland investing in the project.
In the UK, meanwhile, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a special three-part run of cop drama Scott & Bailey, featuring a single crime story to be produced by Red Production Company. Explaining the three-part format, ITV said it will “allow the story to unfold with scale and ambition as Scott and Bailey tackle one of the biggest and darkest cases they have ever had to face.”
The drama will be executive produced by Red’s Nicola Shindler and written by Lee Warburton and Paul Logan. “We’re delighted to be returning to Scott & Bailey with an investigation that will have everlasting consequences for the characters,” said Shindler. “This series is more ambitious and sinister than ever before and the concept of a three-part story allows us the opportunity to tackle a story of epic scale and ambition.”
The end of July is not an especially busy time in terms of greenlighting scripted shows. Any TV executive with a shred of sense is on holiday right now, recharging their batteries before the all-important autumn season slams into action.
Having said that, HBO has made a couple of interesting announcements in the last week. First, it ordered a second season of The Brink, a comedy that takes a satirical look at geopolitical crises (season one focused on Pakistan). Soon after, it announced that it had greenlit a miniseries about the racist murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.
The latter project is significant both because of its personnel and its subject matter. In terms of the former, it is being produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z – a nice shot in the arm for the TV industry’s credentials. As for subject matter, it is a sobering time to retell the story of Till’s murder, with so much racial strife in the US right now. The Till tragedy became symbolic of racial prejudice in the southern US, having a big impact on the civil rights movement.
The Smith/Jay-Z project is being developed in partnership with Overbrook Entertainment’s James Lassiter, Roc Nation’s Jay Brown and director Aaron Kaplan. No writer has been attached yet but it is expected to run to around six hours of television.
Another greenlight this week is BrainDead, which US network CBS has given a straight-to-series order. BrainDead is from Robert and Michelle King, the married team who are also the creators and exec producers of long-running CBS show The Good Wife.
Due to air in summer 2016, BrainDead centres on a young woman as she gets her first job in Washington DC. It will be executive produced by Ridley Scott, David Zucker and Liz Glotzer for CBS Television Studios, Scott Free Productions and King Size Productions, all of which were also involved with The Good Wife.
While summer isn’t a great time for production announcements, there are usually a few acquisitions stories of note, as broadcasters look to make last-minute additions to their schedules. European pay TV broadcaster Sky, for example, has picked up the rights to NBC thriller Aquarius for broadcast in the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria.
This is in addition to a deal earlier this year between Sky Italia and the show’s distributor ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Starring David Duchovny (The X-Files), the 13×60’ series is set in 1967 at the height of the Summer of Love. Duchovny plays LA homicide detective Sam Hodiak, whose investigation into a missing girl leads him into the dark activities of a strange cult run by notorious killer Charles Manson.
The show will debut on Sky in the UK and Ireland on August 11, before rolling out in the other territories later. All told, the Sky deals will take the show into 21 million European households. Other dramas to have been shown across the entire Sky network include HBO’s Game of Thrones and Sky original production Fortitude.
In other acquisition news, US cable channel Syfy has picked up the US rights to Wynonna Earp, a live-action television series based on the IDW Publishing comic created by Beau Smith. With an initial order of 13 one-hour episodes, Wynonna Earp is a fast-paced, contemporary thriller that follows Wyatt Earp’s great-granddaughter as she battles demons and other supernatural beings.
Emily Andras (Lost Girl, Killjoys) developed the series for television and will serve as executive producer and showrunner. Wynonna Earp will be produced in Calgary by Seven24 Films, and distributed by IDW Entertainment. Production is slated to begin in August.
“Wynonna Earp is a unique contemporary western that will bring high-octane, full-throttle, supernatural action to Syfy,” says Chris Regina, the channel’s senior VP of programming. “It is wildly imaginative and we are excited to work with Seven24 Films, IDW Entertainment and Emily on this truly original concept that will showcase fun, stylised visuals and pure escapism.”
In the absence of new shows to announce, one way networks keep up interest is by drip-feeding casting announcements linked to upcoming shows. This week, for example, it was revealed that supermodel Naomi Campbell will join the cast of FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel.
Already booked into Hotel is Lady Gaga, whose participation was announced earlier this year. American Horror Story is an anthology show, which makes this kind of bold casting decision easier than in the case of long-running episodic or procedural dramas – a trend that will feature in the upcoming summer magazine issue of Drama Quarterly.
Among the week’s most noteworthy strategic developments is a report that Amazon is going to increase its presence in India with the launch of its Prime service. According to India’s Economic Times, Amazon is planning to invest up to US$5bn in the country, some of which will be dedicated to creating local content.
The online giant has already hired Nitesh Kripalani to oversee its content strategy. Kripalani’s career to date has seen him spend five years at Sony, overseeing a number of initiatives including the premium video-on-demand brand Sony LIV.
Finally, for anyone who has been following the progress of M Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, the show finished its first run of 10 episodes strongly on Fox in the US last week. Overall, the show has been a success, picking up a lot of viewers on a time-shifted basis.
Fox has not yet said whether it will renew Wayward Pines, but Shyamalan says he is open to the prospect of producing a new season.
DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.
As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.
Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.
The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).
The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.
Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.
Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.
The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.
At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”
Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.
ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.
The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.
However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.
From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.
Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”
Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”
“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”
Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.
In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.
Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.
Season five of fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones has picked up where its previous runs left off, delivering massive ratings for US cable network HBO. Overnights for the first three episodes came in at eight million, 6.81 million and 6.71 million respectively.
That slight week-on-week decline shouldn’t give too much cause for concern, because so much viewing of the show is now time-shifted, on-demand or via other platforms. To underline the point, HBO has just released data that shows a staggering 18.1 million viewers watched episode one in the first week after its launch (a period of time referred to as live+7). This figure, which includes linear showings, HBO Go, HBO Now and on-demand views, confirms the serious pulling power of the show – while also cautioning against hasty judgements about first day viewing.
Game of Thrones is also popular internationally, with the UK launch garnering similarly enormous ratings. Sky Atlantic, which airs the show one day after the US transmission on HBO, reported record overnight ratings of 1.57 million – up 29% on season four’s debut. As in the US, those figures are certain to increase once time-shifted and multi-platform viewing is factored in. There were also record ratings for Foxtel in Australia, where 242,000 tuned in to watch episode one at 11.00 local time. An additional 311,000 tuned in at 19.30, creating a record day-one audience of 553,000.
Game of Thrones’ ratings success is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is such a heavily pirated show. In the US, it holds the dubious honour of having been the most-pirated show for the past three years in succession. Problems with piracy have been exacerbated this year, with the first four episodes of season five having been leaked online ahead of the show’s official launch.
The ratings story is less rosy for Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s 12-part series AD: The Bible Continues, which has seen its audience on US network NBC slide in consecutive weeks. After a robust opening of 9.7 million on Easter Sunday, the next three episodes have come in at 7.75 million, 6.36 million and 5.77 million respectively.
AD is a sequel to The Bible, a Burnett/Downey miniseries that aired on cable channel History US last year. Its underperformance is a surprise, given that The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers per episode over its 10-episode run – making it the biggest US cable show of 2014.
AD’s performance has led some analysts to suggest that NBC will probably cancel the show (though a final decision on that will need to take into account time-shifted ratings and a couple more episodes of data). This would be a blow to Burnett and Downey, who told journalists at MipTV in Cannes that they would like AD to be the launch pad for a multi-series franchise that tells more stories about the early years of the Christian church. Possibly, in hindsight, they would have been better placing AD in the less ratings-obsessed world of cable.
The standout performer in the UK so far this year is BBC1’s Poldark. Based on books by Winston Graham (and also a remake of a classic 1970s series), the show is set in 1790s Cornwall, where former soldier Ross Poldark battles against vested interests to make a success of his family’s copper mine. Not an obvious ratings winner, it has been boosted by the brooding good looks and heroic demeanour of Aidan Turner, who plays Poldark. While Captain Poldark’s handsome face, enviable abs and moral rigour have led to some mockery, The Independent newspaper gets it about right when it calls the show “an addictive Sunday night treat.” Poldark may not be Wolf Hall, but it is a hugely entertaining show.
With consolidated ratings averaging around 7.5 million across an eight-episode run, Poldark has been recommissioned for another series, to be filmed in September. And there are reports that the BBC wants to tie Turner down to a long-term contract and build Poldark up as its answer to Downton Abbey. The programme also looks set to have a decent life internationally, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment licensing it to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Sweden. Confirmation of a second series will help ITVSGE with its further sales efforts.
Elsewhere, the international drama community has been keeping a close eye on the Nordic territories after a run of recent successes. The latest show to watch out for is Acquitted, a 10-part series from Miso Films for TV2 Norway. Acquitted follows the story of Aksel Borgen, who left his native town after being cleared of the murder of his high-school sweetheart. Twenty years later, he returns to save the place that once turned its back on him – but the past has not been forgotten.
Acquitted has rated well for TV2, with its first six episodes averaging 649,000 (55% up on the slot average). This week it also premiered on SVT in Sweden, where it achieved similarly strong ratings. With more than one million viewers (30.5% share), Acquitted ranks as of the most successful foreign dramas to have launched on SVT over the last five years. Miso Films co-founder Peter Bose says: “In an industry where we’re constantly hearing about viewers migrating to non-linear platforms, Acquitted has been quite an achievement on SVT.”
Ratings, of course, play a huge part in deciding whether to renew a show. So it’s no real surprise to see ABC US cancel Revenge after a couple of seasons of modest ratings. It seems, however, that the US can’t get enough of zombies. AMC’s The Walking Dead is as strong as ever, which explains the network’s decision to launch a spin-off called Fear the Walking Dead. The CW is also having some success with iZombie, which debuted in March this year. Now halfway through its first run of 13 episodes, the show is achieving healthy ratings in the 1.7-1.9 million mark. Aimed at a younger audience that The Walking Dead, it has received a positive critical response and is expected to return.
A bigger question, perhaps, is the future of A+E’s The Returned, which was eight episodes into a 10-episode run at time of writing. The Returned is a supernatural drama that explores what happens when the dead return to a small town and try to live normal lives, much to the shock and confusion of the living residents. Its significance is that it is based on a successful French series called Les Revenants (produced by Haut et Court for TF1). For those in the format sales business, it’s important that shows like The Returned do well, to avoid spreading fear among US commissioners that shows don’t transfer well into their market.
So far, ratings have not been especially encouraging, starting at 1.54 million but sliding to 0.82 million by episode eight. There are two possible explanations for this – one is that ABC has been airing a similar-concept series called Resurrection; the other is the view among some critics that the A+E show has not taken the French version forward. The Wrap calls it “a serviceable but mostly by-the-numbers remake of a brilliantly nuanced French series that didn’t need to be brought back to life in America a second time.”
A+E is not the kind of network that gives up on shows easily, however, so a cancellation at the end of season one would be surprising. Netflix will be watching developments with interest, having recently picked up the global rights to the A+E series.