Secrets and lies are exposed in ITV drama Flesh & Blood, which introduces widowed mother Vivien and her three grown-up children, Helen, Jake and Natalie.
When Vivien introduces her new relationship with Mark, the siblings start to question his intentions towards their mother, while also facing up to their own long-held grudges and complicated personal lives as they head towards tragedy.
The series stars Francesca Annis as Vivien, with Mark played by Stephen Rea. Claudie Blakley (Manhunt) is Helen, Russell Tovey (Years & Years) plays Jake and Lydia Leonard (Gentleman Jack) is Natalie.
In this DQTV interview, executive producer Kate Bartlett, writer and executive producer Sarah Williams and director Louise Hooper discuss making the series and describe how they injected a thriller plot into this family drama.
They also talk about the themes of trust at the heart of the story, how Imelda Staunton’s character Mary grew from minor character to an integral piece of the puzzle, and their search for the perfect filming locations.
Flesh & Blood is produced by Silverprint Pictures for ITV and distributed by ITV Studios.
A real-life multimillion-pound heist was the inspiration for Hatton Garden, a new ITV miniseries about the elderly gang behind the ‘crime of the decade.’ DQ goes on set to meet the cast and producer.
Two well-mannered, smartly dressed elderly gentlemen are being shown around the notoriously impregnable vault at Hatton Garden Safe Deposit in central London. These would-be clients are very courteous and are wearing suits so sharp you could cut your finger on them – but appearances can be deceptive.
These well-groomed and seemingly sophisticated pensioners are in fact Brian Reader and Terry Perkins, a pair of ruthless career criminals. They are in the vault to scope it out in preparation for what would become known as the ‘crime of the decade.’
The Hatton Garden robbery, an audacious heist in which a band of superannuated crooks stole jewellery and cash valued at an estimated £200m (US$267m), caught the public imagination in April 2015.
Over the Easter bank holiday weekend, the gang of criminals led by Reader drilled through the 50cm-thick wall of the vault and made off with the swag. It is thought to be the largest burglary in English legal history.
However, the crooks were unable to resist blabbing about their blag and they were soon arrested and convicted. Despite the fact that they had committed such a terrible crime, the pensionable age of the felons continued to fascinate people. The press even called them ‘Diamond Wheezers.’
As such, it’s no surprise that this inherently dramatic robbery has attracted a lot of interest from filmmakers. It has already inspired four movies: Hatton Garden the Heist!, One Last Heist, The Hatton Garden Job and Night in Hatton Garden.
Now the theft is being given its first TV dramatisation in the form of ITV’s Hatton Garden. This engrossing four-part series is co-written and co-executive produced by Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue, Cilla) and Terry Windsor (Hot Money, Essex Boys). Made by ITV production arm ITV Studios with Jonathan Levi from Renegade Pictures acting as a consultant, it is directed by Paul Whittington (The Moorside, Mrs Biggs).
On the set of Hatton Garden, the aforementioned dapper gents, 76-year-old Reader and 67-year-old Perkins, are played by the compelling duo of Kenneth Cranham (Shine On, Harvey Moon) and Timothy Spall (Auf Wiedesehen Pet), respectively.
The series also stars David Hayman (Crime & Retribution) as 61-year-old Danny Jones, Alex Norton (Taggart) as John ‘Kenny’ Collins, 75, and Brian F O’Byrne (Little Boy Blue) as their mysterious and never apprehended associate ‘Basil.’
Meanwhile, the vault – complete with 50cm-thick walls, ready for drilling by the cast – has been meticulously recreated at West London Film Studios in Hayes.
O’Byrne, who has also appeared in Prime Suspect USA, Mildred Pierce and FlashForward, emphasises how the Hatton Garden robbery struck a populist chord on both sides of the Atlantic.
The actor recalls driving around LA, where he lived until just recently, outlining the premise of the drama to his family. “I started telling my wife about it. I said, ‘There was this huge heist in London. They thought it was going to be this crack team assembled from around the world, and it turned out it was all these old guys.’
“And from the back of the car, my nine-year-old daughter goes, ‘Oh, it’s the granddad robbery!’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Wow! Obviously, there’s something about it that captures people’s imaginations.’”
The production team would dearly like to have filmed in the real vault, but Imogen Cooper, the producer of Hatton Garden, explains why that was just not possible. “We’ve recreated all of it here [at the studio]. We will film in Hatton Garden, on the street. We will also use the actual corridor that comes out onto Gregory Street, where the gang’s van arrives and where Basil gets into the main building and lets them in through the side entrance. We would have loved to do more, but unfortunately they’ve now got works in the building, so we can’t access any more.”
The other reason the show could not be filmed at the actual location is that the section of the wall that was drilled is going to be exhibited in a museum – yet more evidence of the way this crime has grabbed attention.
However, Cooper continues, the cast and crew were able to go on several very useful recces at the original building. The producer, also responsible for Quacks, Yonderland and Horrible Histories, says these visits were very productive.
On one such trip, Hayman was even able to emulate what the slender Jones did during the actual robbery. “David did delight in slipping through the hole they had drilled when we were in Hatton Garden!” Cooper notes.
The drama also depicts the sheer hard slog that the crime entails. Spall reflects: “It’s about real graft. What you’re seeing are men getting tired doing physical labour. So if you turn the sound off and you just watch it, you think, ‘These are just poor geezers, a load of old construction workers, who are having to work in their 60s, down a hole in a vault.’
“These blokes are old and knackered, you know. So that is a big part of what you’re seeing in this process. And that side of it, I think, makes us intrigued. It’s old-fashioned, isn’t it? That’s the human quality of it because it’s not about pressing a button and just taking 10 billion quid off someone. It’s an analogue crime in the digital age.”
For all that, the producers are quick to point out that Hatton Garden, which begins on ITV on December 11, makes no attempt to glamorise the criminals. Viewers will be left in no doubt about the catastrophic effect of their robbery on the people who owned boxes in the vault.
Pope says it was vital to stress that this crime was in no sense “victimless,” adding: “The research threw up some fascinating detail and blew away many of the misconceptions about this story,” he explains. “It was not about a bunch of ‘loveable old blokes.’ Many box holders lost everything in the raid, and we reflect that.”
So, having played a robber for several weeks, does Spall think he could have made a successful criminal in another life? “Unlikely,” deadpans the actor. What criminal attributes is he lacking, then? A pause. “All of them.”
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!”
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.”
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.”
DQ looks at the latest dramas to incorporate time travel into their storylines, and asks those behind the programmes exactly how they tackle a plot device that so often lends itself to confusion and complications.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist whose life was the subject of recent award-winning movie The Theory of Everything, hasn’t ruled out time travel completely. But he’s pretty sceptical about our ability to travel back in time and change or participate in events that have already happened.
His doubts were summarised succinctly in his 1998 book A Brief History of Time, in which he asked, quite reasonably, “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?”
Hawking’s concerns haven’t, however, stopped the TV business from dabbling in time travel. In recent years, a wide array of shows, ranging from hardcore science fiction to historical romance, have used time travel as a central narrative device.
A case in point is Hindsight – recently cancelled despite initially being handed a second season – the VH1 scripted series about a woman (Becca) who finds herself propelled back in time while wrestling with doubts on the eve of her second wedding.
But there are no wormholes, extra dimensions or warp drives in Hindsight, says show creator Emily Fox, who explains that Becca’s journey back to 1995 occurs when she passes out in an elevator shaft.
“We’re not trying to crack the code of time here, we’re telling a fairytale,” she explains. “Becca’s experience is something most people think about at some point – what if I had taken a different path or made a different decision at a certain moment in time?”
Of course, Becca’s attempts to change the past don’t work out as planned. “The dirty little secret of time travel is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge,” says Fox. “Becca’s attempts to alter her future for the better inevitably go wrong.”
Fox says the writing team on the show deliberately didn’t get into a broad theoretical debate about time travel “because Hindsight isn’t that kind of show, and we sensed that our simple ‘what if?’ premise would become unwieldy.”
But there were the inevitable fan questions, “such as why doesn’t Becca make herself rich by investing in Apple shares? Again, the answer to that was that we were trying to tell a more intimate story about a character whose priority was not to get rich quick but to find an emotional resolution,” Fox adds.
Historically, there haven’t been many female time travellers in fiction. But it’s interesting to note that there are currently two on TV, the other being Claire Beauchamp Randall, the heroine of Starz drama Outlander, which is based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon.
Claire is a Second World War combat nurse on a trip to Scotland with her husband. While there, she touches a mystical stone and wakes up in 1743 – in the middle of a military skirmish between the British and the highlanders. She sides with the Scots and falls in love with one of them (Jamie).
Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik says time travel is not used in a heavy-handed way during the first season (though it will be more prominent in season two), but adds that it does inform the relationship between Claire and Jamie. “It gives the relationship a different dynamic than if this was a traditional historical romance,” he says. “Claire has more independence than Jamie would expect from a woman of his own era.”
The fact that Claire is from the 1940s, not the present day, meant the production had to contend with two historical time periods, not one.
But like with Hindsight, a key theme of Outlander is whether the future can be altered or taken advantage of. Zlotnik adds: “At the end of season one, Claire and Jamie set off to try to stop the battle of Culloden, which she knows will end badly for the Scots. But she doesn’t know if there is a way for her to stop the Scots being decimated or if history is on some kind of autopilot.”
Interest in time-travel stories isn’t limited to the Anglo-American market. In the 2001 Mexican telenovela Aventuras En El Tiempo, central character Violeta discovers a time machine built by her grandfather that allows her to witness her own birth and her mother’s death.
In Korea, meanwhile, one of the top shows in the last couple of years has been Nine: Nine Times Time Travel, which aired on cable channel tvN in 2013. And like Hindsight and Outlander, the show explores concepts like the path not travelled, the unattainableness of perfect knowledge and the way in which actions have unintended consequences.
“Nine is a fantasy drama where Lee Jin-Wook, playing a TV anchor, gets his hands on nine doses of a mysterious potion that allows him to travel 20 years back in time nine times,” says Jangho Seo, head of international sales and acquisitions at distributor CJ E&M Corporation. “Each time he goes back, there are severe consequences for the present-day timeline.”
Although there are now a number of time-travel series on the Korean market, Nine was one of the first shows to see the potential of time travel in redefining the romance genre. Seo says: “The time-travel aspect was planned from the pre-production phase with a very clear purpose. The majority of Korean dramas focus on love stories and melodrama. As such, the main characters face dilemmas involving tangled relationships and disruptions from sub-characters. With Nine, we wanted the level of dilemma to reach its maximum.”
This approach is one reason the show has travelled so well, says Seo. To date, it has sold to 55 countries and has been picked up by a US prodco for development as a scripted pilot.
While all the above shows use time travel as device to tell relationship-based stories, it also continues to have a role to play in science-based action-adventure.
In ITV’s hit series Primeval (pictured top), for example, the idea of earthquakes in time, called ‘anomalies’ in the show, was developed so dangerous creatures from the past or future could accidentally travel through time, thus causing havoc wherever they went.
Tim Haines, creative director at ITV Studios and former creative director at Impossible Pictures, where he co-created and executive produced Primeval, says: “Time travel was a device to conflate creatures from different era. The anomalies were conceptually as simple as possible, so we did not need the audience to be excited about the process; it was more about the consequences of thrusting the fauna from a different time into the present and following the chaos.”
While time travel wasn’t intended as the core of Primeval’s concept, it did inevitably play its part in storytelling. In episode one, the central character Nick Cutter and his wife Helen stumble across the remains of an expedition that has been attacked by a monster, and then realise that the destroyed expedition is the one they are now on.
“The strongest time-travel storyline in Primeval was Cutter’s wife coming back to haunt him (after being presumed dead for eight years),” says Haines. “As for individual stories, the bigger the incursion, the trickier it was to make believable, because (the central characters) were trying to keep it secret. So being surrounded by terror birds in a wood shack worked well, but a T. rex in the city was less satisfying.”
Like his peers, Haines avoided dwelling too much on paradoxes caused by time travel. “We talked about this a lot at the beginning and end of the series. But as the series went on, time travel and paradoxes became less relevant, if occasionally necessary,” he says. “Our science was more biological, using anomalies to explain evolutionary and crypto-zoological mysteries. There was consistency and the fans did not mind, even though I am sure if you looked closely you would have found holes.”
One dynamic that sets Primeval apart from other time-travel shows is that it has characters coming back to the present from an imagined future. The future’s impact on the present is also the central theme in Refugadios (Refugees), a BBC Worldwide/Atresmedia coproduction that aired in Spain in May but has yet to arrive in the UK.
Made by Bambu Producciones, the central premise of Refugees is that three billion people from the future have travelled to the present to escape an imminent global disaster.
The scale of the refugee problem is framed through a few key establishing shots, but the story itself focuses on a small town. Explaining the show at Mipcom 2014, executive producer Ben Donald said: “We haven’t gone global with a story investigating the future, that’s just a premise that helps bring out secrets and hidden stories among the protagonists.”
This is a key point. Like most the other series in the genre, Refugees uses time travel as a device to tell a certain kind of human interest story – similar to series like Les Revenants (The Returned) and Äkta Människor (Real Humans).
Donald added: “Without being didactic, Refugees is about the global immigration debate, which makes the series feel incredibly relevant. Science fiction at its best can hold up a mirror to the world and act as a fantastic metaphor.”
This assessment is echoed by writer Howard Overman, who has used time travel in Dirk Gently, Atlantis and, most prominently, his acclaimed drama Misfits.
“Sci-fi works best when it speaks to the human emotions in us. It’s a very human thing to think about the mistakes we’ve made and wonder what it would be like to rectify them,” he says. “In Misfits, time travel allowed one of our central characters to compare who he is now to what he would become in the future. Showing characters who have something at stake is more interesting than if we’d just used time travel visit the Victorian era.”
Overman says he tried hard to keep temporal consistency in Misfits’ time-travel storylines. “I was really careful about avoiding paradoxes,” he admits. “It is easy to overlook the ripple effects that are created when you use time travel. But then if you are worried about logic you probably shouldn’t be doing time travel at all.”
BBC primetime drama Atlantis also used time travel, with central character Jason Donnelly travelling back from the present to the ancient city of Atlantis via a deep-sea temporal disturbance. In that case “we started out with the idea that our hero might have some kind of basic knowledge of Greek mythology, but gradually dropped that idea,” says Overman. “In hindsight, it may have worked just as well if he had been a Greek guy washed up on the beach of Atlantis rather than someone travelling in time. But that’s the benefit of hindsight.”
For the most part, then, TV time travel is used as an allegorical device. But are there any shows for sci-fi geeks, comparable to movie extravaganzas like Terminator or Interstellar? Well, yes – but it seems the TV industry has a tendency to look back in time for its inspiration (similar to the way robotics stories give Isaac Asimov a respectful nod).
US cable channel The CW, for example, recently aired a remake of 1970s show The Tomorrow People, in which a core power of one of the main characters is the ability to manipulate time.
Luther writer Neil Cross is also adapting classic UK sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel, about inter-dimensional beings who guard the order of time.
Then, of course, there is the BBC’s sci-fi series Doctor Who, rooted in a mythology first invented in the 1960s. Speaking to BBC America, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat summed up his own feelings about the appeal of time travel as a storytelling device: “The moment you say time travel is an incidental factor of your world, it changes everything.
“You could be dealing with the consequences of an action you have not yet performed. From the point of view of a writer, especially a writer like me who likes a puzzle-box structure, it’s fascinating. The future could be your past. Come on, that’s brilliant.”
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.
Turning books into TV is a well-trodden path, but as pressure for hits increases, development execs are reading more novels than ever before.
This may be the disruptive age of digital, but that hasn’t stopped the TV industry mining the fusty old world of books for drama ideas. House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bosch, The Pillars of the Earth and The Walking Dead (a graphic novel) are just a few of the high-profile projects that have made stunningly successful transitions from paper to pixel.
Coming soon are adaptations of the likes of Russian classic War and Peace, fantasy series Shannara and Sharp Objects, based on an early novel by marriage-noir queen Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), while Fox is currently airing Wayward Pines, M Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Blake Crouch novel Pines.
Ask drama producers why they are still so enthralled by books and they tend to cite similar reasons. One of the most obvious, says eOne TV senior VP of creative affairs Tecca Crosby, is that “you’re starting with something that has a built-in fanbase or name recognition. All of us are challenged by how to break through, so if you secure a well-known book, that’s an advantage when talking to networks or introducing the project to audiences.”
Just as significant, adds veteran producer Sally Woodward Gentle, is the fact that there is a ready-made story, world and characters to play with. Woodward Gentle, whose company Sid Gentle Films is adapting Len Deighton classic SS-GB for BBC1 in the UK, says: “It’s easier for the commissioning editor to visualise the end result when you have a book to show them. It’s also attractive to screenwriters. Many don’t want to start an idea from scratch. With strong source material, they can get straight into developing their interpretation of the story.”
Interestingly, though, this is about as scientific as it gets. Ask producers if they scrutinise international sales spreadsheets or conduct focus groups before making a decision and the general consensus is that this isn’t the priority. “We are in business, so you have to align your project to the needs of the marketplace,” says Paula Cuddy, partner at indie producer Eleventh Hour. “But you can’t embark on this process unless it’s a personal passion. Producing drama is such a long, arduous, treacherous process that you have to love what you’re doing.”
She cites the example of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which she worked on in her previous role as head of development at Hat Trick Productions: “The literary agent gave me a galley proof of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale on a Friday. I read it over the weekend and pitched it to the head of drama at Hat Trick on the Monday. He loved it. I then approached the film and TV agent representing the rights, and on this occasion was granted a limited window of exclusivity to pitch it to a broadcaster (ITV/Laura Mackie was the natural home) and get a writer on board. Upon me achieving this, the agent and Indie swiftly formalised the contract for the rights.”
As Cuddy’s comment indicates, enthusiasm is swiftly followed by the pursuit of rights to the book (assuming it is still in copyright – we’ll come to classic works later). Typically, this is handled by the producer, though sometimes they’ll come with the backing of a broadcaster or a programme distributor.
The exact process varies project by project, says Tally Garner, founder of Mam Tor Production, “but typically you’d be looking to get an 18-month to two-year option on the TV rights, with a holdback on film rights so that you don’t end up competing with a rival project. If you are successful in getting the project into production then usually you’ll acquire the rights on the first day of principal photography, working to a fee structure that you agreed when you took out the original option.”
Garner has been immersed in this process for years. Initially a film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, she was then tasked with setting up the agency’s in-house production company Cuba Pictures. At Cuba, she adapted Boy A and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before leaving to form Mam Tor, which has a first-look deal with Endemol Worldwide Distribution (now under the new Endemol Shine International banner). In her experience, the course of options negotiations is inevitably affected by the level of competition for rights, though money is not the only consideration: “As an agent, you want there to be a market value to the rights – so you tend to have a rough figure in your head. But the final decision really hinges on a combination of cash, enthusiasm and vision. When I was an agent, I was always wary of selling rights where there wasn’t a creative producer involved in the pitch, someone who had a real sense of how the elements might come together.”
The issue of whether the proposed producer truly understands the book comes up a lot. Even when there isn’t a bidding war over option rights, most producers have to undergo a beauty parade to persuade the author and agent they are the right people for the job.
ITV Studios creative director Kieran Roberts says he engaged in a pretty thorough creative dialogue with author Phil Rickman when ITV decided it wanted to adapt his book series Midwinter of the Spirit (which features Merrily Watkins, a country vicar with exorcism skills who helps the police with crime cases). “It wasn’t too difficult for us to establish our commercial credentials. But, understandably, Phil wanted reassurances about how we would approach the project and whether we would be faithful to the world.”
A key issue was the fact that the books are based around the UK town of Hereford, which is not the easiest place to mount a major production. “He’d had offers to relocate to the Home Counties but wanted to keep the stories where they were set,” says Richardson. “We were happy to go along with him because that part of the country has a special, quite magical quality – even though it will present a few more practical challenges.”
Richardson stresses, however, that producers also need to come to projects with a clear vision of what they are trying to do – because ultimately they are responsible for producing a show that works: “I enjoyed the first book, but didn’t come away with a real sense of how it might develop as a returning series. However, I really felt that the second book delivered on the premise. So I had a conversation with Phil and we agreed that it made sense to begin the series with the second book.”
eOne’s Crosby says a proactive approach to projects can help win the author over. She cites the example of Canadian author Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, which is being adapted for CBC Canada. “We were trying to persuade her that we were the right people to adapt the book. She was keen on the fact that Alan Hawko (star of Republic Of Doyle) would be involved. But I also talked to her about the fact that one of the minor characters in the book had an interesting back-story that could be explored more in a TV series. She loved that idea.”
Wooing the author is critical when securing rights. But producers then need to make a judgement call about how much they should be involved in the adaptation. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, says Berna Levin, chief commercial officer at Swedish film and TV producer Yellowbird, because it depends on the character of the authors in question. “The writers we work with are very cool. All of them say, ‘The books are my children, but the film/TV productions are my grandchildren – someone else is responsible.’ They want to be convinced you know what you are doing, but then they will let you get on with your job.”
Yellowbird has established a global reputation for its adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, Liza Marklund’s Anneka Bengtzon and Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss. In Levin’s opinion, having some distance between author and production is useful because it allows the screenwriter the time and space they need to establish their own vision: “But it isn’t like we want to exclude the authors from the process. They are brilliant writers of crime and sometimes they have 10, 20 or 30 ideas that never made it into their books, which makes them a great resource. For example, it was very exciting for us to work on Occupied, which was an original idea from Jo Nesbo, not from a novel.”
Yellowbird is unusual because of the impact it has made from its Swedish base. Aside from the quality of its shows, a couple of practical factors have underpinned that progress. “Firstly, we have focused almost entirely on crime novels, because that seemed to us to be the genre with the best potential to travel internationally,” says Levin. “And we also make sure we secure global rights when we option a novel. We need to do this to ensure we aren’t competing with international versions.”
For every author who doesn’t want to be involved in the adaptation process, there is another that does. “I think there is a generation of writers such as William Boyd, Anthony Horowitz and Ben Richards who are equally comfortable in both forms,” says Cuddy. “We’re working with Sebastian Faulks on an adaptation of his novel On Green Dolphin Street. He is so bright and brilliant that he can manage the transition very well.”
Authors who write the screenplays to their own books tend to have two main challenges. The first, says eOne’s Crosby, is that “novels are often based around the interior world of characters, but screen storytelling is about action and dialogue. Writers who cross over have to be able to translate that.”
The other, says Cuddy, is the need to avoid over-attachment to the source material – since not all of the book’s content will work on TV. William Boyd and Gillian Flynn are both reputed to have this ability “and Sebastian Faulks is also demonstrating a real pragmatism with our project,” she adds.
This challenge is even more intense when dealing with book series. Jenna Glazier, senior VP of TV series at Sonar Entertainment, is currently overseeing an adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy epic Shannara for MTV. Shannara consists of 14 books written between 1973 and 2013, “so there is a big challenge in knowing where to start and where to end; what to include and what to leave out,” she says. “We’ve decided on the second book, Elfstones of Shannara, as our starting point because it’s a fan favourite that has a love triangle at the centre of the story.”
On the author/screenwriter issue, Glazier says: “It’s always of value to have the author involved because they’ve spent years with the work. With Shannara, Terry is executive producer and Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) are on board as writers.”
One way of addressing the above issues is to have a team that combines the author and screenwriters, says Glazier, “We’re adapting Philipp Meyer’s 2013 best-seller The Son for AMC. Philipp is adapting it with the support of two screenwriters.”
Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne makes an interesting observation on this issue, which is that a lot of contemporary writers have grown up absorbing the grammar of film and TV in their daily lives. This has led to a growing number of novels that are written with a sparser style, punchier dialogue and a more visual sensibility. This in turn lends itself to screen adaptation.
As hinted at earlier, the nature of the book optioning process will depend to some extent on whether the book is a new title subject to an intense bidding war, an older title that has slipped slightly off the radar, or a work that’s no longer subject to copyright (i.e. anyone can adapt it without permission). Books that are subject to a bidding war tend to have strong in-built awareness, “but you have to be sure you’re bidding for something that will fit the requirements of broadcasters,” says Cuddy. “Not all books, no matter how good, fit the schedule.”
eOne senior VP of global production Carrie Stein, who worked at agency ICM earlier in her career, also advises caution. “There’s always a buzz around a new book and that can seem like a reason to go out and bid for it. But I urge my team to think about all the books that got optioned for $100,000 10 years ago and are still sitting on the shelf. When you chase best-sellers, you can lose focus on creativity and passion.”
As if to underline the point, Stein is currently shepherding a 1983 novel by Harry Crews called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (ranked 1,127,231st on Amazon US’s best-sellers list as this sentence was written). For Stein, the relative obscurity of the book is offset by the original, idiosyncratic nature of the story, Crews’s cult following and the fact that a rising screenwriting star is committed to the project. “Matt Venne (currently writing The Devil’s Advocate for NBC – which started as a book, then became a film and will now be a TV series) has read it and is on board the project.”
Rights-free classic novels are, of course, fair game – with BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point currently working on two prestigious projects, War and Peace and A Tale of Two Cities. At first sight, they seem like manna from heaven, but there are two potential problems. The first, raised by Cuddy, is that they can be creatively restrictive: “We’re interested in period stories but would probably want to take a more revisionist approach than a classic novel would allow. So instead of adapting Bleak House, for example, we’re currently working on an adaptation of Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea. That is set in the 1700s but was published last year and has real contemporary resonance as well as being a great mystery story.”
Tally Garner, meanwhile, points out that classics are non-exclusive, which means you get to spend lots of time and effort developing a version, only to find that someone else has got there first. Exactly this happened a couple of years back when a Great Expectations miniseries and movie hit the market within a few months of each other. This rush to exploit IP is particularly common when copyrights initially expire.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the book business has not made its own changes as a result of digital media. So how does this impact on the book-to-TV transition? One way, says Garner, is that there is now a vibrant source of content available in the e-publishing market (EL James and Hugh Howey both started in this space): “We’re developing a property called Confessions of a GP, which started out as an ebook before going to traditional publishing. I still tend to see the agents/publishers as the key relationships but there is this growth of great content coming through on the internet.”
eOne’s Crosby says the new landscape also opens the producer up to a more real-time dialogue with the author’s fanbase, something that can be beneficial from a marketing perspective: “We developed fantasy TV series Bitten (pictured top) out of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld book series. She has a huge online fanbase and they really let us know what they think when we take decisions about who to cast in key roles.”
With TV in the ascendancy at the moment, another key question is whether the medium is starting to secure rights to books that might previously have been picked up for film. Payne is not convinced of this, arguing that the love affair between books and TV goes back decades. For her, one of the key points that has to be reiterated is that basing a story on a book can only take you so far, “because ultimately it has to work as TV. We have properties like Cider with Rosie on our slate. That’s pretty well known in the UK but not outside. When it goes into distribution it will be judged on its own merits.”
Books in development
Mam Tor’s Tally Garner has a few projects bubbling away, including an adaptation of The Skeleton Cupboard by clinical psychologist Tanya Byron and another of Mary S. Lovell’s Bess of Hardwick, about the creation of Chatsworth. The latter has Harriet Warner attached (Call the Midwife) as writer.
Sally Woodward Gentle, former creative director at Carnival Films and now CEO of Sid Gentle, is working with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Skyfall) on Len Deighton’s SS-GB for BBC1. Based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain, SS-GB takes place in Nazi-occupied London. Deighton is back in vogue at the moment, with Simon Beaufoy reported to be adapting novels featuring Cold War spy Bernard Samson.
Lookout Point is close to going into production on War and Peace with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. It’s also developing a mega-budget version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities with another screen heavyweight, Alan Bleasdale.
FremantleMedia is working with Corona Pictures on an adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s Bird of Prey, with the script written by JJ Connolly (Layer Cake). It’s also working on Ugly (based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) with Roland Joffe, while FMNA is adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with Starz.
Yellowbird’s upcoming productions include an adaptation of Johan Theorin’s novel Echoes from the Dead (with Fundament Film) and a third Swedish Wallander series. It is also developing an English version of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters with HBO.
Donna Wiffen, formerly of FremantleMedia, is now MD at indie producer Duchess Street Productions. Backed by investment firm Bob & Co, she is working on a saga about two families based on The Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer.
Frank Spotnitz and Ridley Scott are behind an adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic sci-fi novel The Man in the High Castle. The project has been linked to various channels, but is currently positioned as a pilot for SVoD platform Amazon. Amazon is also behind the adaptation of the Bosch novels.
Netflix, following its breakout success with House of Cards (the second adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ acclaimed series of novels), has announced plans to make a series based on Lemony Snicket’s
A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Red Planet Pictures’s Tony Jordan is developing a major BBC drama called Dickensian which will bring Charles Dickens’ characters together into one world. Expect Tiny Tim with Miss Havisham and