Politics, humour and strong female characters lead the pack for the creator of some of Britain’s best-loved dramas, from Fat Friends to Band of Gold, who also has two new series on the horizon – Love, Lies & Records for the BBC and ITV’s Girlfriends.
Boys from the Blackstuff
I absolutely loved it. Written by Alan Bleasdale, it looked at the stories of a group of men who have lost their jobs. I just thought it was amazing, and it made me want to write Band of Gold. It was about five men and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to write about five women,’ although it became four. I also realised each episode could be a play for today. Each one could be about a particular character, with a beginning, middle and end, but looking at the collective as well. You could also tell a really dark story in a funny way – that’s a theme through all my work.
This taught me that it was possible to be political and funny simultaneously. It was more overtly political than Boys from the Blackstuff – it looked at corruption and power – but was similar in that it had dark humour and made me laugh hysterically in places. GBH is also by Alan Bleasdale, who I think has probably influenced me the most among English writers, because he’s also from the North and he’s not afraid of humour, of feelings and emotion, or of having something to say. He doesn’t write about just cops or doctors; he writes about people, and that’s what I think inspired me.
I Love Lucy
This was probably the first show I saw. I used to go to stay with my aunt on Friday nights when I was a little girl, and one of my earliest recollections of television was sitting watching in her front room. I’d watched things like Bonanza, all about men, but I Love Lucy was my first with a female lead. My mother was one of four sisters so, for me, life was all about women talking and being central. So when I watched Lucille Ball playing Lucy, it was a big influence on me to know that women could have lead roles.
I found this Danish series by accident when flicking through Netflix, and within about two minutes I was hooked. I was really intrigued by this woman – flaws, warts and all. In England we sometimes think our leads can’t do anything bad, because then viewers won’t like them – but Rita’s creators flaunted that in our face. I loved the dare of it, and Mille Dinesen [who plays the eponymous teacher] was amazing. You’d see a shot of her sashaying down the corridor and they’d linger on her. They’d never do that in England because it would be sexist, but they don’t care. It’s all about attitude and what she thinks. She expresses herself in the way she moves and I loved that about her.
An American Rita. This show looks at a woman [played by Téa Leoni] who is jettisoned into the position of Secretary of State, and I just loved the way her family life often echoes what’s going on in her work life. It’s a masterclass in writing. Some might say it’s a bit formulaic, but it’s formula at its very best. It’s got a lot to say about global issues and dares to do things with which I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s a woman centre stage again, looking at her team of people and her home life. It probably inspired [registry office-set] Love, Lies & Records.
The Sopranos was one of the first US shows I just could not stop watching. I loved it because it was so dark and so funny and the production values were incredible. [Series creator] David Chase was doing things I was jealous of. You’d go from quite a domestic episode to one set entirely in a forest. It was quite violent, not my usual cup of tea, but it also had dark humour. There wasn’t one actor who was miscast, there wasn’t one duff episode and it was watercooler television as well. Often writers are told you can’t do certain things because people won’t like the character, but viewers forgive anything as long as the character is truthful and interesting. That’s what I’ve learned from series like The Sopranos.
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.”
Stefanie Martini steps into Helen Mirren’s shoes as Prime Suspect 1973 tells the story of how Jane Tennison began her police career in 1970s London.
Eleven years have passed since Helen Mirren last appeared on television as Jane Tennison, a no-nonsense police detective who rises through the ranks while solving complex cases and battling sexism.
Now viewers are set to see how she started her career in Prime Suspect 1973, a prequel to the original series that introduces Tennison an ambitious, single-minded 22-year-old probationary officer.
The six-part drama, which debuts on ITV in the UK on March 2, throws her into a brutal murder enquiry when the body of a young girl is discovered, all while fighting to establish herself in a male-dominated world of a 1970s police station.
Based on Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante’s novel Tennison, it’s written by Greg Laker (Home Fires) and produced by Noho Film and Television. It is produced by Rhonda Smith (Fresh Meat), directed by David Caffrey (Line of Duty) and will be distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
With a cast including Sam Reid, Blake Harrison, Alum Armstrong and Jessica Gunning, Prime Suspect 1973 sees Stefanie Martini (pictured top) as the young Tennison in what is the actor’s first leading role.
A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – aka RADA – Martini’s fledging career has involved roles in Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour and the Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne, in which she starred opposite Tom Hollander. She has also appeared this year in US drama Emerald City – but she admits starring in Prime Suspect 1973 was an entirely new proposition.
“It was a really formative experience for me because I’d never really done anything that full-on before,” Martini tells DQ. “I’d never been in [a show] that much before and had to get my head around such a long story. The cast is really lovely and when I watch it back, I think it’s really cool and exciting and I really hope people like it.”
Having played romantic interests before, Martini was attracted to the opportunity to play a “practical person” such as Tennison, who from the start displays her innate skill and ability to hunt down clues and push a case towards its conclusion.
“When I’m auditioning for things, I try to remain detached and not get too hopeful, else you end up emotionally destroyed,” she admits. “But I was really excited about this. We didn’t have any scripts to read but the scenes we had gave an idea of the tone of the whole thing.
“It was a very different character for me and it was nice, the idea of being in something quite gritty and crime-based, rather than a period drama or fantasy.”
From the beginning, Martini was adamant that her portrayal of Tennison should stand apart from that of Mirren, who played the character for seven seasons.
“I didn’t speak to Helen; her work is great in Prime Suspect and it’s brilliant to have that as a starting point for me to work with, but the character that I’m portraying in this series is so different – they’re 20 years apart,” she says. “I’m a different actress as well – I couldn’t have done the same things she did, so I had to see it in a separate way. But she obviously influenced my decisions for the character but I had to keep myself separate from it.”
Martini describes Tennison as a “very eager, naive and awkward” person who doesn’t yet have the experience to back up her enthusiasm. “She oversteps the mark and anticipates stuff and gets involved in things when it isn’t her place to do so,” the actor explains. “By the end, she’s a little bit hardened, a little bit more confident; she knows how things work a little bit more. But throughout she has that spark and brilliance, a mind that works in a really clever way to help solve cases. Her inner strength and the thing inside her that makes her a good detective doesn’t change, but the way she sees the world and the way to approach cases does change.”
The actor says Prime Suspect 1973 was a very collaborative affair on set. “We all had a really good relationship with the director, and it felt like if you didn’t believe in something or didn’t understand something, that was a conversation you could have where you could question it,” she recalls. “You might just end up understanding why [Tennison] said something like that or why that happened a bit better, or you could change it. It was very easy and open, it was a really nice atmosphere to work in.”
The relationship between the actors was equally harmonious, Martini adds, as the cast came together during filming last summer.
“It was great, it was a really funny group of people,” she says. “It was me and Jess and the boys really. But we all got on so well and had a real laugh doing it last summer. The scenes we had were sometimes quite heavy so it’s nice to have relationship with people where you can have a joke with each other. It was really good.”
As episode one opens, Martini’s Tennison is involved in a foot race as she unsuccessfully chases down a street mugger. It’s an early sign of the physical demands of the role, but Martini reveals the most difficult aspect was juggling the character’s emotions as the four-and-a-half month shoot took place out of sequence.
“I had to keep six hours of storyline out of sequence in my head and make sure I had the adequate amount of preparation for each scene when I was in so much, really knowing what I wanted and where I was coming from,” she explains. “Because she’s responding a lot of the time and just taking things in, that can sometimes make you feel as an actress that you’re not making any choices and you’re not doing anything interesting. But you just have to stay in the story. I learned a lot from other people – and there were lots of scenes where I had to look like I really knew how to use a typewriter!”
With a starring role alongside Christina Hendricks and Gillian Anderson in Crooked House, the forthcoming big-screen adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, Martini looks set for a breakthrough year in 2017. And for her next television role, she’s looking for something contemporary and modern, and says she isn’t afraid of using an accent.
“As long as it’s diverse, I want to keep challenging myself and to not get comfortable in one thing or in one place,” she adds.
“The main thing is having a three-dimensional character to get into. If it’s ever [a character that] doesn’t have anything to say or doesn’t have any flaws or anything interesting about them, I’m not particularly interested in it. But as long as there are things to discover and the psychology is well-written enough and I can work out how this person works, it’s all good. That’s all I really look for. I’ve been really lucky to have some really interesting female parts. I’ve never been a trophy.”
It’s the beginning of the end for Broadchurch as the third and final season debuts on ITV. Stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman and creator Chris Chibnall reflect on the show’s success.
It’s an increasingly common trend in television drama that viewers head into a new season of their favourite show knowing it will be the last time they will visit this set of characters. Fans of the past two seasons of Broadchurch will know, however, that the show’s third and final season is unlikely to be a happy occasion for many of the residents of the coastal town.
Still picking up the pieces from the events of season one and two, in which – spoiler alert – Joe Miller killed schoolboy Danny Latimer but was subsequently found not guilty in court, season three sees DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), pictured above, investigating a serious sexual assault in the community.
Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan return to play Beth and Mark Latimer. They are joined by Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lenny Henry and Georgina Campbell along with Sarah Parish, Charlie Higson and Mark Bazeley.
Arthur Darvill also returns as local vicar Paul Coates, Carolyn Pickles as newspaper editor Maggie Radcliffe and Adam Wilson as Ellie’s son Tom.
All eight episodes have once again been written by series creator Chris Chibnall. Broadchurch is produced by Kudos, Imaginary Friends and Sister Pictures for ITV, and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution, which has sold it to 180 countries worldwide. Remakes have been produced in the US (Gracepoint) and France (Malaterra).
“When Chris first sent me the script for the opening episode of Broadchurch six years ago, I was struck by one defining element,” says executive producer Jane Featherstone. “I loved the characters, I loved the beauty of the world, I loved the powerful whodunit narrative, but above all I loved the way it explored a small-town community in such depth. Chris’s intention was always to inhabit a space that meant we could stay with our characters and our town after the crime had happened, to really examine the long-term effects of a tragic incident on a community. Our characters had lives before we joined them and they will continue to exist after we have gone.
“The great privilege of longform storytelling is building a meaningful relationship between our characters and the audience, and I am excited for the audience to see how Ellie, Hardy and the Latimers have fared in the last few years. It is a fond farewell for those of us involved in the series for so many years but, as far as I am concerned, the community of Broadchurch will carry on living long after we’ve gone.”
Chibnall describes the series as an “extraordinary journey” that now comes to an end with a new investigation into a serious sexual assault. Since second season finished in 2015, he has been working with script executive Samantha Hoyle and support organisations, police and survivors to research the storyline.
“I wanted to tell this story because these crimes are increasing,” he says. “Representations of, and attitudes to, sex have become more oppositional and confrontational. Sexualised images are all around, access to porn is easier and seemingly more common. It’s an issue for couples, for parents and families, for individuals and for communities. And, amid all this, the gender divide often feels more polarised than it has in decades.
“To explore this, I needed to call on DS Ellie Miller and DI Alec Hardy one last time. This story begins three years after we were last in Broadchurch. Lives have moved on. Some people have left, some have arrived – and there’s a new case to test this old partnership. There are new suspects, new revelations and fresh truths to be confronted in the lives of Broadchurch’s residents.”
Former Doctor Who star Tennant admits he will miss Broadchurch, playing DI Hardy and working alongside his co-stars.
“It is sad to think we will never return to this world and to these characters because I feel so fondly towards them, but I will always feel proud to be associated with this show,” he says.
“There is a massive personal legacy having worked on this show. We all feel like we have been doing something very special and that we are all a part of each other’s lives now, so I’ll miss seeing people every day but hopefully I will see them fairly regularly. I will certainly miss Chris’s scripts but I look forward to watching them elsewhere and I hope it won’t be the last time we will work together.”
Season three sees Tennant’s police officer more settled in Broadchurch, with more focus on his relationship with his daughter Daisy as he rallies against the attacker he is hunting down.
“His focus becomes trying to understand the person who would commit this crime, trying to get inside their skin, and that is something he struggles with initially,” Tennant adds. “That has been an interesting conflict to play, Hardy trying to come to terms with what sort of man would do this and almost feeling ashamed for his own gender, which has been a very interesting take that Chris has afforded him this series.”
Part of the charm of watching Broadchurch has been the chemistry between DI Hardy and Colman’s DS Miller – and Colman says this is purely down to her being such good friends with Tennant.
“Chris Chibnall has written them brilliantly,” she says. “They are really good mates – possibly each other’s only mate. It feels like they have been friends for longer than they have, the way they bicker but they clearly deeply respect each other and would staunchly defend each other against other people.
“It really helps that David and I get on so well. You can sort of tell that Hardy and Ellie like being together because David and I like spending time together. It makes it much easier. I will miss working with David – if we could stand next to each other on set every day, I would be so happy. We giggle, he is never late, knows all of his lines… He is a dream person to work with.”
The topics raised in season three also struck a chord with Colman, who has experience with the subject of sexual violence from previous roles.
“So I have become passionate about all of these issues – violence against each other, and that ties in with sexual assault obviously,” she explains. “I’m really pleased to be a part of this story and it’s amazing how people don’t know how common this is. People need to know, I think.”
From the chilling opening of season one, where the body of a young boy is found on the beach, to the nail-biting court case of season two, Broadchurch has always kept viewers on the edge of their seats and, with more shocking revelations to come in season three, it looks like it will do so once more.
Chibnall adds: “It’s been a strange, mad honour to experience the passion of audiences for this story and these characters. But all good stories come to an end. I hope this one has enough twists and turns, laughter and tears to go out in style.”
Director Bill Eagles and cinematographer Michael Snyman discuss their work and partnership on ITV’s new India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital, and reveal the challenges of filming on location in Sri Lanka.
For the cast and crew of a television drama, there can be worse places to spend a 12-week shoot than on location in idyllic Sri Lanka.
The island doubles for neighbouring India in The Good Karma Hospital, a six-part medical drama for UK broadcaster ITV. But while they were able to capture its luscious landscapes and striking sunsets, lead director Bill Eagles and director of photography Michael Snyman say filming in Sri Lanka posed a unique set of challenges.
“It was very exhausting,” Eagles admits. “The heat and the weather meant there were quite a lot of early nights but very early starts. The sun came up about 07.00 and went down around 18.00, so to get an 11-hour day we had to begin shooting at dawn. So we were up at 05.00 for hair and makeup and for me to prowl the set. By the end of the day, because of the heat and the rain, people were exhausted.”
The show tells the story of junior doctor Ruby Walker (played by Amrita Acharia), who leaves the UK to join the over-worked staff of the run-down Good Karma Hosptial. Led by eccentric Brit Lydia Fonseca (Amanda Redman), the cottage hospital is the beating heart of the community and soon becomes home from home home for Ruby.
The cast also includes Neil Morrissey, Phyllis Logan, James Floyd, Darhsan Jariwalla and Sagar Radia.
Produced by Tiger Aspect, the series was created and written by Dan Sefton (Delicious), with scripts from Vinay Patel and Nancy Harris. Stephen Smallwood produces, with exec producers Will Gould, Frith Tiplady and Iona Vrolyk. Endemol Shine International distributes internationally.
“When I first got the script, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong guy!” jokes Eagles, who directs the first four episodes, with Jon Wright picking up the final pair. With a background in series such as CSI, Gotham, The Mentalist and Strike Back, he admits he has a reputation for blowing people up or setting them on fire – and there was none of that in the Sefton’s scripts.
“But it came from Tiger, who I’d worked for the previous summer on a low-budget but incredibly well-written ensemble cop show called Cuffs,” he continues. “I did the car chases in that and it played into my background as an action and crime director, but it also had quite nuanced dramatic scenes with really interesting cast members. Obviously Tiger saw something in the way I delivered that and thought, ‘Why not?’
“The last show I did before this was an episode of Gotham, so this was a breath of fresh air and I absolutely loved the script. To feel the quality of Dan Sefton’s writing – so economical, so dense in story but so rich in character… he knew that if we could get this right, it would play with the heartstrings and it would have you raising your hopes with the characters, crying with their despair but feeling a sense of new hope, a new dawn as they face their troubled lives and overcome emotional obstacles along the way. I was really impressed that Tiger came to me and it was perfect timing for what I wanted to do.”
Eagles says he was particularly drawn to the project by Sefton’s “sophisticated” scripts, plus the interplay between Redman’s eccentric matriarch and Acharia’s naive, wistful and optimistic stranger abroad.
He continues: “If you’re shooting Casualty or a British hospital show, there’s only so many types of people who you can really bring in through the hospital doors. But, of course, if you set it in the backwaters of an Indian town, you’ve got a wonderful, rich array of characters, both rich and poor, European and local, with cultural issues and issues of custom and religion.
“Then, of course, it’s set in India. As a director, I have shot all around the world, a lot in Britain and the backstreets of LA but, actually, it doesn’t quite compare to the possibilities of a beautiful sunset over the Indian ocean, an epic vista from the top of a mountain over a jungle or having an early morning mist rise over paddy fields that seem to go on forever. These are landscapes to which any director would give their back teeth to point a camera at. The mission was to make it epic and make it feel like we were taking the audience on a journey.”
Unusually, Eagles chose to mix up the production by shooting episodes three and four first, rather than beginning with the first two, as might have been expected. But there was good reason behind his thinking. Often with a new series, particularly in the US, a single pilot is commissioned, meaning there is just one episode to set up the story. But with The Good Karma Hospital’s full season being ordered from the start, Eagles reasoned that by jumping ahead, the cast would have time to refine their performances and fully embody their characters before filming the opener.
“That really did play to our strengths and to our advantage,” he says. “Often you don’t get the chance because you have to shoot the first one to sell it to a broadcaster. But in this instance, it was great. And while we’re very happy with episodes three and four, we did learn along the way. So when it came to making the opening episode, which will make or break the series, we were so super confident about where we were with our characters and storytelling. What the audience will make of it, who knows, but at least we have no regrets.”
That process was made easier due to Eagles’ partnership with his director of photography, Michael Snyman (The Night Manager, Of Kings and Prophets). The pair had previously worked together in South Africa on Strike Back – Snyman was then a camera operator – so when they landed together in Sri Lanka, there was already a shorthand between them that meant they could hit the ground running.
“Mike is a consummate artist with light. He’s also incredibly inventive and he’s a wonderful force of energy on the set,” Eagles says. “He and I never go to a scene without both of us having read it, understood it and known what it’s about. He never offers up a shot that gets in the way of storytelling. The camera serves the action, the emotion and the meaning of a scene. Sometimes you will be offered a super-cool, creative shot by a DOP but actually it’s getting in the way of the scene. He totally gets it, so it was a joy to join forces with him. He keeps the energy of his crew high and he’s prepared to work fast on a ridiculously tight TV schedule.”
Snyman says the “big idea” behind shooting Good Karma was to embrace India through the show’s Sri Lankan location – a teacher-training college in Galle, two hours from the capital Colombo – and taking the camera outside as much as possible.
“A lot of interior scenes were moved outside just to get out of that hospital because, if you shoot two or three episodes there, you start to shoot the same rooms and beds over and over again,” he reveals. “Breaking that mould was very beneficial for us. So we moved a lot of scenes outside just to see the country because it’s so beautiful. It’s so green and luscious.”
Working outside in the heat provided its own problems, of course, but it meant the crew agreed to shift the filming schedule.
Snyman explains: “We started off shooting an 11-day fortnight but a lot of people weren’t able to sustain that pace. So we suggested we’d be better working a five-day week with 12-hour days, which makes up for that extra day – which the producers embraced, thank God, because it was getting very taxing. It was just too hot to work at that pace. You get in in the morning and by 06.30 you’re sweating, and you get home at night at 19.30 and you’re sweating. It was very difficult for a few people.”
Beyond the heat, there was also the issue of Sri Lanka’s near non-existent production infrastructure, meaning much of the crew with whom Eagles and Snyman worked had no experience in television. “It was quite interesting to see the crew develop through the show,” Snyman says. “How they took up the lead on things was just magnificent. By the end of the show, they were comparable to [production crews] anywhere around the world.”
Eagles chips in: “Making six hours of high-end European TV is not something anybody even remotely near us was used to, but we did take in a lot of local crew and it was great. Our gaffer was training some of the people on his team in electricity and cabling, and Mike and his camera department had people.
“Often we had 100 to 150 extras on set and none of them had ever done any extra work before. So just explaining why we needed them to walk from here to there and that they had do it again and again, and telling them not to bump into the cast or stand between the camera and the cast, that took a bit of time.”
The number of extras swelled to more than 1,000 during an episode that required a recreation of the Hindu festival of Holi, which Eagles describes as a “massive rave” featuring dancers, drummers and two elephants.
To meet the demand, production staff were sent out to nearby beaches to find holidaymakers who could join the festival scenes alongside the mass of locals.
“It was the most massive endeavour, and there was a certain amount of trepidation – how could we pull this off?” Eagles admits. “We had two elephants that day as well. It was quite late in the shoot and, even though we were dealing with 1,000 people, most of whom had not done any extra work before, it’s a spectacular sequence and it worked brilliantly. That was a tribute to everyone learning along the way and to working with people who were hungry to learn. It was an epic thing to pull off and very cool that we managed it.”
Likely to draw comparisons to BBC detective drama Death in Paradise, which sees a British police officer relocated to the (fictitious) Caribbean island of Saint Marie, The Good Karma Hospital promises to provide a burst of colour in the dreary winter months when it debuts on February 5.
“That’s what ITV are looking for – a show that will make you laugh, make you cry and send you home feeling warm and happy with the world,” Eagles surmises. “It’s a little bit of escapism but it’s an emotional treat with a bit of humour along the way. It was really fun to make.”
Snyman adds: “I think people will really enjoy it. We didn’t hold back, we did the best with what we had and the crew can be very proud of what they produced. Sri Lanka and its people did us proud. I was proud to be a part of it.”
Actors Olivia Williams and Steven Mackintosh, executive producer Sharon Hughff and producer Chris Croucher open the doors to The Halcyon, the five-star location for ITV’s eight-part drama, revealing why the venue is the perfect setting for a story set in uncertain times.
The Halcyon is produced by Left Bank Pictures and distributed by Sony Pictures Television.
Critically acclaimed crime drama Unforgotten is back for a second season on ITV. Sanjeev Bhaskar tells DQ why starring in the series is a “pure joy.”
Sanjeev Bhaskar might be best known for comedy turns in series such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars. But with the launch of the second season of crime drama Unforgotten, he’s quickly strengthening his reputation as a ‘serious’ actor.
“It’s nice to have done a returning series that’s also a primetime drama,” he tells DQ. “That’s been a pleasant surprise. I remember saying to Meera [Syal, his wife and fellow actor] before the first season went out that there will be one or two reactions about me. People will either be saying, ‘I told you he couldn’t act!’ or they’ll be saying, ‘I didn’t know he could act.’ I think, by and large, it was the second one!
“You’re always chasing work and hoping you can do the best job you can, but in a project that’s as good as it can be. So to be in something that’s really good and has been as warmly received [as Unforgotten] is the real joy. The fact it’s a drama is incredibly satisfying, but mainly because it’s good drama.”
Unforgotten, which returns to UK commercial network ITV tonight, reunites DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DS Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan (Bhaskar) as they must investigate another historical murder case.
The story begins with the discovery of a man’s body, perfectly preserved in a suitcase at the bottom of the River Lea in north-east London. Then as Cassie and Sunny begin the complicated task of identifying the victim, viewers are introduced to four unconnected people – a lawyer, nurse, teacher and another police officer – who are suspected to be linked to the victim in some way.
New cast members include Mark Bonnar, Rosie Cavaliero, Lorraine Ashbourne, Badria Timimi, Charlie Condou, Holly Aird, Nigel Lindsay, Peter Egan and Wendy Craig.
Written once again by Chris Lang, Unforgotten is directed by Andy Wilson and produced by Tim Bradley. Lang also executive produces with Mainstreet Pictures’ Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie.
Season two follows firmly in the footsteps of the hit first outing, which averaged around 6.5 million viewers across its six-episode run and was sold into 126 territories around the world by distributor BBC Worldwide. The plot saw Cassie and Sunny team up to uncover the truth about the murder of a boy in 1976, slowly revealing how four potential suspects – played by Trevor Eve, Ruth Sheen, Bernard Hill and Tom Courtenay – were linked to the crime.
“The reaction to the first season was just lovely,” says Bhaskar. “It’s rare to have as much of a consensus as that across both critics and social media – people really do let you know what they think of your programme in very clear terms.
“It was great, and it was lovely to have that chance to come back. Much of the team was the same as well. A lot of the reasons why that first season worked, outside of the great script and director, is the behind-the-camera team, because it’s shot really well, so to get as many of those people back who wanted to work on it is hugely flattering.”
Bhaskar describes the multiple strands of Unforgotten as four mini-dramas that all come together as part of a ‘whodunnit’ mystery – and says that structure was key to its popularity.
“Any one of those stories could have been a drama in and of itself. Particularly for me, the story Ruth Sheen and Ben Bovil have about a mixed-race relationship with a lost child and then to discover she had been a racist member of the National Front – that was like a [This is England creator] Shane Meadows-esque story waiting to happen. You could have easily done six episodes on that. So it was incredibly rich in terms of the dramas within it, and the detectives weren’t the focus of the drama.
“We were there to enable those other stories to happen and to move between them – and, in effect, to be the audience. Traditionally, the Americans have always been really strong on plot, particularly in detective shows where the plots are intricate and fast-moving. The British have always been really good at character, and that combination of Unforgotten being a whodunnit but actually a character study I thought was an interesting new take on the genre.”
Bhaskar goes on to say that the most remarkable aspect of the show for him wasn’t the gruesome details of the murder or the shocking revelations at the season’s end, but rather the ordinariness of the two detectives leading the investigation.
The actor continues: “We were empathetic and sympathetic, as opposed to us being Sherlock Holmes or being geniuses in some way. That wasn’t the point of the story. There was a point at which I was reading the first script when I forgot I was auditioning. I just thought it was really interesting – I was reading it like you would do a novel. That’s testimony to Chris’s writing.”
A major theme of season two is society’s relationship with evil, with Lang’s script questioning when a good person becomes defined as a bad person, and at what point a child stops being excused for their crimes and is labelled as evil. Bhaskar explains that the new story is likely to fuel debate and disagreement as the new plots unravel towards the season’s end.
“When I was reading the script, every 20 pages or so there would be an opinion I either agreed with or disagreed with – I’ll be really interested to see what the public think of that because I don’t think that was as pronounced in the first season,” he says. “It was interesting to read it because, like with any good piece of writing, you think, ‘Do I agree with that?’
“That notion of the relationship with evil is, does an evil or heinous act define an evil or heinous person? For some people it does. If you do something that’s really horrible and evil, then you are a horrible and evil person. But other people would say it depends on the conditions. There’s neither right or wrong really. They’re both opinions and in that way, there are moments across the series where the opinion of what you would do or think in their shoes shifts and that’s really interesting.”
It’s those moral questions that provide added tension to Cassie and Sunny’s relationship as they often reveal differences of opinion, making their partnership more challenging than in season one.
The same can’t be said for Bhaskar and Walker’s relationship off-screen, however, as the actor admits he “absolutely adores” his co-star, whose other credits include River, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey.
He reveals: “When we did the first season, there was a point when she said to me, ‘We’re surrounded by Tom Courtenay, Gemma Jones, Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve, Ruth Sheen – this is incredible.’ And to me, she was part of them! So I’m surrounded by them and her.
“There’s a wonderful feeling when you admire somebody and you meet them and you just adore them as well for who they are as a person, so I don’t think I could love her any more than I do. The weird thing about chemistry is I can’t tell if it’s there or not. I can’t be objective about it, but a lot of people seem to think it was there and all I do know is she’s great, I adore her and we really get on. So working with her is incredibly easy.
“She is one of the most instinctive actresses I have ever seen and it’s great to be in scenes with because she absolutely owns the words in a way that doesn’t seem like she’s just remembered them off a page, and that’s because with her sense of timing, her instincts about how to play it, nuance and everything else.”
Bhaskar is now relishing the time he will be spending on the set of feature-film sequel Paddington 2, and is also working on “various writing things and ideas.”
He adds: “I would love to direct a drama, I really would love to do that. I’ve done a little bit of directing that I really enjoyed. The writing thing I would love to do as well but it’s just harder because you’re on your own. But watch this space.”
The party’s just getting started inside London’s most glamorous bomb shelter – but, as DQ discovers, all might not be as it seems behind the doors of The Halcyon.
It’s somewhat jarring to see groups of people checking their smartphones while standing around in 1940s period costume. But that’s the scene between takes when DQ spends a day at the West London Film Studios.
It’s here that two stages have been transformed into The Halcyon, a glamorous five-star hotel at the centre of London society and a world at war that forms the setting of an ITV drama of the same name.
The eight-part show follows the staff and guests of the hotel in 1940 and, in particular, pits hotel manager Richard Garland (played by Steven Mackintosh) against owner Lady Priscilla Hamilton (Olivia Williams). The Halcyon’s cast also includes Kara Tointon (Mr Selfridge), Alex Jennings (The Queen), Matt Ryan (Constantine), Hermione Corfield (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Mark Benton (Eddie the Eagle). Produced by Left Bank Pictures (The Crown) and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, it was created by Charlotte Jones along with lead writer Jack Lothian. Sharon Hughff (Strike Back, Waterloo Road) exec produces and Chris Croucher (Downton Abbey) is the producer.
Early in the show’s four-year development process, its creators were clear they didn’t want to create an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ drama akin to Downton Abbey. Instead, they wanted to tell a story about the hotel’s owners and its employees, with the central focus naturally falling on Lady Hamilton, who gives up her country estate to move to London and run the hotel, creating a “total nightmare” for Garland.
“It took a good seven or eight months to find that point of conflict and really get it working,” explains Hughff. “We thought the show was about so many other things and, with so many characters, it takes a long time to develop because you have so many relationships, but that central relationship was the crux of the drama.”
Another key storyline involves a Romeo and Juliet-inspired romance between Lady Hamilton’s son and Garland’s daughter, whose budding romance causes more trouble for their warring parents. “Around them, there are layers and layers of other characters who all have their own intrigue and interest, and you get drawn into those aspects of the story,” Hughff continues.
“We always wanted there to be a mystery running through the middle of the series, so Richard Garland has a great big secret, which we learn halfway through the season. And by the end of the season, he gels with Lady Hamilton because she does something bad and he covers it up for her.”
The production crew constructed the hotel’s grand foyer with a sweeping staircase, a bar area and dance floor, a backstage space, a kitchen and several bedrooms. The front, rear and restaurant exteriors, meanwhile, were all filmed on location. Eagle-eyed viewers might recognise the front of the hotel as The Land Registry Offices in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, central London, while the same city’s Liberal Club serves as the restaurant.
Construction of the set took 12 weeks, with around 100 people working on the build at one point. Add in those buying props, dressing the sets and working in the art department and Croucher estimates upwards of 150 people were working on the production at its peak.
“The Second World War is such a rich tapestry of story,” he says. “From our costume team [led by Downton Abbey’s Anna Mary Scott Robbins] to our make-up and design teams, everyone was just so enthused when we started it, because it’s such an amazing period.
“We talked a lot about The West Wing when we were designing the set and, because everything’s connected, you can do these great walk-and-talks where you go from the foyer to the bar to backstage.”
Croucher describes the latter area as The Halcyon’s “crowning glory,” where the tiles, corridors and staircases all match Blythe House, an archive building for the Victoria & Albert, Science and British Museums that doubles as the exterior of the rear of the hotel.
“There are these amazing corridors and staircases so we can constantly make the world feel bigger,” he says. “We designed it so you can have characters in the bar and then they move backstage and then come into the front of house, so there’s constant movement.
“We’re lucky because the studio is quite long. You know when you’re in a hotel and the corridors just go on forever? That’s what we wanted to replicate. I also love that all the corridors are designed to enable us to show different floors.”
Meanwhile, a fully functional kitchen allows the camera to capture close-ups of the chefs at work, with real steam filling the air around them. And though it would have been laborious, not to mention expensive, to build 150 bedrooms akin to a real hotel, four bedrooms were constructed and regularly redressed to give the appearance of dozens of different rooms.
“Every room has several doors in and out and we can repaint them and put different furniture in,” Croucher reveals, adding that it took two days to repaint and redress each room. “All of the spaces are constantly changing. It’s a schedule nightmare because we have to be in and out of different rooms. But you really feel like you’ve got this grand hotel.
“In our minds, the hotel was built in 1890, which is why all the back-of-house stuff is quite Victorian. But it had an Art Deco revamp in 1920 and we now meet it in 1940.”
As expansive as the hotel set is, a quarter of shooting was done on location. One example is a visit to an RAF base where Lady Hamilton’s son Freddie is a pilot.
“As great as it is to all be in the hotel, ultimately you also need to see a bit of the war,” Croucher says, “which is why we show the East End Blitz and the RAF, because otherwise the world becomes too insular.”
Croucher and his production team met the challenge of recreating the Blitz by taking over some period streets in Greenwich to film the nighttime bombing campaign, which begins in episode five. “It was amazing to be able to shoot in those East End streets,” he enthuses. “Those are the challenges I love the most. Filming the blackout was particularly challenging because if you stand in central London now at night, there is a light as far as you can see. There’s always ambient light. We managed to control 50% of the lights in our area but cranes and the like have to be painted out in post-production.”
The West Wing wasn’t the only influence in play, with Hughff revealing that the look and feel of 2007 movie Atonement, plus music from HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Imitation Game (2014), also provided inspiration.
Indeed, music is a central element of the series, with original songs created for the show in the style of the 1940s. When DQ visits the set, the stage is ready for the Sonny Sullivan Band as the hotel prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Actor Tointon sings in the series, while award-winning singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum has written two songs for its soundtrack and fellow musician Beverly Knight also performs in scenes set at the Café De Paris.
“Music is really the heartbeat of the show,” Croucher says. “What was great about that period was everyone genuinely thought each day could be their last so the parties were even bigger and wilder and more extravagant, and we tried to show that.”
Behind the camera, director Stephen Woolfenden (Harry Potter) took charge of the first filming block, establishing the show’s visual style and a sense of how the hotel works.
“We wanted it to look sumptuous, elegant and sexy,” notes Hughff. “We have a bar and music and we wanted to make sure the parties were ones we’d all want to go to. We also didn’t want it to look flat and set-like. It’s hard when you build a set; you’ve got to do a lot of work to make it look like it has many dimensions, and the crew has done such an incredible job.”
Despite the creators’ aforementioned reluctance to compare The Halcyon to fellow ITV period drama Downton Abbey, it is hoped the new series could have similar longevity to Downton, which finished last year after six seasons. Launching in the UK on January 2, there is scope for The Halycon to run for five seasons from 1940 until the end of the war in 1945.
But Left Bank Pictures MD Marigo Kehoe says the similarities end there: “A lot of people say this is the next Downton Abbey but we didn’t set out for it to be. Andy [Harries, Left Bank CEO] and I have never done things that are just in a box. We’ve done Strike Back, an action-adventure series, and Wallander. It’s a huge breadth of stuff.
“We’d had this in development for a long time, actually, and what was going on in the hotels during the build-up to the war and the war itself is a fascinating topic.”
Croucher concludes: “‘London’s most glamorous air-raid shelter’ is a line we use a lot. Everyone knows the Second World War but hopefully the hotel will allow us to put a great spin on that. It’s a side of the war you haven’t seen before – the side where the party still carries on.”
On Wednesday, The CW announced that the fourth season of Reign, which debuts on February 10, will be the last. The news is no real surprise given that the show’s ratings have been pretty modest since launch. Season three averaged 970,000 per episode, which puts it at the lower end of the channel’s typical ratings. An IMDB score of 7.6 also suggests it won’t be massively missed.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Reign is a period drama that chronicles the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots in 16th century Europe. It is not overly concerned with historical accuracy and is generally viewed as a guilty pleasure. It is significant, however, in that it is part of a broad array of TV shows that have placed royalty at the heart of their stories. So this week, to mark the end of Reign, we’re looking at this sub-genre.
The Crown Netflix is reckoned to have ploughed US$100m into this exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9.
A second season has been commissioned and the intention is that the series will run for five or six seasons (though Morgan has not yet committed to such a lengthy run).
Victoria Vying with The Crown as the best royal series of the year is ITV’s Victoria. Written by Daisy Goodwin, the show has a similar blueprint to The Crown. Starting with the early life of the famous 19th British monarch, the show is intended to follow her through her life, with season two already commissioned.
The show did well in the UK ratings, with an average audience of seven to eight million on Sunday evenings. It has also sold well internationally, although it’s too early to tell how the global market is responding to the show. It will premiere on PBS in the US on January 15. Its IMDb score is 8.3.
The Tudors Michael Hirst’s epic series for Showtime helped kick-start the global trade in lavish, semi-fictionalised TV series about monarchy, power, aristocracy and the like. Aired for four seasons between 2007 and 2010, episodes of the show typically attracted an audience of around 700,000-900,000 for the US cable network.
The series starts during Henry VIII’s reign but doesn’t always stick to the facts. Explaining why, Hirst said: “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. And we wanted people to watch it.” On balance, he argued: “Any confusion created by the changes is outweighed by the interest the series may inspire in the period and its figures.”
US cable channel Ovation recently acquired all four seasons of The Tudors to accompany its investment in Versailles (below). Note: other series to have explored the Tudor period include the BBC’s excellent Wolf Hall and ITV’s 2003 miniseries Henry VIII. The Tudors achieved an IMDb score of 8.1, Wolf Hall 8.2.
Versailles Set during the reign of Louis XIV of France, this Canal+ drama rated well at home and has sold widely around the world. A second season is on its way and a third has already been commissioned, with production due to start in April 2017.
The first season rated pretty well on BBC2 in the UK and has been renewed. In the US, it aired on arts channel Ovation – which scored its highest ever ratings when it aired the first two episodes back to back (a combined total audience of 557,000).
Dubbed by one critic as the music video version of French history, the show hasn’t achieved the same critical acclaim as The Crown or Victoria, but it is praised for its high production values.
Magnificent Century Timur Savci’s sumptuous period drama was a big hit at home and also been sold into more than 40 territories. It did, however, receive some criticism from conservative elements within Turkey, who called it “disrespectful and hedonistic.”
The show, which ran for 139 episodes between 2011 and 2014, is based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was followed by Magnificent Century: Kosem, which jumps forward four decades to tell the story of a female ruler who began her life as a slave girl. This show, also produced by Savci, has sold well internationally. Season one of Kosem aired on Star and season two on Fox.
The Royals E! Entertainment’s The Royals is currently into its third season with an audience in the 600,000 range. This after the show averaged one million-plus for season one and around 750,000 for season two.
The show is a novel take on the notion of royalty, since it is based around a fictional British royal family. Elizabeth Hurley plays Queen Helena, a matriarchal figure attempting to maintain the family’s public image while dealing with a range of domestic problems. One of the key plot lines sees her son, Prince Liam, unexpectedly become first in line to the throne after his older brother dies. IMDb gives the show a 7.4 rating.
Mary: The Making of a Princess The Brits aren’t the only ones with a royal family, of course. In 2015, Network Ten in Australia ran a TV movie about Mary Donaldson, a young Australian woman who married into the Danish royal family after a chance meeting at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The show, produced by FremantleMedia, got a meagre 6.1 rating on IMDb and mixed reviews, but actually rated well with around a million viewers.
Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne: Historical royal dramas are popular for a few reasons. One is that they are less politically sensitive than stories about current royals. Another is that it is easier to fictionalise a dead royal’s life than a living one’s. And not to be overlooked is the fact that there are more royal families to work with, since a few of them have ceased to exist.
In this lavish production, for example, the focus is on the love story between the son of Frederick III and the daughter of the Duke Of Burgundy in the 1400s. Budgeted at around €16m (US$17m), it is a coproduction between MR Film, Beta Film, ORF and ZDF.
The Queen’s Sister As Mark Lawson observed in an article in UK newspaper The Guardian last year, TV producers tend to take a slightly deferential look at recent royals, saving the controversy for long-dead monarchs (notably Henry VIII). One slight exception to this rule is the Queen’s late sister Margaret, who is generally portrayed in the media as something of a hedonist.
In 2006, Channel 4 told her story in a biopic entitled The Queen’s Sister, with Lucy Cohu as Margaret. Critics were divided over the show, some calling it satirical, others tawdry. It secured a number of Bafta nomination and aired on BBC America. See Lawson’s article here.
Charles II: The Power and The Passion A good example of how historic royals are fair game, this BBC production looks at the feckless and lazy side of this 17th century British monarch, restored to the throne after the death of his father’s nemesis Oliver Cromwell.
Written by Adrian Hodges and starring Rufus Sewell, the show does make an attempt to be historically accurate, relying to some extent on Antonia Fraser’s book Charles II. The show aired in the US and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. IMDb gives it a rating of 7.6.
From Doctor Who’s companion to Queen Victoria, Jenna Coleman tells DQ about her decision to leave the Tardis and take the lead in ITV period drama Victoria. Ahead of its second season in 2017, she tells DQ editor Michael Pickard about how she gets into character, the challenges of making the show and what viewers can expect in future episodes.
One of the UK’s most popular dramas, Call the Midwife, has been renewed for three more seasons. The feel-good show, created by Neal Street Productions for BBC1, launched in 2012 and has so far run for five seasons. The new commission means three more lots of eight episodes as well as the bonus of three Christmas specials.
Commenting on the BBC’s heavyweight backing for the show, which reflects a trend in TV towards multi-series commissions, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “I’m privileged to have Britain’s most popular drama series on BBC1, and this new three-series commission underlines our commitment. Call the Midwife continues to raise the bar with each series and is really valued by audiences. The quality and ambition of the storytelling is credit to the excellence of writer Heidi Thomas, who has brought the show into the 1960s with a diverse range of subjects.”
To date, the show has attracted an average of around 10 million viewers per episode each season. So far it has been rooted in the 1950s but will now tackle the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Heidi Thomas, creator, writer and executive producer of the show, said: “In the 1960s Britain was a country fizzing with change and challenge, and there is so much rich material – medical, social and emotional – to be explored. We have now delivered well over 100 babies on screen and, like those babies, the stories keep on coming!”
Interestingly, the recommission comes at a time when more and more executives in the industry are calling for entertaining, feel-good dramas. ITV director of TV Kevin Lygo recently told the audience at a Bafta event in the UK that he wanted to see more “happy, life-affirming dramas,” adding: “I’m a bit tired of endless murders where in the first five minutes someone, always a woman or a child, is abducted, raped, knifed, killed or bludgeoned.”
Networks that have invested in feel-good shows have generally secured strong ratings. ITV, for example, enjoyed success with The Durrells, which Lygo said “was a positive thing, a happy, well-made, brilliantly performed show – perfect for Sunday evening.”
His network has recommissioned The Durrells and is also about to launch another feel-good show called The Good Karma Hospital. Produced by Tiger Aspect, the programme is set in a coastal town in tropical South India. It follows the story of a British-Asian junior doctor who arrives at the run-down Good Karma Hospital to join a dedicated team of over-worked medics.
The feel-good factor is also producing some positive results in the US this season. The best example of this is NBC’s comedy drama This Is Us, which launched this year. Eight episodes in, the show is attracting a rock-solid 9-9.5 million viewers and is generally regarded as one of the best new dramas of the year.
It’s too soon to call this a trend but there are a few other shows that suggest the US audience is receptive to shows that put a positive spin on life’s challenges. In the comedy arena, we’ve seen breakout hits like Modern Family, The Goldbergs (both ABC) and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), while in drama there have been successes like The CW’s Jane the Virgin and TV Land’s Younger. The latter show, which was recently renewed for a fourth season, is the channel’s top performer with an audience in the 500,000 to 600,000 range.
Around the world, the emphasis still tends to be on crime series, with France and Italy in particular making their mark with hard-boiled series such as Spiral and Gomorrah respectively, to name a couple.
Indeed, The Economist went as far as calling Italian political drama “the new Nordic Noir.” But there is a decent array of international shows that can be categorised as feel-good, inspirational or life-affirming.
Keshet’s Yellow Peppers was a big hit in Israel before being adapted successfully as The A Word for the BBC in the UK, while UFA’s Ku’Damm 56 has been one of the breakout shows of the last year for ZDF in Germany.
Even the gloomy Nordics have series like Rita and The Legacy in among their crime noir shows. One of the region’s recent hits is Next Summer, a comedy drama that satirises the idea of the idyllic, cosy family summer holiday at a getaway. A hit for TV Norge/Discovery in Norway, Next Summer is now up to three seasons and is being remade for Kanal5/Discovery is Sweden. (There has also been talk of a Fox remake coming to the US market).
Australia’s contribution to the feel-good revolution is Seven Network’s The Secret Daughter, a musical show that stars former Australian Idol contestant Jessica Mauboy as a part-time indigenous pub singer whose life changes forever when she meets a wealthy city hotelier. Produced by Screentime, the 10-episode first season started in October and received some positive notices from the press at launch. Now six episodes in, it’s posting a respectable one million viewers per episode (with consolidated viewing included) and has been renewed for 2017.
The Koreans also manage to make space for some upbeat shows – the best recent example being KBS2’s Oh My Venus. In this series, a Korean personal trainer working in Hollywood returns home after a scandal involving an American actress. Back on Korean soil, he becomes emotionally involved with a former teen star who is now an out of shape 33-year-old lawyer – cue romance.
There’s a similar ‘coming home’ vibe to Fox Turkey’s In Love Again (Ask Yeniden). In this case, two young people go to the US (separately) to start new lives, but the American Dream turns sour for both of them. They meet on the plane home and, embarrassed to admit the truth to their families, pretend to be married. Fox has also enjoyed success with Cherry Season, which focuses on the tangled lives and loves of a fashion designer and her friend.
In the world of telenovelas, there has always been a steady flow of upbeat or uplifting shows such as Ugly Betty, The Successful Pells, Rebelde Way and the original Jane the Virgin. One title about to hit the market is Telemundo’s La Fan, which tells the story of a happy-go-lucky woman from a poor background who is a passionate fan of a famous telenovela actor. One day, a twist of fate brings the two of them together. At first, he hardly notices her, but before long he can’t imagine his life without her.
The big challenge with feel-good drama is making sure it doesn’t skew too heavily towards the female audience, with most of the shows in this area relying on strong female leads. However, many of the above examples have proved it is possible to create a cross-gender, cross-generational hit with the right story.
In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.
A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.
With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.
Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.
Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.
Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.
Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.
The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.
Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.
This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.
Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.
Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.
“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.
At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.
In a relatively quiet week on the commissioning front, one of the more interesting stories is that US network CBS is developing a prequel to its hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory.
Now in its 10th season, the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady-created show continues to attract an audience in excess of 14 million, so it’s no surprise that CBS would want to build on that strength.
According to US reports, Lorre, Prady and showrunner Steve Molaro will oversee the project, which will focus on the younger years of key character Sheldon Cooper. None of The Big Bang Theory cast will be involved in the new sitcom except Jim Parsons, who plays Cooper and will executive produce the spin-off.
Interestingly, rival network ABC has also announced plans for a spin-off from its sitcom The Goldbergs, created by Adam Goldberg. Unlike the CBS project, this will be a sequel as opposed to a prequel. The Goldbergs, now in its fourth season, is set in the 1980s, but the new show will be set in the 1990s. It will star Bryan Callen, who plays a gym teacher in the current series.
The spin-off trend is not new – think Cheers/Frasier and Friends/Joey. But it fits well alongside the TV industry’s growing reliance on TV-to-movie spin-offs and TV reboots, giving networks a promotional boost from the outset.
And, for the most part, it works well. In the drama procedural arena, for example, we’ve seen franchises like Gotham (ABC), CSI and JAG/NCIS (both CBS) prosper, while Dick Wolf has created an entire world out of Chicago-based dramas for NBC. More recently, there have been examples such as NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption and CBS’s The Good Fight, the latter an extension of The Good Wife.
US cable network AMC has also got in on the act with Breaking bad spin-off Better Call Saul and The Walking Dead spin-off Fear The Walking Dead – both of which have rated well enough to justify their existence.
There are also reports that Netflix is planning a Daredevil spin-off with The Punisher (based on the Marvel Comics anti-hero), while outside of the US the success of ITV’s Morse prequel Endeavour has encouraged the network to follow up with a Prime Suspect prequel called Tennison (coming soon). In Italy, Rai has also enjoyed decent levels of success with Young Montalbano, a prequel of its hit detective series Inspector Montalbano.
However, as the Friends/Joey example shows, spin-offs aren’t always guaranteed to succeed. And there has been a more recent example of an unsuccessful spin-off in the shape of Ravenswood, which grew out of Freeform’s hit series Pretty Little Liars. But overall there is enough of a hit record for networks to take notice.
There are a couple of reasons why they seem to stick. One is that spin-offs often centre on actor/character combinations that the audience still loves – unlike TV reboots where the audience is being asked to like something that was popular 20 to 30 years ago. Another is that they are generally written by the same team that created the original, so there is a continuation of tone that audiences connect with. Again, expecting a new creative team to run with something that is decades old is not a simple process.
Prequels, of course, require the audience to accept a new actor or actress in the central role. But there is something inherently appealing about seeing the youthful back story of a mature character you’ve grown to love over several seasons. Besides, the time gap from original series to spin-off is usually shorter than the kind of TV reboots we’ve witnessed in the last few years.
In fact, the hit rate on spin-offs is such that networks would be foolish not to at least consider them. Is there any reason, for example, why ABC would not consider some kind of extension of Modern Family? Imagine a young Phil Dunphy at college – the only downside here being the likelihood of getting anyone to live up to the high standards set by actor Ty Burrell. Or what about a Game of Thrones prequel? It will be a major surprise if HBO lets its biggest franchise go without trying to create a follow-up.
Returning briefly to the subject of comedy, there are also reports this week that NBC is developing a US remake of UK comedy Pulling, which first aired on BBC3. The original show was written by Sharon Horgan and Denis Kelly, who are attached to the US adaptation as exec producers.
Actor/writer Horgan is already well known to the US market having written HBO comedy Divorce, which has Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role. She was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe, alongside Rob Delaney (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series).
Also this week, pundits are predicting that ABC’s legal drama Conviction is destined for cancellation. The first season of the show, which stars Hayley Atwell, has been limited to 13 episodes, which doesn’t augur well.
However, this setback doesn’t seem to have reduced US network interest in legal subject matter. CBS, for example, is developing a drama about a US senator who withdraws from office to join his brother’s private-investigation law firm, unearthing the truth in high-profile and top-secret cases.
In other stories this week, Glee star Darren Criss is working with Fox on a new project called Royalties. According to Entertainment Weekly, Royalties is a “workplace comedy detailing the unseen, unsung, and unglamorous heroes behind the pop stars – the producers and songwriters whose day job it is to crank out hits. Sometimes it’s sexy, but most of the time it’s just like every other workplace: day-to-day minutiae, office politics, and clashing personalities. Royalties is about a small publishing company, Royalty Music, and a one-hit wonder who returns to the fold in the hopes of making it big again.”
Fox is also trying to get into the vampire scripted series business. This week it ordered a pilot based on Justin Cronin’s boot trilogy The Passage.
Away from US drama, Netflix has acquired the upcoming second season of Fauda, a hard-hitting Israeli political thriller that follows a unit of the Israeli army working undercover in Palestine. The global SVoD platform has also picked up the show’s first season, which initially aired on cable broadcaster Yes last year.
Following up on last week’s column about Nordic drama, this week has seen UK-based SVoD platform Walter Presents pick up Valkyrien from distributor About Premium Content.
The eight-part series, produced by Tordenfilm for NRK and written by showrunner Erik Richter Strand (Occupied), revolves around an illegal hospital hidden in an Oslo underground station. It tells the story of a physician who fakes his terminally ill wife’s death to secretly keep her alive in an induced coma while he tries to find a cure. To finance his activities, he makes alliances with the criminal world and treats patients who need to stay off the grid.
In the UK, meanwhile, BBC3 has joined forces with actor Idris Elba on a series of short films that will bring established talent together with new writers and actors. Called Five by Five, the project will consist of five standalone five-minute shows that are set in London and question identity and changing perceptions.
Elba will appear alongside talent such as Nina Yndis (Peaky Blinders) and Andrei Zayats (The Night Manager) in the shows, which are being produced by Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures and BBC Studios.
The films are written by Cat Jones (Flea, Harlots) and new writers Lee Coan, Namsi Khan, Selina Lim and Nathaniel Price.
“I have spent time with these talented five writers and observed their storylining process,” said Elba. “The scripts are uplifting and incredible, and with this group of young actors now attached to star, BBC3 viewers are in for an absolute blast. I couldn’t be prouder of what they have achieved.”
Child murder and disappearance are common starting points for crime dramas, as series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, The Guilty, The Missing and The Five have shown in recent times.
This is no surprise given that the loss of a loved child is just about the worst thing that most people can conceive of ever happening to them.
All of the above shows are fictional. But there are also a few shows coming through right now that deal with real-life stories. One of them, which we have discussed in this column, is HBO’s upcoming series about the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till. Another is an HBO/Keshet coproduction about the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.
Real-life child murder is an especially shocking subject, so it’s clear that it can only be approached by television if there is a substantive point to make. In the case of the Emmett Till story, for example, the underlying theme is the role that the boy’s death played in the emerging civil rights movement.
In the case of Keshet’s drama, it is the protracted unrest in Israel and Palestine that informs the story. Without these bigger themes, it would be hard to justify producing TV dramas about such grisly subjects.
In the UK, a current example of real-life child-murder being used as the base of a scripted series is Little Boy Blue, a four-part drama for ITV about the death of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, who was shot in the back by a 16-year-old gang member in 2007.
Rhys’s parents, Melanie and Steve Jones, have given the drama their blessing and released the following statement to explain why: “We wanted to get involved in this drama because we thought it was important for people to understand what really happened – how close Rhys’s murderer came to escaping justice, and how in the end the simple courage shown by some of those involved in these events, and their refusal to be intimidated, led to the conviction of Sean Mercer and others involved in Rhys’s murder. The part Merseyside Police and especially Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly played in this cannot be overestimated. But beyond this we wanted to show the devastating effect the loss of our beloved son Rhys had on our family, and how the grieving process affected us long beyond the ‘closure’ of a guilty verdict. Though some may find what happened to us shocking, we think it is right to tell the whole story.”
The job of telling the story appropriately and sensitively has fallen to award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Jeff Pope. A former journalist who worked his way up through the UK’s factual TV business, Pope has written and produced a number of dramas rooted in real-life stories. Among these are Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, Cilla and See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
The latter, written by Neil McKay, was also made with the backing of the victims’ families and was based on two years of research – including interviews with detectives, relatives of the victims, and Moors murderer Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith.
Pope also co-wrote the 2005 movie Pierrepoint, in which Timothy Spall played the UK’s best-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint.
Pope received the Alan Clarke award at the 2015 Baftas, with Bafta TV committee chairman Andrew Newman calling him “one of the finest exponents of his craft.” Accepting the award, Pope said: “Writing is all about facing down the tyranny of the blank screen, but my message to all aspiring writers is that once you’ve hit that first key, you discover it’s really not so difficult as you imagined.”
Another new drama that deals with similarly tough subject matter is Damilola, Our Beloved Boy, a 90-minute production that will air on the BBC in the UK on November 7. This drama centres on the death of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in 2000, and was made with the consent and support of Damilola’s father, Richard Taylor OBE.
The film does not depict the crime that ended Damilola’s life, but goes behind the headlines to explore the emotional repercussions of Damilola’s death on his family and their quest for justice. It was written by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Levi David Addai, who calls it a story about “family, fatherhood and hope.”
Addai broke into the business via theatre, initially putting on a play at the Royal Court. His previous television work includes the E4 series Youngers, which follows a group of London teens aiming to become the next big thing on the urban music scene.
Next up he is writing a TV adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel Noughts & Crosses, produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC. Clearly, Addai has the right credentials to tackle such an emotive subject – and he is well aware of the importance of pitching it right. Commenting on the sensitivity of the subject, he said: “Albeit a huge responsibility, I am very determined to do it justice.”
Elsewhere this week, Channel 4 in the UK is launching a new talent scheme aimed at writers and directors from groups that are currently under-represented in TV drama –women, disabled people and those from BAME and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Called 4Stories, the scheme will give three directors and three writers the opportunity to work on a new three-part series of half-hour interconnected films. It will tell one main story from three perspectives and is being produced by Touchpaper Television.
The opportunity is open to writers who have not had an original single, serial or series broadcast on UK TV. Writers who have contributed to episodes on soaps, series or serials are eligible to apply but can have had no more than two hours of credits.
Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s off-screen diversity executive, said: “4Stories is a unique talent initiative that will showcase the work of emerging writers and directors who bring a distinct and alternative view of Modern Britain. Writers and directors play a key creative role; their voices have a huge impact both on what we sound and feel like as a channel, and how we connect with diverse audiences. 4Stories talent will be immersed in a development programme that aims to land [successful applicants] brilliantly into the wider industry post transmission.”
Rob Pursey, MD of Touchpaper Television, added: “We’re looking for bold, unique voices that can deliver ambitious, witty, fearless entertainment. This is an opportunity to find diverse talent and bring a fresh perspective to UK drama.”
As part of the paid development programme, writing trainees will participate in a writers room that will create the series. They will be tutored by, and work with, experienced drama producers at Touchpaper TV where their scripts will be developed. They will also be mentored by high-profile drama talent, and will take part in a bespoke training programme to run alongside and beyond the production of the series. It will include masterclasses, networking sessions, coaching, career development and access to key events.
The closing dates are November 14 for writers’ applications and December 12 for directors’ applications.
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.
There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.
The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.
Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).
The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.
And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.
Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.
For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.
As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.
Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.
Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision
Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”
Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”
In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).
The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.
Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”
Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.
Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.
Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”
Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.
“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”
White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.
Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.
There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.
Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.
Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.
Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.
The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.
Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”
The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.
Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.
Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”
As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”
All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.
Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).
Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).
The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.
David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”
Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.
MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.
This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.
Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.
The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”
Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.
The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.
Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.
Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.
This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.