Tag Archives: ITV

Sun, sea and animals

Writer Simon Nye talks to DQ about writing The Durrells, ITV’s hit family drama about a British family living on the idyllic Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.

For a certain generation, Simon Nye will always be known as the creator of long-running comedy series Men Behaving Badly, a series that defined the ‘lad culture’ of the 1990s.

In fact, the writer and author has his roots firmly in the comedy genre, having written other series including Hardware, Wild West, Carrie & Barrie, Beast and Reggie Perrin.

More recently, he penned TV biopic Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This, and wrote a 2010 episode of Doctor Who, with Matt Smith then in the lead role.

Today he’s still writing comedy, but The Durrells is arguably more dramatic and certainly more exotic than anything he’s written before. In fact, he wrote a BBC TV movie based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical novel My Family and Other Animals in 2005, before returning to the novel and its two sequels – known as Durrell’s Corfu trilogy – for the ITV drama, which first aired in 2016.

Simon Nye

Now in its third season, the series continues to tell the story of Louisa Durrell (played by Keeley Hawes) and her four spirited but unruly children who have left England for a new life in Corfu in the 1930s. It is produced by Sid Gentle Films and Masterpiece in the US and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

“I think it is our best season – I wouldn’t say if it was worse – but we’re in that sweet spot where we know what we do best and there are lots of stories to tell,” Nye says. “Corfu is still looking gorgeous.”

Nye is no stranger to adaptation, having turned his own Men Behaving Badly and Wideboy novels into TV shows. The second was known on screen as Frank Stubbs Promotes, starring Timothy Spall. He also penned a TV movie version of The Railway Children for ITV, as well as his earlier Durrells effort.

“We always try to have a story from the book in each episode but it’s getting harder so we’re branching out a bit,” he says of The Durrells. “It’s a balance between not inventing so much that it’s nothing to do with the family in the books and the family we know lived on Corfu, and the need to create stories that last the course.”

That challenge has been extended further in season three, with the episode count rising from six to eight. “Eight episodes is actually very different from writing six episodes because it’s a different rhythm, but it’s been great,” Nye adds. “Not that a fourth season has been confirmed yet, but I’m already writing the first two episodes of the new season.”

Each episode presents the challenge of finding a story for the each of the large cast, which includes Louisa and her children Larry (Josh O’Connor), Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and Gerry (Milo Parker), not to mention the returning Greek characters and this season’s new arrivals.

“Initially you want to come up with a satisfying spine for the whole season,” says Nye, who adds while his storylines are informed by the books, he also has to do a lot of legwork himself. “Leslie has a long story that runs through it and we’ve got such great actors that you really want to give them something they can get their teeth into, other than just looking pretty on the terrace. That’s the real challenge, in 46 minutes, to get everyone firing. The stories do move along swiftly so it’s a question of cramming as much as we can in without making it look ridiculous. I tend to start slowly and later episodes are easier to write.

The Durrells’ cast is led by Keeley Hawes as matriarch Louisa

“We try to have a grand plan at the beginning but you find in the early episodes that your characters want to go in different directions. You just want to have an idea of what’s coming up because then you can build on what’s there and sow some seeds for later episodes. But a lot of people don’t watch the whole season, so you have to make it work on an episode-by-episode basis as well.”

At its heart, however, The Durrells is the story of a family loving one another but simultaneously at war with each other, an idea that has served as the framework for the entire series. The story opens with Louisa taking her brood to Corfu in an attempt to patch up their differences, but the Mediterranean landscape only serves to highlight their individual and collective eccentricities.

“Who wants to watch a functional family?” says Nye. “It’s got to go wrong. Not that we’re teaching lessons, but you do learn from seeing other people screw up. Although it’s set in the 1930s, they’re quite a modern family. We can’t swear, being on television pre-watershed, but their feistiness comes across. They’re quite a handful.”

While the British family’s place in Europe is at odds with the current political landscape, Nye is reluctant to pepper The Durrells with references to Britain’s vote to leave the Europe Union, despite his own staunch anti-Brexit position. But with war looming – season three is set in 1937 – the drama does serve as a reminder that Europe is not a place of harmony.

“In many ways, they’ve done it all wrong,” Nye says of the family’s efforts to integrate into their new surroundings. “They’ve got friends but they haven’t really learned the language. The real Laurence Durrell learned quite a lot of Greek, and Leslie a bit. But they’re not adverts for internationalism at all. That’s how your average Brit, me included, would be. I’ve learned very little Greek, appallingly; I should have worked harder at it. But they’ve gone for other reasons – they were falling apart as a family in Britain and are trying to heal that.”

The show is based on a real-life English family who moved to Corfu in the 1930s

Writing every episode of the series means Nye has little time to mix with the cast and crew, admitting that he spends most of his time trying to catch up with the production schedule instead of hanging around on set. “Especially with eight episodes, you’re trying to make sure you deliver them on time,” he says. But he hasn’t yet reached a point where he wants to bring other writers onto the series.

“Most writers, if they’ve got the energy and the time, would prefer to write everything themselves because it’s your own voice and, also, if somebody’s else’s episode goes wrong because they’re not as used to the characters as I am, you spend a lot of time fixing it. So as long as I can, I’ll try to write them all. But the principle of team writing is a good one and we want some of the American action and long-running series. We should be embracing that more because with a hit series, you want to be offered lots of episodes.”

Unsurprisingly, one of biggest challenges on the series is filming with the many animals that make up budding naturalist Gerry’s expanding menagerie, with the third season introducing a sloth and flamingos, which Nye says make pelicans look positively professional.

They’re the source of many jokes, however, which adds to the light-hearted nature of the series. “It’s got lots of jokes in it because that’s often the way families relate to each other, especially that family, which is full of lively minds,” Nye explains. “So humour is often the way they get through the day. When I first started doing comedy I thought you didn’t need to bother with a plot, and I quickly learned that that’s a very poor way of writing a sitcom. And it’s even more true of drama that you need to focus on it. If the plot’s working, it makes the dialogue so much easier. You just want it to be credible.”

As The Durrells heads into the sunset of its third season, Nye says there’s still more fun to be had with the eponymous family beyond a potential fourth season. “It feels like we’ve only just scratched the surface,” he says. “They were there for five years [in real life] and Milo, who plays Gerry, is growing. There is still quite a lot to say but I hope we won’t outstay our welcome. The war is looming in Corfu and Greece but certainly we want to get them home and get to know them a bit more.”

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Family matters

British period drama The Durrells returns for its third season with more fun in store for the eponymous family. DQ caught up with star Keeley Hawes and the production team on the set at the world-famous Ealing Studios.

In the green room at Ealing Studios, we are surrounded by the most unusual props: vintage bird cages, ancient posters of beetles and butterflies, old hamster cages, lots of pressed flowers, distressed wooden shutters, an antique garden bench covered in ‘lived-in’ throws and cushions, and a period microscope.

You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes’ long-lost Hellenic cousin to work out that we are on the set of The Durrells, ITV’s enormously popular adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s bestselling memoir, My Family and Other Animals.

Scripted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly), this easy-going series set in the 1930s follows the trials and tribulations of the Durrell family – long-suffering widowed mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes), struggling novelist Larry (Josh O’Connor), awkward, gun-obsessed Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), embryonic feminist Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and budding naturalist Gerry (Milo Parker) – as they move from stuffy Bournemouth and strive to carve out a new life for themselves in Corfu.

In the third season, which begins on March 18, Louisa has resolved to renounce her quest for romance and instead concentrate on her family. But with Larry battling to complete his third novel, Margo desperate to find a new vocation, Leslie careering between three different girlfriends and Gerry continuing to expand his menagerie, Louisa has an awful lot on her plate.

The Durrells stars Keeley Hawes as Louisa

Ealing Studios is a place redolent of filmmaking history. It has been home not only to such recent productions as Downton Abbey and Beauty & the Beast, but also such timeless Ealing Comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.

But just why has Britain gone daft for The Durrells? Hawes, who has also starred in such acclaimed dramas as The Missing, Line of Duty and Spooks, believes the series has struck a chord because it appeals to a very wide audience: “I had an email from a woman recently. She told me that she sits down every Sunday night to watch The Durrells with her grandson, who is nine, her daughter, who is in her 40s, her mother, who is 94, and her husband, who she couldn’t get to watch anything else.”

The actress adds: “From the age of nine to 94, all these generations sit down together for this show. It’s something the whole family can watch together. That’s very rare these days because it’s very difficult to make it work. I can’t think of anything else that does that. This has captured everyone’s imagination.”

That impression is reinforced by the sense that Nye’s scripts have a dual effect. Hawes continues: “What Simon does so well is that fabulous Pixar thing of making jokes that work on two levels. He writes jokes which will go over children’s heads, but which make us adults laugh at the same time. So when children are invited in to these cheeky jokes, they feel very excited about it. It’s the same reason why we can all watch The Simpsons together.”

The Durrells, which is made for ITV by Sid Gentle Films as a coproduction with PBS strand Masterpiece and distributed by BBC Worldwide, also taps into a deep communal yearning for a mythical, more gentle and less threatening past. This instinct is perhaps fuelled by a desire to lose ourselves in a realm far removed from the horrors of the real world.

The show follows a British family who have relocated to the Greek island of Corfu

The scheduling also helps a great deal. As Britain is battered by storms and snow, what could be more relaxing than luxuriating in the flawless blue skies of Corfu? It is classic escapist Sunday evening drama.

Hawes affirms that theory: “The Durrells is one of those feel-good nostalgia shows that people want to watch on Sunday night before getting ready for the week ahead.”

But it is not just in this country that The Durrells has had an impact. It has also caused a stir in Corfu. Producer Christopher Hall observes: “The series has had a huge effect. British tourism [in Corfu] has gone up 15% since we first went out. There is a big spike every year just after transmission. On the easyJet flight from Gatwick to Corfu, pretty much everyone has watched The Durrells.”

It has not all been positive for the production, however. Hall notes: “Some tourist operators have been selling tickets to The Durrells Experience and promise a visit to the house where it’s filmed. One day, coach-loads of people turned up to look at our location. We had to tell them, ‘Sorry, this is a private house. You can’t come and look at our set!’

“Two years ago, we had signs up everywhere in Corfu saying, ‘The Durrells’, but we had to take them down because people kept stealing them and putting them on their own house!”

For the producers, there is one other problematic by-product of the show’s popularity. Hall, who also produced Critical, Dracula and Trial & Retribution, says: “The local hotels in Corfu are also doing very well – much to our cost. We say to the hotels, ‘We do a lot of work on the island – can you give us a discount?’ And they reply, ‘No, we can’t give you a discount because we’re full!’”

The Durrells returns to ITV this Sunday

In addition, The Durrells bears out that old filmmaking maxim: never work with animals. The creatures that make up Gerry’s substantial and ever-increasing menagerie are generally very well behaved, but inevitably there are still rogue elements.

Liz Thornton, who works as the animal coordinator on the production, reveals that the most difficult animals she has had to deal with on The Durrells are – quite surprisingly – pelicans. “Out of all the animals, you really don’t know what they’re going to do.

“They’re characters. They will suddenly take a dislike to someone, and that’s it – they’re off. All the animal handlers are standing just off camera. They try to persuade pelicans to do things with fish, but it doesn’t always work!”

The show has also thrown up some intriguing tests for production designer Stevie Herbert. She says her most demanding task is sometimes working out precisely what things are. “The agricultural equipment on Corfu is fascinating,” she says. “There is a guy in the village whose house is like an agricultural museum. You look at an implement and think, ‘What is that?’ They’re uniquely Corfu.

“A lot of it is to do with collecting olives. There are many strange tools you wouldn’t even think of. There are specific baskets that taper down according to the size of the donkey carrying it. Greece was built by donkeys.”

For all the challenges, the cast and crew have clearly relished working on the Greek island. Herbert speaks for everyone on The Durrells when she declares: “Corfu is so beautiful. The sun and the sea and the scenery are all amazing.

“Scrape back the modern world and the old Corfu is still there, just beneath the surface. Terrapins leap in the river, bask in the sun and cross the road at their own pace – they even have road signs warning drivers about that.”

She concludes: “On Corfu, we have a breakfast club where we eat sandwiches, watch the sunrise and think, ‘Yup, another day in paradise.’”

It’s a feeling no doubt shared by the millions of viewers who tune in to The Durrells every week.

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A dose of Karma

British India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital returns for a second season as the eclectic cast of characters face new challenges in their professional and personal lives. DQ goes behind the scenes on location in Sri Lanka.

Setting a feel-good drama in a sun-soaked paradise has proven a fruitful formula for British TV makers. It’s been deployed with success in series from Death in Paradise and The Durrells to Wild at Heart, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and even Doc Martin.

Most recently it’s been a winner for ITV’s The Good Karma Hospital, which is back this month for a second season. Good Karma’s USP is that it’s a medical drama that offsets its palm-fringed backdrop with emotional stories from a run-down rural Indian hospital. There’s added comfort for viewers in finding familiar faces stationed in this exotic destination, including Amanda Redman and Neil Morrissey.

Set in Kerala in southern India, Good Karma is actually filmed in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka’s west coast to avoid India’s monsoon season. It’s based on the experiences of writer Dan Sefton, who also pens Sky 1’s Delicious and was the man behind last year’s Trust Me with Jodie Whittaker, recently renewed for a second season by BBC1. Accident and emergency doctor Sefton – currently taking a hiatus from medicine due to his writing workload – got the idea from working in a cash-strapped cottage hospital in South Africa after qualifying as a doctor.

The Good Karma Hospital stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

DQ is visiting the stiflingly hot set of the drama at the dilapidated Amarasooriya Teachers Training College, which has been taken over for filming. Though set on a busy main road, it’s surrounded by large gardens that bring a blast of colour to the screen, and on which sits a charming open-air shack that serves as the doctors’ café. Off-camera, it’s a different story: dozens of extras mill about, crew members carry cables and lights, and there’s a queue for the food service truck’s fresh coconuts. Ask for one and the man behind the counter takes a machete, whacks the top off a coconut and sticks a straw in it – not a common sight at British craft service tables.

Redman is a regular customer. “I find the best way to deal with the heat and humidity is to keep still and drink coconut water,” says the actor, who works inside the college in temperatures that regularly reach 40°C. “Between scenes I’ll just sit with my coconut water and a fan on my face.”

Redman is Good Karma’s biggest name, playing the outspoken Dr Lydia Fonseca, an ex-pat surgeon with a big heart and brusque manner. Redman is a fixture of British TV, having starred in At Home with the Braithwaites, Mike Bassett: England Manager and New Tricks, and the no-nonsense Fonseca is a character close to her heart. “I love her passion and her warmth,” says Redman. “She says it like it is, which, in an increasingly PC world, is very refreshing.”

Rounding out Fonseca’s staff is handsome-but-surly Dr Gabriel Varma (James Krishna Floyd), Nurse Mari Rodriguez (Nimmi Harasgama) and Anglo-Indian Dr Ruby Walker (Amrita Acharia).

Neil Morrissey plays Greg, who owns the local beach bar

As Greg McConnell, Fonseca’s long-term boyfriend, Morrissey has lucked out – his character owns the local beach bar, which means the bulk of his scenes are played out in an open-air set cooled by Indian Ocean breezes.

Season one dealt with Walker’s impetuous decision to leave her NHS job and emigrate to India, only to find herself at Fonseca’s cash-strapped hospital. To avoid a sophomore slump, Sefton and producers Tiger Aspect had to find new storylines for season two, which begins in the UK this Sunday. Adding to the difficulty of their task was the fact that a major character, Maggie Smart (played by Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan), died at the end of season one.

“One of the big decisions we made was not to bring in any new regulars,” explains executive producer Lucy Bedford. “What we felt when reflecting on season one is that we had this amazing core cast, and that the nature of show meant we didn’t get to know them as well as we should have.

“So, along with our robust stories of the week, we also wanted to give a bit of space to the serial elements of the show, with all the characters going on big journeys.” Dr Walker will explore her Indian heritage and Dr Fonseca her inability to commit, while McConnell helps Maggie’s widower, Paul (Phillip Jackson), through his grief.

To ensure the exotic setting remains eye-catching, new filming locations were found for the series, which is distributed globally by Endemol Shine International. Dr Walker has been moved away from her cottage in the rice fields into an urban flat in fictional Barco – filmed in Weligama, a half-hour drive down the coast. “We did it to keep evolving the visual palette of the show and to give Ruby a different connection to the world, because she’s not a tourist anymore,” explains Bedford.

James Krishna Floyd as Dr Gabriel Varma

Episodes three and four are set on a lush tea plantation (three different plantations were used) and the final episode features a full-scale Indian wedding with all the regulars in traditional dress. Another big set piece sees Dr Fonseca visit her former medical mentor (played by British stalwart Sue Johnston) on her houseboat, built on a private jetty on nearby Koggala Lake.

The benefit of shooting in Sri Lanka is the low cost of labour and materials that enabled the production to mount big set pieces. For starters, up to 300 extras per day could be hired and clothed, as opposed to 20 to 30 per day in the UK. “The production side is one of the great gifts about shooting out there,” explains Bedford. “Because construction is cheap, we were able to mount these sets we wouldn’t normally be able to. The art department built a full-sized replica Keralan houseboat for the finale, so we could tell an emotional story but in a stunning setting.”

The downsides to filming in the country, says Bedford, are that vehicle hire can be expensive and certain equipment is unavailable – a portable ultrasound machine had to be flown from in the UK. A few actors went down with stomach troubles, and a serious outbreak of dengue fever – a potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease – in Sri Lanka saw two crew members admitted to hospital.

But the benefits of filming in such an alien locale outweigh the drawbacks. Over drinks at their hotel, the actors enthuse and laugh about their encounters with Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Morrissey flashes photos he took of a snake that slithered into his hotel’s lounge and Acharia recounts how she found a scorpion nestled inside her yoga mat. Redman spotted a crocodile in Koggala Lake, though from a safe distance – the houseboat she filmed in had safety nets around it.

Bedford, Sefton and their team are busy working on storylines for Good Karma’s third season, should it be recommissioned. Along with developing the characters’ personal lives, they conduct meticulous research into relevant medical storylines reflecting Indian culture in a bid to provide an engrossing hour of television that has a satisfying emotional payoff but remains upbeat.

Morrissey describes his take on Good Karma’s selling point: “When you’ve got those vistas of Sri Lanka on your 55-inch Samsung, there’s a feelgood factor. At the same time, we show people having serious issues, and it’s good to know that people in far-flung places are having the same problems as you are having at home.”

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Back to the brothels

Set in 18th century Georgian London, Harlots is described as a powerful family drama offering a new take on the city’s most valuable commercial activity – sex.

The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner in the face of an attack from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.

Season two, set to air this year, sees Liv Tyler join the cast as Lady Fitz while Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), places herself in Quigley’s home and their toxic and deep-set rivalry is taken to a dangerous new level.

In this DQTV interview, Brown Findlay and executive producer Alison Carpenter recall the making of season one and preview the twists and turns that await viewers in season two of the series, which is entirely written, produced and directed by women.

They also discuss how authenticity was placed at the heart of the production, and give their views on the sexual harassment scandal currently sweeping through the film and television business.

Harlots is produced by Monumental Television for Hulu and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

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Braving the storm

 Marcella returns for a second season with the creative team behind the ITV drama promising darker and more challenging times ahead for the eponymous detective. DQ finds out more.

The first season of high-concept thriller Marcella, created by Hans Rosenfeldt and Nicola Larder and starring Anna Friel as the titular character, scattered some Scandi magic over UK broadcaster ITV’s schedule and globally via Netflix. Attracting an average 25% audience share and 6.8 million viewers, the show did the business for its network and its producer, Buccaneer Media, and is now returning for season two on February 19.

Rosenfeldt says that when he first started to work on the original show, he didn’t think beyond season one; the story had to be wrapped up and satisfying just in case the drama didn’t have a life beyond that first season. An obvious challenge when approaching the second season, therefore, was to deliver the ingredients that struck a chord with the audience the first time round, but to present them in a way that feels fresh.

The second season of Marcella sees Anna Friel return as the London detective

“We liked a lot from season one,” says Rosenfeldt, best known as the creator of Nordic noir smash hit The Bridge. “We are keeping the multi-plot and are dipping into London in different places with different characters and keeping the idea that, at first, you don’t really know how they’re connected to our case or our protagonist.”

Larder executive produces the series alongside Rosenfeldt and Buccaneer Media founder Tony Wood, with Cineflix Rights distributing the drama. She says defining the show’s USP was a key conversation when they embarked on season two, adding: “What we realised is that Marcella will have to go through an absolute storm emotionally and psychologically as she did in season one, and that she will also be investigating a serial killer. That is part of our brand.”

Larder says the case under investigation will be linked to Marcella because that is also part of the show’s DNA. “In some people’s eyes, that’s coincidence but for us it’s part of our brand,” she adds. “As long as we have good, exciting material which makes Marcella fight harder to get justice, I don’t think our audience will care that there was a personal connection to the crime last time too.”

As is typically the case for sequels, season two will be darker, more challenging and editorially bolder, as the story bar had already been set high in season one. The headline from ITV when talking about bringing the show back was that they were interested in Marcella’s character-defining blackouts or ‘fugue attacks.’ Rosenfeldt says: “We needed to do something with them. We couldn’t just have them appearing again and causing her trouble. What we’re doing this time is we’re digging further into the reasons why she’s having them.”

Writer Hans Rosenfeldt attends a readthrough

With his responsibilities on The Bridge now wrapped up following a fourth and final season that debuted in Denmark and Sweden last month, Rosenfeldt has written seven out of eight episodes while The Bridge co-writer Camilla Ahlgren takes one. He has also moved to London, is writing later drafts in English and has factored in a longer lead time for scripts.

“I’ve written shorter scripts this time around,” says Rosenfeldt. “Last time they were a bit long and we had to make choices in the edit to lose things. They were perfectly good and would’ve been great, but time didn’t allow it. This time we get more of what’s actually there on the screen, which is really good.”

Having set up the show in season one, director Charles Martin has come back to work on this new run, which has helped with the continuity of tone and style. However, a delay in getting season two greenlit meant many of Martin’s previous creative team weren’t available, so he had to assemble a new one.

“The important thing was not to try to reinvent the wheel but to make something that inhabits the same universe,” the director says. “We used a different camera but we used the same lenses.”

Nigel Planer (left) and Keith Allen also appear in the drama

Martin already had a template for the show. “The story here is reasonably heightened and, therefore, I didn’t want to do anything too arty. I wanted to do something that had its own look but didn’t feel artificial or forced. I wanted to do something quite straight because what’s not straight here is the story.”

One of Martin’s biggest challenges was that while season one was shot in the autumn, this time they were shooting in the height of summer. “We wanted to make sure the series remained saturated with colour, so there was a richness to it,” adds Larder. “We also pulled many antisocial hours on the unit to get as much night as we could. There’s an element of voyeurism to the shooting style, so even if you’re in a bright London square, there’s a danger to it because of how it’s filmed. Reviewing it in the edit, you don’t notice it’s seasonally different.”

Every noir needs an iconic coat or jumper, and the change in seasons impacted Marcella’s choice of attire, with the detective usually clad in her distinctive parka. “We chose the coat in season one because we wanted Marcella to have a really immediately identifiable silhouette in any dark shady place because we were going to be picking her out at night,” says Larder. “In a practical sense, we needed our actress to be warm. Then, in turn, it became something she worked with, performed with.” This season Marcella’s coat is different but, apparently, just as good.

While initially Rosenfeldt wasn’t looking much further than making season one a hit, he says this time he’s already thinking about season three. “We are setting up for season three at the end of two,” he says. “Season two will still be a very good standalone but, if season three happens, we know exactly what we want to do with it.”

The term ‘difficult second album’ is well known in the music industry and similarly in TV there’s always going to be pressure to live up to the success of the first season. “Our ambition wasn’t to just do what we did before, but to better it,” says Larder. “We wanted to embrace the bravery we had in season one when there weren’t half as many expectations. What I think I’m most proud of is that the storytelling is even stronger and what Marcella goes through is even more surprising. So we’ve not lost our boldness. Boldness is our brand.”

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Head to head

ITV pits Adrian Lester against John Simm in Trauma, a nail-biting three-part thriller from Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett. DQ visits the set to speak to the writer and producer Catherine Oldfield.

Launching in 2015, domestic thriller Doctor Foster quickly became one of the most talked-about shows of the year, with stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel doing battle in a taut thriller about a woman seeking revenge after uncovering her husband’s infidelity. Season two put viewers through the wringer once again when it aired on BBC1 last year.

Mike Bartlett

Before then, however, screenwriter and playwright Mike Bartlett had started working on the idea behind Trauma, a three-part drama airing on consecutive nights on UK broadcaster ITV from Monday. Using a hospital trauma centre as its backdrop, the story is about what happens when you place your trust in another person, only for something to go wrong.

Development was put on hold as Bartlett worked on Doctor Foster and continued his theatre career, but Trauma eventually went into production last year. The show is produced by Tall Story Pictures, directed by Marc Evans and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

It stars Adrian Lester as Jon, a trauma surgeon who is unable to save the life of 15-year-old Alex, the son of John Simm’s character Dan, who holds Jon responsible for Alex’s death. As he strives for justice, Dan begins to unpick the very fabric of Jon’s life as his own unravels in the wake of Alex’s passing.

“I looked at a trauma centre and we looked at the people who worked there and it was really interesting as a context, but then I didn’t really want to write a medical drama,” Bartlett tells DQ on location at Jon’s family home, a luxury four-storey house in Clapham, south-west London. “I wanted to find a story that was a bit different. We live in a world where you get a lot of choice and get to control things, but when you’re thrown into a hospital, you’ve got to place 100% of your trust or the people you love into the hands of someone you’ve never met before. So this story is about what happens when that goes wrong.

Trauma stars Adrian Lester as trauma surgeon Jon

“Once I had that starting point, it quickly became clear this is, hopefully, an unusual story of two protagonists and two points of view. We don’t settle and tell the audience, ‘this person is right.’ We move between the two, and that became an interesting form to explore.”

DQ visits the set on the 33rd day of a 35-day, seven-week shoot that included a two-day rock-climbing sequence. It’s here at Jon’s house that Lester, Rowena King (as Jon’s wife Lisa) and Jade Anouka (their daughter Alana) are filming with director Evans. King is clapped off at the end of the day, having completed her final scene.

Bartlett had been in conversation with Tall Story creative director Catherine Oldfield, who produces Trauma, about working together for several years. “We originally talked about doing The West Wing set in a newspaper room, but now he’s making it without us,” she jokes, referring to Bartlett’s forthcoming BBC drama Press.

Lester’s character goes up again John Simm as bereaved father Dan

That first conversation was almost four years ago, but uniquely, and perhaps owing to the short episode order, Oldfield was able to begin pre-production early last year with three solid scripts in place, ensuring the team behind the show was able to make decisions based on the whole story. “We have that very clear idea at the heart of it, which is these two men, two points of view and we’re not coming down on either side of it,” she says. “That’s been a really big touchstone to come back to. Every time I’ve had a question about it, to go back to that fundamental thing we talked about at the beginning was a way to keep everything on course.”

Bartlett describes feeling “fulfilled” by the more hands-on role afforded by both writing and exec producing the series, with his involvement in conversations throughout production meaning he didn’t have to put everything into the scripts.

Catherine Oldfield

“I thought of this like a chamber piece and what’s great is the production process feels like it’s mirrored that,” the writer explains. “It’s felt like a team that is absolutely on the same page so there haven’t been any surprises. Sometimes you get the rushes back and a scene you wrote in a lift is now set in a meadow. But it hasn’t felt like that – I haven’t been worrying that I’m not on set. Marc’s brilliant, and what’s really worth saying is you’re not writing it and wanting everyone to fulfil that. I love the collaborative process – the designers, the actors and everyone involved. You want it to be more than what you’ve written; you want it to be what you’ve written plus that again in terms of what people bring to it.”

With the opening episode of Trauma, Bartlett succeeds in his attempt to keep viewers guessing in terms of both what will happen next and, more importantly, with whom their sympathies should lie. The writer says psychological thrillers such as this and Doctor Foster are more appealing to him than traditional murder-mysteries or medical dramas.

“Audiences are so genre-literate that it’s nice to have a drama that is just a story, where you have to watch to find out what it is,” he notes. “We’re actually moving [between genres] because it is a medical drama for a moment and then it becomes a thriller and a psychological thing. Audiences love that now – they love finding something unusual that they can’t quite get a handle on.

Simm takes instructions from director Marc Evans

“Television drama can do all sorts of things brilliantly, but what I love to do is write dramas that are quite close to the audience and will get them talking, so that when it happens in their life, they will think of the show. Or if it has happened in their life, this is reflecting some of [their experiences] and maybe they’ll talk about it at work the next day. That’s true with this show. People won’t have been through this exact experience, but there are moments that will reflect what a lot of people have been through.”

Both Bartlett and Oldfield tease that Trauma could return, either as a continuation of the story that plays out across the forthcoming three episodes or as an anthology. Fellow ITV drama Safe House has already laid down a blueprint for single drama that returns with a new cast and story.

What’s certain is theatre playwrights are continuing to find their way to television – note Jez Butterworth’s television debut with Sky Atlantic and Amazon drama Britannia – but producers and broadcasters may soon have to look elsewhere for new writing talent.

“It used to be that writers started in theatre because that’s what you can do at school or in your home,” Bartlett notes. “Then when you got better, you got the resources of TV. Now you can make a film with a phone, so that route of theatre into TV isn’t necessarily where you’re going to find the new talent and new writers anymore.”

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Eyes on the prize

Kate Rowland, creative consultant at Red Planet Pictures and former creative director of new writing at the BBC, discusses the challenges of developing new writers for television as Red Planet seeks submissions for the latest round of its writing competition.

Kate Rowland

Television drama is more popular than ever; a creative medium that continues to evolve and innovate. As platforms proliferate and broadcasters ring-fence their drama output, it would appear that this is a great time to be a television writer. But how big a challenge is it for someone to break through? How do they make their idea stand out and persuade a commissioner to take a risk on their project?

In the current climate channels are more likely to focus their money and attention on writers they trust – experienced talent with a track record of producing drama that makes standout television like Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.

There is a genuine appetite for stories and characters that capture our imagination and make us look at the world in a fresh way. As a writer, you need to not only write a brilliant script but also to understand the art, the craft and the business of being a writer. You need to be relevant and resonant. In a complex market where drama is expensive, broadcasters have to balance the needs of the UK audience along with the potential of coproduction deals to serve a global market and reach international viewers. There is no doubt that it is a demanding landscape to cut through and get that first original commission.

Crime drama Broadchurch was written and created by Chris Chibnall

However, the UK has an incredibly engaged industry, where producers and commissioners recognise that television is a writer’s medium. They are interested in the next generation of talent and want to find ways to support, nurture and mentor writers who can gain experience from open competitions and targeted shadow schemes offering training and commissions on the big returning shows. You have to think what best suits you, look at the kind of stories and worlds you want to create and see whether you are the right fit.

Many of our most exciting writers have written across platforms, for the theatre, radio and film, alongside their TV output. You only have to look at the likes of Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster) and Jack Thorne (Kiri, pictured top), both of whom I gave first radio commissions to. Don’t pigeon-hole your talent or your ideas too early on, as online and social media have opened up a whole new arena of potential digital platforms for new drama.

Red Planet Pictures’ Red Planet Prize is a great example of how new talent can be uncovered by commissioners and producers. Launched in 2007, the prize is searching for emerging writing talent who can create fresh and inspiring popular drama content, and this year is being held in partnership with ITV Drama for the first time.

Dickensian was penned by Red Planet Pictures CEO Tony Jordan

The prize offers shortlisted writers a unique, ‘money can’t buy’ invitation to take part in a masterclass, giving finalists the opportunity to network with established television writer Tony Jordan (Life on Mars, Hustle, Dickensian) and ITV commissioners Polly Hill and Victoria Fea, who, along with actor Adrian Lester (Trauma, Spooks), make up the judging panel. Along with key executives and script editors from both Red Planet and ITV, the shortlisted writers will have time to hone their pitch and develop the series potential of their idea. The winner will get a script commission and development opportunities with ITV.

Previous finalist Robert Thorogood created the BBC1 smash-hit series Death in Paradise, now starring Ardal O’Hanlan and produced by Red Planet Pictures, which is currently airing its seventh season and has been recommissioned for an eighth run next year. Last year’s winner Tom Nash is developing his winning series, Percentages, and has been commissioned to write on the eighth season of Death in Paradise – his first professional engagement.

Alongside The Red Planet Prize, I recommend that writers keep across the different opportunities on offer in the UK from the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, as well as those promoted by independent companies. Recently Sister Pictures and Kudos North both hosted new schemes.

Red Planet Prize winner Robert Thorogood created BBC hit Death in Paradise

Professional bodies such as Creative Skillset and the British Film Institute are also a great place to look for advice and inspiration. These tailored schemes bring work to the experts where development is tailored to the needs and wants of that organisation. There is no better place than BBC Writersroom to find out about the creative business of being a writer.

Over the years, I have read thousands of scripts and I am acutely aware when someone has that indefinable thing called talent. But how that then translates into a commission is more complex. Personal taste also plays a part and affects the way your script is received. It might be well written but lack originality, compelling narrative or a big idea that makes the story complex and rich. Can the idea sustain more than one episode? Is it distinctive enough to engage an audience? Will anyone care?

There are always several questions that need to be answered, firstly by you, the writer, about what drives your characters and their story, and then by the reader. Be aware of the innovations happening on the digital platforms. Remember, content is king so think carefully about where your drama starts its journey and how you can develop it from there. Never underestimate the importance of a great calling card script – that’s what grabs the attention. Once people are interested in you, you can pitch them your killer idea. Be passionate and be thoughtful. Write what you want to see and have more than one good idea.

Submissions for Red Planet Prize 2018 are being welcomed until Monday, February 12 2018 via the Red Planet Pictures website. The winner will be announced in summer 2018.

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Cracking the Morse code

British actors Dakota Blue Richards and Lewis Peek tease the return of Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour for a fifth season, while also discussing life on set and the impact of the #MeToo campaign.

It’s strange to recall that, when it was first commissioned, Endeavour was intended as a one-off special marking the 25th anniversary of long-running detective drama Morse. As if its popularity would ever be in doubt: since that 2012 prequel, a further 16 feature-length films have aired on UK broadcaster ITV over the last four years.

It’s a sign of the show’s continuing success, with Shaun Evans taking the lead as the young Endeavour Morse, that the upcoming fifth season has been extended to six films, also proving that traditional ‘whodunnits’ like this and Midsomer Murders are far from antiquated in the face of competition from modern serialised crime dramas.

The new season, which begins in the UK on February 4, opens in 1968 with the recently promoted Detective Sergeant Morse facing changing times as Oxford City Police merges with another constabulary. His personal life also faces challenges as Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers) returns to Oxford, with many issues unresolved following her disappearance last season and Morse’s unexpected proposal.

Other returning characters include Roger Allam as Detective Chief Inspector Fred Thursday, Anton Lesser as Chief Superintendent Reginald Bright, Dakota Blue Richards as WPC Shirley Trewlove, Sean Rigby as Sergeant Jim Strange, James Bradshaw as Dr Max DeBryn, Caroline O’Neil as Win Thursday and Abigail Thaw as Dorothea Frazil.

Endeavour stars Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse

But Morse’s life is further complicated by the arrival of a new recruit, Detective Constable George Fancy, whom he reluctantly agrees to mentor.

“He’s not happy about that,” actor Lewis Peek says of Morse’s reaction to his new partner. “[Fancy is] like a puppy: he’s eager to please and a bit naive. He’s got really good intentions and sometimes things don’t really go the way he planned.”

Try as he might, Fancy’s attempts to win Morse over don’t entirely go to plan, the offer of a lunchtime drink in particular going down like a lead balloon.

“He definitely comes from a completely different background than Morse,” Peek says. “In the first episode, he tries to suss out Morse but he doesn’t give a great impression. Then he’s being very pally with the beers and the social side but he’s not being very professional. He doesn’t really know what to expect and he’s facing this wall of stubbornness from Morse that is very hard to break down.”

Peek and Fancy have a lot in common, not least their Devonshire roots and the fact they are both joining a well-established team. But the actor says his experience joining Endeavour could not have been more different from that of the character he plays.

“It was terrifying, I was very nervous,” he admits. “But I think the nerves at the start helped a bit with the character. He’s new, he’s meeting everyone for the first time. I’m as new as Lewis, to the job and meeting everyone for the first time. I think it helped.

Dakota Blue Richards as WPC Shirley Trewlove

“I remember reading the scenes for the first time and I had a good feeling because I saw a lot of myself in the character when I was at school, and that definitely helped.”

Peek is also clear about what separates Endeavour from other crime series. “It has this class about it,” he says. “The cinematography is exceptional, but what I love about the show is the human nature. It is a detective show but if you’re not caring about the characters, you’re not going to want to watch. It captures real human spirit and emotions, and that’s what draws people in.

As well as the ongoing changes facing the police and a murder to solve, the opening episode of season five is also notable for new arrival Fancy’s attempts to flirt with WPC Trewlove, who clearly isn’t impressed by the new recruit.

“He tries so hard and he has the best of intentions but he just says the wrong thing at every available opportunity,” says Richards, who plays Fancy’s potential love interest. “He definitely has a go at Trewlove but goes about it in completely the wrong way, totally underestimates her and she’s largely unimpressed by his advances. But as the season develops, Trewlove begins to see through his klutziness and takes him under her wing a little bit, whereas Endeavour is not making that effort.”

Richards, who rose to fame as the star of 2007 big-screen adventure The Golden Compass before appearing in Channel 4 teen drama Skins, is a settled member of the Endeavour team, having joined the cast ahead of season three.

Lewis Peek joins the cast for the forthcoming season as DC George Fancy

She points to episode six as her favourite of the forthcoming season, “mostly because it’s the one I’m in the most,” but reveals that viewers can expect to see a much more emotional side to her character.

As to whether WPC Trewlove is facing up to the challenges of being a female police officer in a very male-centric environment, Richards admits the battle for equality “is much more my fight than hers.” The actor continues: “Trewlove’s a hard worker but is acutely aware of the limitations being a woman will put on her. There’s one really lovely scene with Fancy where he says, ‘I feel like I’m invisible.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, imagine!’ She’s overlooked constantly, despite all her best efforts. But I think she’s come to terms with that and she doesn’t let it show most of the time.”

Richards puts the success of the show – penned by series creator Russell Lewis, produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment – down in part to the “fantastic performances” from the cast, and particularly Evans and Allam as the show’s central pairing, Morse and Thursday. “It’s also something about the workings of the human mind and figuring out a mystery that will always draw people’s attention, partly because people like to play along. Everybody loves watching a whodunnit show because they get to guess the murderer. That’s always fun, it feels more interactive.”

Returning to her comments about fighting for equality in the workplace, Richards is of course pointing to the ongoing #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns supporting gender equality and an end to sexual misconduct, launched in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and others that have subsequently rocked the film and television industry.

“We need to show support and understanding to everybody that has been a victim of it but we need to be very careful because we are increasingly relying on a trial-by-media, and that is inherently dangerous because that’s not how justice ought to work,” the actor explains. “We need to be very careful about the way in which these very serious issues are dealt with. They need to be dealt with with a level of weight and importance and intelligence I think that the victims deserve and the perpetrators deserve equally.”

The Thick of It star Roger Allam (right) plays DCI Fred Thursday

Richards reveals the issues raised by the campaigns were discussed on the Endeavour set, with the conversation highlighting how prevalent the problem is in the industry.

“Every single woman and some men I know in this industry have been victims of some form of sexual misconduct. Every single one,” the actor says. “The trouble is it’s so ingrained and we need to be very careful about treating just the symptoms and not the disease. I have experienced awful behaviour, really quite appalling behaviour from directors, producers, other actors. Generally the consensus is as long as you are not physically harmed, you just shut up and deal with it because it is so common. But if you complained about every single incident, no one would ever get any work done. That’s the problem we need to be addressing.

“But it’s the same with all the problems in our industry. Racism is inherent in our industry as much as sexism, as much as sexual harassment. We need to really re-evaluate the way we deal with these sorts of things and the way we work with each other. What needs to change is that we need to be able to discuss things more openly. The real problem has been how silenced everyone has been, and that’s what’s allowed it to persist for so long and to get as bad as it has.”

Richards concludes: “The really important thing now is people are being more inspired to come forward. Hopefully we can dig out the worst offenders and hopefully that will inspire discussion and change within the industry, but I think we have an awfully long way to go.”

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Family matters

Emmy-winning actor Archie Panjabi stars alongside Jack Davenport in espionage thriller Next of Kin. She tells DQ about taking the lead in her first British drama and explains why she thinks the series will provoke a timely discussion among viewers.

Growing up in the humdrum north London suburb of Edgware, Archie Panjabi knew she wanted to be an actress but saw very few Asian role models on television. There was a family in EastEnders and there was Amita Dhiri in This Life, and that was it.

“There really weren’t very many roles for British Asian actresses,” says the star. “Even in the cinema there was nobody from my background apart from in Bollywood films.”

However, things are changing, slowly, and Panjabi is leading the way. Having first found fame in films such as Bend it Like Beckham and The Constant Gardener, she is best known for her Emmy-winning role as the enigmatic Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.

But it is only now that the 45-year-old is taking to the screen in her first lead role in a British drama, Next of Kin, an exciting contemporary series set in the world of terrorism and espionage. It is made by Mammoth Screen for ITV and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

“From the moment I read the script, I wanted to read the next one but it was the character of Mona that really excited me,” Panjabi says. “I’ve worked my entire career to get an opportunity like this and I think for the whole shoot I was just smiling away. It was amazing to get an opportunity like this. When I was younger all I dreamed of was having a small part on television; I never thought my career could take me to America or a job like this.”

Next of Kin stars Archie Panjabi as Mona

She’s still smiling when DQ visits ITV’s London headquarters shortly after the show has wrapped. Written by Vera and Indian Summers creator Paul Rutman and his novelist wife Natasha Narayan, Next of Kin was conceived as they watched the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.

Since then, sadly, there have been many other atrocities for the writers to draw inspiration from. But while sympathy always, obviously, lies with the victims of the attacks and their families, Next of Kin looks at the story from the other side.

Punjabi’s Mona is a GP whose family emigrated to Britain from Pakistan when she was two. Her older brother, Kareem (Navin Chowdry), who is also a doctor, still has ties to Pakistan but she is married to an Englishman, played by Jack Davenport, and feels British, as do her two younger siblings Ani (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and Omar (Mawaan Rizwan).

The story unfolds in both Pakistan (filmed on the Indian border) and the UK. The story begins in the former as Kareem is kidnapped just before flying home to Britain. Meanwhile, in London, as they wait for news of Kareem, the family witnesses the smoke from yet another terror attack on the capital.

Debuting in the UK on January 8, Next of Kin was filmed last summer in London as the country reeled from a series of terrorist attacks. They were filming not far from London Bridge when eight people were murdered by Jihadists in July.

Alongside Panjabi is Pirates of the Caribbean star Jack Davenport

“There was a weird energy on set the next day,” recalls Panjabi. “It felt a bit surreal. On one hand, we are using art to talk about a subject that is happening right before us, a subject we don’t fully understand. But on the other, people have just died because of this subject. It was odd and sad and I think it made us all reflective. It was a strange, sad time.”

In the show, it rapidly emerges that there may be a link between the kidnapping and the terrorist attack; what is unclear is how much Kareem’s son Danny, Mona’s nephew, had to do with each. What follows is a Homeland-style thriller but one very much with a family at its heart.

“It’s a timely piece; it really shines a light on the area of the families of terror suspects and I think it will provoke a discussion,” says Panjabi of the six-part series. “One of the things the show doesn’t do is seek to explain it or understand it, because it’s such a complex thing to understand. The focus is very much on what happens to a family when a younger member is suspected of being radicalised. How does that affect each member of the family?

“I do spend a lot of time crying on the show,” she adds. “It was emotionally draining and also emotionally challenging. Her brother has been kidnapped and her teenage nephew is suspected of something by the police. She believes 100% – at the beginning, at least – that he is innocent. She is fighting tooth and nail for him but, at the same, time she’s struggling to keep this big family unit intact. So it is traumatic for her, and playing her is quite traumatic because you don’t just want to cry all the time – you have to build up a whole different repertoire of crying. I don’t think I’ve ever had that opportunity to do something like this before.

“Every time I felt stressed I could hear my mother saying, ‘Well, you wanted to be a lead!’”

For Panjabi, the icing on the cake of getting the role was working with Pirates of the Caribbean actor Davenport, who starred in This Life – the show that inspired her so much.

Panjabi is best known for playing Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife

“I didn’t tell him this, he has no clue,” she giggles. “But it was one of my favourite shows. It was such groundbreaking drama at a time when I was just starting out acting, and I remember thinking how wonderful it was that the characters were so messed up, so flawed and yet so immensely likeable. They were always the kind of characters I want to play, even now. So working with Jack was kind of like a dream come true.

“He has this quality where he’s very strong and confident but he’s also very charming and not afraid to be affectionate.”

Panjabi is currently living in New York, where she keeps her Emmy hidden in a box, but wouldn’t rule out a return to the UK should more work arise.

“We are making so much good-quality stuff now in the UK that every American actor wants to come here, so it’s a very exciting time because we’ve really caught up,” she says. “I feel lucky to be part of both worlds.

“There isn’t very much difference apart from the budget. In America, when you’re offered a coffee, you’re offered coconut milk, almond milk… whereas in England it’s just milk! You also get a chair with your name on it over there. But other than that, I think the etiquette is pretty much the same; you have a group of individuals who want to make something magical and memorable.”

In the meantime, Panjabi is pleased that at an age when actresses were traditionally put onto the scrapheap, she’s going from strength to strength.

“People from my background say it’s tough for us but I think it’s tough for any actor, especially when you get older. Someone once said when you turn 30 that’s it, so I think I am lucky. From growing up at a time when there weren’t that many roles for British Asian actresses, I’ve found that I have been working pretty solidly so I feel very grateful and so very lucky.”

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Best friends forever

Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoë Wanamaker star as lifelong friends in Girlfriends, Kay Mellor’s long-time passion project about “women of a certain age.” The trio and Mellor reveal the origins of the series and discuss the changing attitudes toward older actors.

Ageism and the lack of roles for older women has long been a concern for actresses in Hollywood and around the world. Then when they do land a part on screen, they often find themselves cast as wives, mothers or grandmothers.

But a new six-part television drama from the pen of Kay Mellor is set to put “women of a certain age” front and centre. Girlfriends, which launches tonight on ITV in the UK, tells the story of friends Linda, Sue and Gail as they struggle with the responsibilities and inevitable changes that come with growing older, bound together by the same friendship they have shared throughout their lives.

“I wanted to put women centre stage,” recalls Mellor, speaking on the set of the series in Leeds, West Yorkshire in August last year. “I went to a seminar at the West Yorkshire Playhouse many years ago where a lot of women were saying they only ever play the nana or the mum and no one speaks for them. There was a need to give women a voice and women of a certain age a voice. I have written Band of Gold and Playing the Field that have put women centre stage before, but women of a certain age and looking at the complexities of their life and what they juggle. They are a sandwich generation looking after kids, kids’ kids and their mothers. We all know what that is like juggling things.”

Mellor is on a hot streak at present, having last year written Love, Lies & Records for BBC1 and executive produced Overshawdowed for digital network BBC3. She also wrote and directed a musical based on her award-winning ITV television series Fat Friends, which is now touring the UK.

Downton Abbey star Phyllis Logan plays Linda

ITV also embraced Girlfriends, something Mellor admits surprised her, explaining that she was gearing up for a battle to get this story of women “past their middle-50s” on air. The writer even expected the broadcaster to request the characters be aged down into their 40s, but that note never arrived.

“I really thought I was going to have fight for this one but it wasn’t that hard a fight,” says Mellor, who is also lead director on the show. “It’s been coming along at the same time as  In the Club and The Syndicate [Mellor’s BBC1 shows, debuting in 2014 and 2012 respectively]. They were always moving forward but this is my passion project. I sit and watch these guys and have a little weep and I have a little laugh. And I am thinking that if I am doing that as the director then I think, dare I say it, it’s going to be good.”

Girlfriends sits particularly close to Mellor as the characters and relationships at the heart of the story are based on her own friendships, with Linda in particular based on the woman who has been the writer’s best friend since she was three years old.

“We used to live over the road from each other, she is the most wonderful person,” Mellor explains. “I don’t think I would be the writer I am if it hadn’t been for her. She supports me in everything I do. She is a very special, lovely woman. She lightens up a room when she walks in it and she certainly lightens up my life.”

On screen, Linda is played by Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), with her childhood friends Sue and Gail portrayed by Miranda Richardson (Mapp & Lucia) and Zoë Wanamaker (Mr Selfridge) respectively.

Girlfriends is the latest drama from prolific writer Kay Mellow

The story begins in the aftermath of the apparent death of Linda’s husband Micky, as the three friends find themselves back together and facing their own problems, from money troubles, a looming divorce and the loss of a high-powered job from age discrimination, to juggling the responsibilities of caring for their grandchildren and ageing mothers.

“It’s unusual because usually you are tagged on as someone else’s appendage, whether it’s a mother, an auntie or a wife in the background. So it’s nice to be right at the forefront of it all and the men are the add-ons, as it were,” Logan says of her part in the show. “It’s lovely to have three women as protagonists.

“It was so exciting to read it, as it’s very much women of a certain age and it’s all about them and their struggles and their highs and lows, but at the root of it is their friendship that binds them together. They come to each other’s aid, they really do.”

Looking back on a career that has spanned roles in Downton, The Good Karma Hospital, Lovejoy and Silent Witness, Logan says Girlfriends is a refreshing change from the way television dramas are usually cast.

“It was always that men get cast and their wives are 15 years younger, and that’s still there, but it’s nice in ours because it’s the other way around. There is slightly more [opportunity now] for women over 50. People have discovered that women of a certain age are quite interesting and they still have a viability, a sexuality and an attractiveness about them. Maybe people are beginning to cotton on to that – let’s hope.”

Miranda Richardson as successful and intelligent Sue

It was also a relief for Logan not to have to wear a corset or any other period costumes after six seasons playing Mrs Hughes in Downton.

“Period drama is a different thing altogether,” she says. “It has a much more leisurely pace but to a stultifying point. This is fast, and it is fantastic working with Kay. I loved the script, and when she said she was directing, I thought it was fantastic because what better person is there than the person with the vision of what she wants it to look like? It’s brilliant, it’s great fun.”

Playing the highly successful and fiercely intelligent Sue is Richardson, who was keen to work with Mellor. “She has such a fabulous record in writing for women,” the actor observes. “She is humane, so everyone is a hugely rounded character, but she likes to see everything from the women’s point of view. She’s always cooking – she has about five things on the go at the same time.”

During the series, which is produced by Rollem Productions and distributed by All3Media International, viewers will see Sue face challenges both at work and in her private life, seemingly unaware of the life-changing events looming ahead. And the fact that her story and the events and characters in the series are all mash-ups of real-life people and stories adds to the appeal for Richardson.

“They are all amalgams of people,” she says. “I thought of someone the other day who made me think of Sue. There is high drama in the way she operates with groups of people. She is always on show but all of these people have vulnerabilities and they mask their vulnerabilities but you know they are there in different ways.”

Zoë Wanamaker completes the leading trio as Gail

Meanwhile, Gail deals with a mother suffering from the early stages of dementia, a jailbird son who moves in with her and her husband, and a child from an old relationship. But she is able to juggle her responsibilities with the support of her friends.

“Very early on, we make relationships with people in our lives so even if you don’t see them for a long time you pick up where you left off,” says Wanamaker. “If you have that kind of connection, it really goes on. You accept them for what you had together and what you carry on in life, and that way they support each other.”

While she admits hers is a part she wouldn’t normally have done, Wanamaker says she was sold on the project after reading the first three scripts, noting that the opportunity to work with Mellor and play a role not often seen on television was too good to turn down.

“Have you seen how many women are on television now?” she adds. “The last 10 years have been incredible; the American stuff has been all women and very beautifully written and there’s more in this country too, at last. Open the doors. I think it’s a very optimistic time for women.”

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Break-in bad

A real-life multimillion-pound heist was the inspiration for Hatton Garden, a new ITV miniseries about the elderly gang behind the ‘crime of the decade.’ DQ goes on set to meet the cast and producer.

Two well-mannered, smartly dressed elderly gentlemen are being shown around the notoriously impregnable vault at Hatton Garden Safe Deposit in central London. These would-be clients are very courteous and are wearing suits so sharp you could cut your finger on them – but appearances can be deceptive.

These well-groomed and seemingly sophisticated pensioners are in fact Brian Reader and Terry Perkins, a pair of ruthless career criminals. They are in the vault to scope it out in preparation for what would become known as the ‘crime of the decade.’

The Hatton Garden robbery, an audacious heist in which a band of superannuated crooks stole jewellery and cash valued at an estimated £200m (US$267m), caught the public imagination in April 2015.

Hatton Garden stars Timothy Spall (left) and Kenneth Cranham

Over the Easter bank holiday weekend, the gang of criminals led by Reader drilled through the 50cm-thick wall of the vault and made off with the swag. It is thought to be the largest burglary in English legal history.

However, the crooks were unable to resist blabbing about their blag and they were soon arrested and convicted. Despite the fact that they had committed such a terrible crime, the pensionable age of the felons continued to fascinate people. The press even called them ‘Diamond Wheezers.’

As such, it’s no surprise that this inherently dramatic robbery has attracted a lot of interest from filmmakers. It has already inspired four movies: Hatton Garden the Heist!, One Last Heist, The Hatton Garden Job and Night in Hatton Garden.

Now the theft is being given its first TV dramatisation in the form of ITV’s Hatton Garden. This engrossing four-part series is co-written and co-executive produced by Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue, Cilla) and Terry Windsor (Hot Money, Essex Boys). Made by ITV production arm ITV Studios with Jonathan Levi from Renegade Pictures acting as a consultant, it is directed by Paul Whittington (The Moorside, Mrs Biggs).

The show dramatises one of the UK’s most famous robberies

On the set of Hatton Garden, the aforementioned dapper gents, 76-year-old Reader and 67-year-old Perkins, are played by the compelling duo of Kenneth Cranham (Shine On, Harvey Moon) and Timothy Spall (Auf Wiedesehen Pet), respectively.

The series also stars David Hayman (Crime & Retribution) as 61-year-old Danny Jones, Alex Norton (Taggart) as John ‘Kenny’ Collins, 75, and Brian F O’Byrne (Little Boy Blue) as their mysterious and never apprehended associate ‘Basil.’

Meanwhile, the vault – complete with 50cm-thick walls, ready for drilling by the cast – has been meticulously recreated at West London Film Studios in Hayes.

O’Byrne, who has also appeared in Prime Suspect USA, Mildred Pierce and FlashForward, emphasises how the Hatton Garden robbery struck a populist chord on both sides of the Atlantic.

The actor recalls driving around LA, where he lived until just recently, outlining the premise of the drama to his family. “I started telling my wife about it. I said, ‘There was this huge heist in London. They thought it was going to be this crack team assembled from around the world, and it turned out it was all these old guys.’

All but one of the real-life Hatton Garden robbers were apprehended

“And from the back of the car, my nine-year-old daughter goes, ‘Oh, it’s the granddad robbery!’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Wow! Obviously, there’s something about it that captures people’s imaginations.’”

The production team would dearly like to have filmed in the real vault, but Imogen Cooper, the producer of Hatton Garden, explains why that was just not possible. “We’ve recreated all of it here [at the studio]. We will film in Hatton Garden, on the street. We will also use the actual corridor that comes out onto Gregory Street, where the gang’s van arrives and where Basil gets into the main building and lets them in through the side entrance. We would have loved to do more, but unfortunately they’ve now got works in the building, so we can’t access any more.”

The other reason the show could not be filmed at the actual location is that the section of the wall that was drilled is going to be exhibited in a museum – yet more evidence of the way this crime has grabbed attention.

However, Cooper continues, the cast and crew were able to go on several very useful recces at the original building. The producer, also responsible for Quacks, Yonderland and Horrible Histories, says these visits were very productive.

The series debuts on December 11

On one such trip, Hayman was even able to emulate what the slender Jones did during the actual robbery. “David did delight in slipping through the hole they had drilled when we were in Hatton Garden!” Cooper notes.

The drama also depicts the sheer hard slog that the crime entails. Spall reflects: “It’s about real graft. What you’re seeing are men getting tired doing physical labour. So if you turn the sound off and you just watch it, you think, ‘These are just poor geezers, a load of old construction workers, who are having to work in their 60s, down a hole in a vault.’

“These blokes are old and knackered, you know. So that is a big part of what you’re seeing in this process. And that side of it, I think, makes us intrigued. It’s old-fashioned, isn’t it? That’s the human quality of it because it’s not about pressing a button and just taking 10 billion quid off someone. It’s an analogue crime in the digital age.”

For all that, the producers are quick to point out that Hatton Garden, which begins on ITV on December 11, makes no attempt to glamorise the criminals. Viewers will be left in no doubt about the catastrophic effect of their robbery on the people who owned boxes in the vault.

Pope says it was vital to stress that this crime was in no sense “victimless,” adding: “The research threw up some fascinating detail and blew away many of the misconceptions about this story,” he explains. “It was not about a bunch of ‘loveable old blokes.’ Many box holders lost everything in the raid, and we reflect that.”

So, having played a robber for several weeks, does Spall think he could have made a successful criminal in another life? “Unlikely,” deadpans the actor. What criminal attributes is he lacking, then? A pause. “All of them.”

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Creative focus

As Content London 2017 comes to an end, it’s clear that talent is now in greater demand than ever. But while a host of A-list names attended the three-day event, delegates also learned about a community of new writers with stories ripe for adaptation.

In its fifth year, C21Media’s Content London this week was bigger than ever before, bringing together more than 1,500 people from across the scripted television business for the International Drama Summit.

Panel sessions covered every corner of the industry, from the challenges facing distributors and how drama producers are changing, to ever-evolving market forces, uncovering new sources of financing and the secret to working with SVoD players.

Speakers were drawn from every major company in the sector, including FremantleMedia, Banijay, Endemol Shine and ITV Studios. Commissioner panels featured the BBC, Channel 4, SVT, DR, YLE, Starz, AMC, HBO, Epix, YouTube and Netflix.

The Alienist star Luke Evans discusses the TNT show

Executives hailing from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil and Australia also took to the stage to discuss their domestic markets and their strategy on the international scene.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest draws at the three-day event, which finished today, was Swedish actor Sofia Helin, who discussed her career, the legacy of Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and new projects including Heder (Honour).

Helin’s appearance capped a line-up that focused heavily on the creative side of making television drama – and with good reason. As more and more money is made available to producers – through coproductions, SVoD players with money to burn and new funding companies ready to invest – financing is available to meet the high-end budgets dramas now demand. The talent attached to a project is now paramount, with the number of shows in development and production meaning actors, writers, directors and other key creatives are more in-demand than ever.

At Content London, Agyness Deyn, discussing her first television role, Jim Sturgess and Nikki Amuka Bird spoke about starring in six-part drama Hard Sun. Adrian Lester joined delegates to watch the world premiere of new ITV drama Trauma (pictured top), which is written by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett.

Wattpad Studios’ Aron Levitz takes to the stage

David Morrissey showcased BBC2’s The City & The City, Kim Rossi Stuart talked Italian hit Maltese Luke Evans joined a case study of The Alienist, which examined US cablenet TNT’s forthcoming period drama.

Writers and directors also taking part included Neil Cross (Hard Sun), Hossein Amini and James Watkins (McMafia), Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale), Marc Evans (Trauma), Harry and Jack Williams (Liar, The Missing), Jakob Verbruggen (The Alienist), Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper), Tony Grisoni (The City & The City, Electric Dreams), David Farr (Electric Dreams) and Jon Cassar (Medici).

In a separate session, Helin was also joined by fellow actors Alexandra Rapaport and Julia Dufvenius to talk about Heder (Honour), which they have created and executive produced together with Anja Lundqvist, another actor.

The focus on creative talent inevitably led to the subjects of packaging and when to attach talent to projects, with ‘the sooner the better’ emerging as the general consensus.

Netflix’s Elizabeth Bradley (right) with Jane Featherstone of Sister Pictures

Euston Films MD Kate Harwood revealed how the BBC snapped up Hard Sun before star names such as Deyn, Sturgess and Amuka Bird were cast in the lead roles, though commissioning the next series from Luther creator Cross was unlikely to be a difficult decision.

In such a congested market, talent is the quickest way for a show to make some noise. For most, however, there just isn’t enough to go around. That’s why it was encouraging to hear the Williams brothers discussing their forthcoming slate, which features series White Dragon and Cheat, both for UK broadcaster ITV and both coming from first-time writers.

With more than 10 years in the business, and being responsible for some of the most talked-about and compelling series of recent time, Harry and Jack Williams are now using their experience in the business to bring forward new voices – something broadcasters always say they are keen to do but rarely act upon.

In their bid to nurture new TV talent, commissioners and producers could also do a lot worse than sign up for a Wattpad account. The social media storytelling platform has a community of 60 million writers and readers, and the company is drawing data down to find the biggest hit stories and working with their creators and partners including NBCUniversal and Universal Cable Productions to bring them stories to screen. With more than 400 million stories uploaded every month in more than 50 languages, Wattpad looks set to become the next major player in the content revolution.

As Netflix warned that its seemingly limitless pot of money might not be enough to lure some series from emerging competitors such as Apple, Facebook and YouTube, talent will be more coveted than ever. In the words of Artists Studio co-founder Justin Thomson Glover: “You don’t know how exciting a project is until a script comes in and you have the talent and director.”

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Six of the best: Kay Mellor

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.

GBH
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.

Rita
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.

Madam Secretary
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
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.

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Still reigning

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.

Nigel Lindsay (right) plays prime minister Robert Peel

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.”

Catherine Flemming (right) portrays Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent

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.

Jenna Coleman has received widespread acclaim for her portrayal of the monarch

“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.”

The second season picks up just one month after the debut run’s conclusion

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.”

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Loch and load

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.

John Sessions plays DCI Frank Smilie

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 (left) and Fraser admit they had a hard time controlling their ‘giggling’ on set

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 is perhaps best known to international viewers for her stint as Lydia on Breaking Bad

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.

The Loch launches on ITV in the UK this Sunday

“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!”

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Battle of the brothels

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.

Harlots creators Moira Buffini (left) and Alison Newman

“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.

Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte

“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.”

Applying the final touches on set

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.”

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In her Prime

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.

Prime Suspect investigates the early stages of Jane Tennison’s police career

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.

Tennison was originally played by Helen Mirren (centre)

“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.

Stefanie Martini describes the young Tennison as ‘eager, naive and awkward’

“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.”

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Goodbye Broadchurch

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.

Chris Chibnall

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.

The third season of Broadchurch follows the investigation into a serious sexual assault

“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.”

Sarah Parish and Lenny Henry have joined the high-profile cast for the new season

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.”

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Just the medicine

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.

Michael Snyman (left) and Bill Eagles on set

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.

The show stars Amanda Redman (left) and Amrita Acharia

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.”

A scene set during the Holi festival required more than 1,000 extras

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.

The Sri Lankan climate proved challenging for cast and crew alike

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.”

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Checking in at The Halcyon

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.

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