Stephen Graham gives an award-winning performance as a man facing up to his haunting past in Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. Shane Meadows, the director known for This Is England, details how his own life experiences inspired the drama.
Best known as the man behind the This Is England film and its trio of TV sequels, Shane Meadows has a well-earned reputation as a writer and director who can deliver an emotional gut punch like no other.
So it should come as no surprise that his new series, The Virtues, promises to be just as powerful and affecting, touching on themes of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge and redemption. The show sees Meadows reunite with This Is England actor Stephen Graham, who goes straight from starring in season five of BBC1 police drama Line of Duty to leading the cast in this Channel 4 miniseries.
Graham plays Joseph, a recovering alcoholic who falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion when his ex-partner moves to Australia with their young son. Physically and mentally at rock bottom, Joseph withdraws the scant contents of his bank account and boards a ferry to Ireland to confront the truth about his childhood in the care system, a past he had gone to great lengths to bury.
After an arduous trip, he tracks down his long-lost sister Anna (fellow This Is England alum Helen Behan), who, after overcoming her shock and disbelief at being reunited with her brother, lets him stay at the home she shares with husband Michael (Frank Laverty). Taking on work at Michael’s construction company, Joseph is quickly forced to deal with long-repressed trauma when he meets Craigy (Mark O’Halloran), an outsider dogged by troubling rumours who recognises his new colleague.
Meanwhile, Joseph soon finds himself drawn to Michael’s sister Dinah (Niamh Algar), another character haunted by a deeply held secret.
The drama is given extra gravitas by the fact the story was inspired by traumatic events from Meadows’ own life, something he hints at when discussing the origins of the show, which he co-wrote with This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 collaborator Jack Thorne (National Treasure, Kiri).
Admitting the project had been in his head for some time, Meadows explains: “I’d been through something in my childhood that I didn’t realise had happened until I got to about 40. I got to the bottom of this thing that had happened in my life as a kid – I’d had fragmented memories. The sort of acorn, if you like, for Joseph’s journey was born out of what happened to me as a kid.
“When I discovered this thing, I sort of went into a place of trying to track down the people who had done it. I was like Columbo – but not a good Columbo; a sort of Travis Bickle-style Columbo. I was sat with my kids having tea one night and I’d just about tracked down this guy I wanted to find, and I wanted to confront him, basically.
“But I knew if I confronted him and, at any stage in that conversation, he smirked at me, I was probably going to jump over the table and bite something off his face. So I decided to ring Jack and talk about making something instead, which was probably far healthier.”
Meadows subsequently met up with his frequent collaborator to discuss the disturbing genesis of the story in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of a leisure centre. “I sat in a room with Jack and told him about this thing and said, ‘Ultimately, I don’t want this to be about me; it’s not about me. But I want to create a series where I get a chance to face somebody who wronged me.’ We [ended up] knowing we were going to make something rather than me go off and be naughty.”
Recalling the emotional meeting, Thorne picks up: “It was extraordinary. Just imagine two bald men sobbing. It was a real privilege to be trusted to be part of that – an experience the like of which I’d never had before. From then, it was just about trying to do our best with Shane’s heart.
“It felt very, very important and significant. It was an honour and also a burden, both things at once. You didn’t want to do wrong by this man who’s very important and special to me.”
Lightening the mood for a moment, he adds: “So yeah, that was the writing process – one of fear!”
With such delicate material, a heavyweight cast was always going needed to portray The Virtues’ array of troubled and layered characters. As such, Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Little Boy Blue, Save Me), another of Meadows’ regular collaborators, was the director’s choice for the lead from the beginning. And hearing the actor speak of his admiration for Meadows, it’s instantly clear there was no chance he was going to turn this one down.
“The experience is so overwhelming and it’s from a place of such purity and honesty and joy that, without wanting to sound wanky and pretentious, it’s not acting,” he says of working with the filmmaker. “You embody that character and that situation.
“Every single member of the crew, they’re so emotionally involved. They create this platform to enable you to play. The joy about Shane, without being disrespectful, is I’ve worked with a couple of directors who can be extremely opinionated about what [a performance] is meant to be and what it is, whereas Shane will take an idea and allow anyone to bring something else to the table.
“When you’re working with him, there’s no ‘wrong,’ it’s just looking at things in a different way. With how beautifully he orchestrates it and puts it together, these words just come flying out of your mouth.
“Shane was the first person to really have trust in me and to make me believe in my own ability. People would give their right arm to work with him.”
Both Meadows and Graham highlight the freedom afforded to the dialogue, with actors allowed to deviate from the script when caught up in the emotion of their performance. “There’s no script supervisor saying, ‘Ooh, where does it say that?’” Graham notes. “That doesn’t exist in this situation. It’s such a collaboration.”
On screen, this brings an added layer of realism to the drama as the characters’ lines never feel forced. Recalling a scene in episode one when Joseph talks to his son for the last time before his move to the other side of the world, Meadows says: “If you were writing it all out [not just the dialogue], you’d need something like 150 pages. But like in real life, there’s not that many lines. There are only two or three emotional moments, but they tell you everything.
“Sometimes when you write that on a page, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough information. But the great thing about working with actors like Stephen and the kid in that scene is they’re able to [pick up on] the subtext, and the things that aren’t said are sometimes the things that can push you back in your chair.”
A drama’s score is often key to heightening its emotional moments, and The Virtues seizes this opportunity thanks to music from celebrated British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, whose involvement in the project was seemingly meant to be.
Contrasting the show’s music against This Is England’s very of-the-era soundtrack, Meadows says: “This was always going to be much more cinematic – I knew it had to be a score, rather than a soundtrack. As I was on the cusp of having a word with my agent about approaching PJ Harvey to see if she’d be interested, a letter arrived for me from her, saying she liked my work and would be interested in scoring it. So I got to play it cool in the first meeting!”
The director and musician collaborated on the score in a somewhat unusual manner. “The whole thing was done completely mobile. She read the scripts, she wrote tunes and she sent them to me,” Meadows explains. “She would never put the images on. A lot of times, people will score and they’ll sit there [and write to it], but she just wrote it and sent it to me.
“Sometimes she didn’t know which scenes I was going to use it in. She sent me these incredible soundscapes and they really inspired me, so it wasn’t the traditional thing where I would give her a finished episode and she would then write over the top of it. It was a two-way thing.”
Although the tracks Harvey supplied were intended as demos that could be tweaked according to the final episodes, both agreed they worked perfectly in their original form.
Produced by UK duo Warp Films and Big Arty, with distribution by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, The Virtues launches on UK broadcaster Channel 4 tomorrow night following its world premiere in March at Series Mania, where it won the official competition’s grand prize. Graham was also named best actor.
While viewers will have to wait and see whether Joseph gets a happy ending, the journey to bring this deeply personal story to the screen certainly seems to have been a cathartic experience for Meadows.
“I first spoke to Stephen about this part I don’t know how many years ago. I kind of knew it was coming but I didn’t quite know the reason why,” he says, adding that it “didn’t come to fruition” until his aforementioned realisation of childhood trauma. “This Is England and The Virtues were the two that I knew I had to get out the door before I went crackers.”
Factual dramas are a staple of the scripted television landscape and can often be relied upon to bring in big ratings. DQ explores how these series are developed and brought to air, with contributions from the writers behind Waco and Kiri.
It’s a well-established fact that telling true stories through the lens of TV drama can work wonders in terms of ratings. Tanya Lopez, executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions for A+E’s Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network, says: “The right story can be a magnet for curious audiences. That feeling of ‘I can’t believe this happened’ is a real hook.” Beyond the initial thrill of recognising real-life events, Lopez says “viewers then really like to get into the detail of a story, to find out things they didn’t know or see a new point of view.”
One of the most recent true-life stories to roll off the Lifetime production line is Cocaine Grandmother, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Griselda Blanco, a highly successful Miami-based drug lord who is reputed to have ordered 200 murders during her reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a starting point for true-life projects, Lopez says she likes to have some IP to work with, such as a book or a documentary, but adds that Lifetime’s approach is not to take too much dramatic licence with its central characters. “The audience trusts us to tell the truth and we don’t want to deceive them. Where the dramatic licence does tend to come in is with the fourth or fifth lead characters where you might bundle a number of real-life figures into one composite. This can help to provide a frame of reference for the audience.”
In the case of 2017 real-life drama Flint, which investigated a toxic water scandal in the state of Michigan, “the story is told through the eyes of three women – two of whom are real-life characters that we had the rights to and a third who is a composite,” says Lopez. “That allowed us to draw attention to the issues affecting the people of Flint in the right way.”
Historically, factual dramas have tended to live in the world of feature-length biopics or miniseries. But if there has been a recent trend, it has been towards extended exposition over a number of episodes or, in some cases, seasons. FX proved this could work in 2016 with American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, a superbly cast series that won awards, achieved strong ratings in the US and sold in international distribution.
Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson, the tone of this Ryan Murphy-produced series was harder edged than the content on Lifetime. And for this reason it also attracted some criticism from those depicted in the series. In an interview with The New York Post, Mark Furhman, a police officer who comes out of the series in a bad light, said: “In a time when Americans read less and less and investigative journalism is on vacation, it is sad that this movie will be the historical word on this trial.” Other critics included relatives of the two murder victims, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, who complained about a lack of consultation.
These complaints highlight a potential challenge with fact-based drama, which is that there are inevitably going to be differing opinions about how events are portrayed. FX has run into a similar situation with its new Crime Story series: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (pictured top), which launched this winter.
As with the OJ project, there is a best-selling book at the heart of the project – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth. The book is generally recognised as well researched but has been dismissed by the Versace family as scurrilous. In a statement, the family said: “Since Versace did not authorise the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should be considered as fiction.”
FX has stuck to its guns, saying it “stands by the meticulous reporting of Ms Orth.” And short of a legal challenge by the Versace family, it’s likely that the only practical outcome of the dispute will be more promotion for both channel and brand.
So what draws TV writers to these projects? The potential for ratings can’t be ignored, but just as often it seems rooted in indignation that a story has not been adequately reported or followed up on by authorities. Nicole Taylor’s award-winning Three Girls is a compelling insight into the lives of vulnerable teenage girls, while Jimmy McGovern’s work is often an expression of the injustice that those involved feel. Recently, McGovern wrote Reg for the BBC, in which Tim Roth played Reg Keys, the father of a murdered serviceman who stood against Tony Blair in the 2005 UK general election. McGovern also penned ITV’s Hillsborough, a dramatisation of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football supporters died. This film has been screened four times since it first aired in 1996 and also laid the foundations for a new ITV production called Anne, made by World Productions (Little Boy Blue).
Back in the US, Paramount Network has just aired Waco, a six-part miniseries about the 1993 Waco siege, a stand-off between US law enforcement agencies and a religious group called The Branch Davidians that were holed up in a Texas compound. After 51 days, the stand-off ended with 76 people being killed. According to the show’s writers, Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the trigger for this project was reading A Place Called Waco, an account of the siege by one of the few survivors, David Thibodeau. That, say the brothers, was the start of a painstaking research process that lasted four years and involved interviews with participants on both sides, as well as months of listening to transcripts and examining forensic reports.
The end result was that “we uncovered a different story to the one we’d been hearing for years,” says John Erick. “Waco is such a seminal moment in US history but there is so little about the people who were in the compound – how they got there and what they were like. They are presented as mindless cultists but a lot of them were discerning, educated people. We wanted to get beyond the image most people have of Waco, which is of tanks rolling in to break the siege.”
Waco tells the story from both sides, exploring the law enforcement failures and the personality of David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians (played by Taylor Kitsch). While Koresh had his dark, disturbing side, he was a far more compelling character than the writers expected. “We went in expecting to find a crazy, malicious person, but he had a funny, light-hearted side that appealed to people,” says Drew. “For all his flaws, he was a gifted communicator and leader.”
A key challenge for the writers, however, was finding a way into the law enforcement side of the story. “Eventually we found it in the shape of FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner, whose involvement allowed us to provide a compassionate two-sided version of events,” John Erick says. “Gary ran negotiations for the first part of the siege and was convinced that any attempt to take the compound by force would be doomed to fail. But ultimately he was overruled.”
‘Why now?’ is always a key question in the decision to tell a fact-based story. In Waco’s case, Drew says the brothers were drawn to the project because the issue of proportionate law enforcement remains critical. “If anything, Waco seems even more relevant now than when we started researching. The breakdown of truth we are witnessing makes Waco seem even more relevant, because it was a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare played out on the world stage.”
Of course, one of the problems with fact-based drama is that writers are inevitably limited by the parameters of their subject matter. For this reason, there is also a strong strand of work that takes a fictionalised approach to factual scenarios. UK writer Jack Thorne, for example, has produced a couple of compelling pieces in this vein – National Treasure, which tackled the high-profile issue of historic sex abuse allegations against celebrities, and Kiri, which delved into the raw and emotive world of interracial adoption and fostering.
“My starting point is to explore stories I don’t know the answers to,” Thorne explains. “The issue behind National Treasure felt very tricky to me – because the police felt they had to put people’s names in the spotlight to encourage potential victims to come forward. But this created a presumption of guilt.”
Kiri started with another unanswerable question, says Thorne, arising from the notion that black children should only be adopted by families of their own ethnicity. “But what do you do about the fact that there are more black children awaiting adoption than can be placed within black families?”
Thorne says he particularly likes “talking to experts who are passionate about what they do and have a sense of what is morally right.” Some of this clearly creeps into Kiri, in which Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam, a social worker hung out to dry by the system because a judgement call seemingly leads to a bad outcome. Flawed and impetuous she may be, but most viewers will come away from Kiri believing the world would be a better place if there were more Miriams to turn to.
Thorne shares some of the Dowdles’ concerns about the dissemination of information, observing how “Twitter is sending us all mad with what it is doing to the news agenda. What I really try to do with all my stuff is encourage a discussion afterwards. TV is great at generating debate, and I love that.”
The importance of fact-based drama has also been evident in Australia, where a string of high-profile biopics have played a key role in helping the domestic scripted sector bounce back.
Recent biopics have included dramas about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and tycoons Kerry Packer, Gina Rinehart and Alan Bond, while on the way are FremantleMedia productions about movie stars Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John.
Interestingly, the Aussie thirst for biopics has thrown up a couple of other issues with factual drama – namely that good subjects can soon run out and the stories don’t necessarily travel well overseas. At a recent Screen Producers Australia event in Melbourne, Posie Graeme-Evans, who created McLeod’s Daughters, speculated about whether the industry had reached “peak ‘Famous Australian,’” adding: “Biopics based on the B-list… are not quite the same.”
And while biopics “play brilliantly at home” she continued, “time and sales have suggested that not all do quite so well in the overseas market.”
As British drama Kiri makes its US debut, writer Jack Thorne tells DQ about penning the four-part miniseries and his approach to writing, with upcoming projects including The Eddy and His Dark Materials.
Widely regarded as one of the busiest people working in television, Jack Thorne hardly has a spare moment. So it’s no surprise that when DQ catches up with him, the writer is in New York combining promotion of his four-part miniseries Kiri with preparations for the Broadway transfer of his West End play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Having worked on Skins and the Bafta-winning The Fades, Thorne is best known for collaborating with Shane Meadows on miniseries trilogy This Is England, as well as The Last Panthers, feature film Wonder and an episode of dystopian anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams.
More recently, he penned National Treasure, which sought to examine the fallout from a public figure being accused of historical sexual assault. But his most recent television outing is Kiri (pictured above), which launches on Hulu on April 4 and examines the disappearance of a young black girl (Kiri) who is soon to be adopted by her white foster family, and the trail of lies, blame, guilt and notoriety that follows.
Central to the drama is social worker Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), who arranges for Kiri to have an unsupervised visit with her biological grandparents, leading to her abduction. The series reunites Thorne with National Treasure producer The Forge and distributor All3Media International.
“It was quite stressful,” Thorne says of writing Kiri. “I was so happy with National Treasure and I feel very confident now in it in terms of what it said. So I was very anxious Kiri had something to say and what it had to say was something worth saying. The first draft of Kiri was one of the worst drafts I have ever handed in. [Executive producer] George Faber took me to dinner to say, ‘This is brilliant but a mess.’ He was being nice by saying it was brilliant but there wasn’t anything brilliant about it. Then started a long process of excavation.”
Writing Kiri was particularly troublesome because it was so personal, Thorne explains. His mother was a social worker, while he and his wife have looked into the adoption process, so transplanting those experiences and memories into a television drama proved to be a “scary process,” particularly when the transracial element opened up even more avenues to consider.
He continues: “All you have got to do as a writer is tell the truth but sometimes telling the truth is really tricky, and on Kiri it was. You’re dealing with a wasp’s nest of issues and that wasp’s nest is full of other people’s scars. Episode two sent me mad.”
Faber was also instrumental in helping solve the conundrum of the story’s structure, which shifts perspective between several different characters in a narrative method known as a relay race. “I thought about how to structure it and that idea came about, which is what Abi Morgan did brilliantly with [BBC drama] Murder. If I’ve got another show that can be my model, that makes me feel better,” he says.
Thorne says he works out a lot of knots in the storyline by writing through the problems, though he admits he needs to know the end of the story and what he thinks about it before he turns out a script. National Treasure proved to be an exception to the rule, however, when it came to deciding the courtroom verdict.
“I remember the moment when we realised [central character] Paul was not guilty as being quite late on, but we were talking about how we felt about him all the way through. He was guilty for a long time. It was just in that moment, going, ‘It’s a drama about someone who’s going to be found not guilty,’ and what that means and what that says.”
“In Kiri, it was about who did it and what that means. When it became clear it was about someone’s indignation that someone else wasn’t grateful for what they’d given them and that psychopathic anger inside him, we thought, ‘OK, that’s the truth we’re getting to, so how does every episode ask a question that leads to that ending?’”
Like National Treasure, the themes of blame and responsibility and the role of the media run through Kiri, so although it wasn’t billed as such in the UK (where both shows aired on Channel 4), the two miniseries form the first two instalments of a planned trilogy. In the US, it will air under the title National Treasure: Kiri.
“Hopefully we’re going to get a chance to do a third one, and hopefully [the link] will become clear,” Thorne explains. “It was always in my head as a trilogy of different things. Season one was gender, season two was race. Season three I know what it is but I don’t want to curse it [by revealing too much] and hopefully it will all join together in a way that makes sense for people. I’ve got a story but I’m trying to work out how to make it function.”
Work only seems like work when you’re not enjoying it, and that’s certainly the view Thorne takes, admitting that he takes on so many jobs simply because he likes writing. He points again to Morgan who, speaking on the Royal Court podcast, describes the moment she realised she had taken on too much work was when she had 14 projects on her slate and felt like she was constantly having affairs with each one, forcing her to strip back her workload.
“I don’t feel I’m quite in that place,” Thorne admits. “But I recognise the danger and it’s important not to overexpose. I’m also working out how, in an age when inclusivity is becoming increasingly important, to use my voice to make things better, rather than just propagate a world that is over-dominated by white men. I’m doing a lot of thinking about that at the moment. Visibility has always been very important to me and my logic has always been if I can get those faces and stories on TV, then I’m doing alright. I’m just working all that out.”
For television, Thorne is now developing The Eddy, a musical drama for Netflix with La La Land director Damien Chazelle, and the highly anticipated adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials triology of novels, first announced by the BBC back in 2015. Thorne came on board in April 2016. Season one, based on the first book, Northern Lights, introduces Lyra, an orphan whose search for a kidnapped friend uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, all set in a parallel universe where science, theology and magic are entwined.
“We’ve been together working on it for so long now. I’ve written all eight episodes of the first season and am rewriting them now,” Thorne says. “It’s been joyous so far, working out how to do it to make it work.
“There’s huge pressure. My job is to tell Philip’s story as well as I can. In doing so, I have to make decisions [about what to keep or cut out]. There are constant battles in how we tell these stories as well as you possibly can, but we’ve got a lot of time to tell them as well. Hopefully we can please everyone. That’s the aim but I’m tremendously scared.”
Multi-award-winning writer Jack Thorne chose The Commuter as his entry into sci-fi anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams. Here, the writer, director Tom Harper and stars Tuppence Middleton and Anthony Boyle discuss making the episode and the dilemma at its heart.
When it came to choosing one of Philip K Dick’s short stories to adapt for sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams, it’s surprising Jack Thorne didn’t choose one centring on time travel – because surely time travel is only way the award-winning writer can juggle the remarkable number of television projects to which he is currently committed.
Best known for his work on Skins, Shane Meadow’s This is England series, The Last Panthers and National Treasure, Thorne’s upcoming projects include The Eddy, Kiri and another Meadows project, The Virtues. He is also adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC.
On the side, he’s also written film screenplays for Wonder, War Book and A Long Way Down, among others, and has been brought in to work on the script for Star Wars XI. And if that wasn’t enough, he co-created and wrote the book for the awards-laden play Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Yet when the producers of Electric Dreams (including Ronald D Moore and Bryan Cranston) came calling, it was understandably hard to resist. So Thorne took inspiration from his own experiences when he chose to bring Dick’s The Commuter to the screen.
In the affecting adaptation, which airs as the third of 10 hour-long films in the series this Sunday on Channel 4, Timothy Spall stars as Ed Jacobson, an unassuming employee at a train station who is alarmed to find a number of daily commuters are travelling to a town that shouldn’t exist. When he makes the journey himself, he finds himself confronted with an alternate reality that forces him to confront his relationship with his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) and his troubled son Sam (Anthony Boyle).
“It made me think about my granddad, who was a ticket clerk at Euston and whose son was a paranoid schizophrenic and who ended up quite seriously depressed,” Thorne explains. “He couldn’t cope with having my uncle for a son. So when I was thinking about that idea, his ideal wouldn’t be desert islands and coconut juice, it would be a pretty town that he could walk through where everyone was nice. It was just thinking about the idea of removing things from your life and whether that would make your life better.”
At the centre of the story is a choice offered to Ed by Linda (Tuppence Middleton), who is perhaps best described as a guardian angel, steering Ed towards the town of Macon Heights – a place that doesn’t exist on any maps. In this seemingly perfect place, Ed finds the problems brought about by his son don’t exist – because neither does he. Ed then faces a decision about whether to live this new life or revert back to his old one, with his son back in the family home.
“I’m interested to know whether people think he makes the right choice, actually, because I think there is a logic [to both options],” Thorne adds of the dilemma.
Middleton admits her only previous experience of Philip K Dick was Blade Runner-inspiration Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a full-length novel. “I actually hadn’t read any of [Dick’s] short stories before doing The Commuter,” says the actor, who recently starred in the BBC’s War & Peace.
“I didn’t want to read the entire back catalogue of his short stories before we did this. I just wanted to concentrate on The Commuter. What I really like about this story is I love sci-fi that’s really rooted in reality and it feels like something extraordinary happens in a very ordinary world. There’s such a huge spectrum with sci-fi – it can be otherworldly, outer space, aliens, or just something very ordinary with something strange going on, and that’s the sci-fi that interests me the most and why I was excited to do this.”
In the original text, Linda is actually a short, bespectacled man. But Thorne opted to change things around for the television adaptation – “very fortunately for me,” says Middleton, who adds: “I felt like I had quite a lot of creative freedom with it. There wasn’t anything I was basing it on particularly. But we talked quite a lot about Linda before we started in that we didn’t want to make her either angel or devil.
“She was kind of this fairy godmother figure. She feels she’s doing something to better people’s lives but it’s debatable whether she’s doing something morally right. She’s offering a service she feels will make other people’s lives better.”
In contrast, Boyle based his character on something very real after speaking to a counsellor who had worked with kids with psychotic issues. “We spoke a lot about how they behaved and dressed,” he explains. “There was a lot about hats and keeping their heads low and their body language, so it was really useful to have the counsellors to speak to. It was amazing working with Tom and Jack because they just guided me through. It was an absolute joy. It was a bit difficult at times but Tom was just like a dad on set – if anything got a bit much, he was there for a cuddle!”
Harper, known for his work on Peaky Blinders and War & Peace, was drawn to Thorne’s study of one man’s breakdown, which he describes as “really emotional.”
“What really appealed to me about it, and I’m not a massive sci-fi fan, was that it was sci-fi through the prism of one man’s experience,” he explains. “The original short story is fascinating, it’s clever and makes you think, but it’s not such a rich character study, certainly. It was that human story that really appealed to me and how you would fight for the love of your son, despite the costs, for better or for worse.”
The cast and crew descended on Woking, Surrey, to film scenes set in the train station, while Poundbury, the Dorset ‘new town’ championed by Prince Charles, doubled for the otherworldly Macon Heights.
“We did nothing to it,” Harper says of Poundbury. “It was built very recently and it has a very artificial feel. It’s an ideal town, built to spec from a set of plans rather than having emerged over time, so it does have this strange feel. I think it will get less strange as it matures.”
Middleton continues: “It’s such an amazing place. What makes it so bizarre is all the buildings are built as if they’re period buildings, but they’re all new, so it kind of feels like something isn’t right. You can’t feel the history coming out of the buildings. So it does feel like a set, which really helped for those scenes because we’re in this unreal world.”
Thorne compares his work on The Commuter to writing a short film, with less than 60 minutes to tell a complex, emotion-filled story that the audience must be challenged by, yet not so challenged that its themes and ideas are incomprehensible.
To help him, the writer would often have calls to discuss the episode and receive notes from the executive producers, among them Battlestar Galactica’s Moore.
“I’m a massive Battlestar fan so working with him was very exciting,” Thorne says. “To be honest, you do these notes calls and get these voices – there was like 10 of them – and I think I knew which notes were coming from him but I wasn’t entirely sure. It was just these disembodied voices on the end of the phone. I got lots of clever notes from lots of clever people.”
While Electric Dreams populates a very different strand of science fiction, comparisons to another genre series, Black Mirror, which also started life on Channel 4, are inevitable. It’s interesting to note, however, that rather than dismiss any similarities between the two series, Thorne actively sought to put distance between The Commuter and anything that might make a Black Mirror episode.
“I was determined that it wouldn’t be a Black Mirror story; there’s no way this could fit into the Black Mirror universe,” he says of the Sony Pictures Television series. “I’m sure there’s some Philip K Dick stories that could very easily, but it was important to me that this was something that could not ever be seen [as part of Black Mirror]. Black Mirror’s not interested in stuff like this, so it was important it wouldn’t be. I love Black Mirror, by the way.”
It’s the ending to The Commuter that could prove divisive among viewers, as Ed faces the extremely personal decision about whether to fight for his relationship with his son or to continue life in an altered reality.
“Jack and I spoke a lot about it and we maybe even have slightly different ideas about what Ed should do at the end,” Harper says. “What I really hope is people take different things away from it.”
Thorne adds: “For me, it’s about someone who has, at the back of his head, a better reality than the one he lives in, and what it’s like to live with that and then what it means for that to become reality for them. It’s about the horrors of that.”
Operation Yewtree, the investigation led by British police into historical sexual abuse carried out by Jimmy Savile and other high-profile personalities, is now the subject of four-part drama National Treasure. DQ hears from writer Jack Thorne and stars Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters.
It was a 2012 documentary that first lifted the veil over the late British entertainer Jimmy Savile’s trail of sexual abuse across many decades. The revelations kickstarted a police investigation, coded Operation Yewtree, that examined allegations of abuse made against Savile and others, and went on to uncover similar crimes committed by other celebrities including Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall.
Four years later, a four-part television drama is exploring the fallout when a beloved entertainer is suspected of historical sex crimes.
National Treasure, which debuts tonight on the UK’s Channel 4, sees Paul Finchley, a much-loved, ageing comedian find his world shaken to its foundations after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. As he is taken for questioning, his wife Marie must decide whether to stand by him, while their troubled daughter, Dee, begins to question her relationship with her father.
Robbie Coltrane stars as Finchley, with Julie Walters playing Marie, his deeply religious wife of 40 years who has stuck by him through thick and thin. Andrea Riseborough completes the stellar cast as Dee, a recovering addict who is struggling to stay sober and be a good mum to her kids.
The project comes from writer Jack Thorne, director Marc Munden and production company The Forge, with executive producers George Ormond and George Faber.
Thorne recalls: “George Faber took me for lunch and suggested the idea. It’s an overwhelming idea in lots of ways because the responsibility of it is so massive and the idea that we might get it wrong felt very dangerous because so many people have been damaged by this stuff.
“But the idea of telling a story about it, particularly where our country is now and the fact that we let not just an evil man but a monster [Savile] onto our television sets for that amount of time. So the opportunity to examine these cases felt important. We just immersed ourselves in research and tried to tell it as well as we possibly could.”
Thorne, whose credits include The Last Panthers and the This is England franchise, met with abuse victims, police officers and barristers, among others, to try to get as much insight into their experiences as possible.
“It was sometimes incredibly hard to hear,” he says, “people telling me they were pretty sure they were abused on such a date but they were aware their memory wasn’t strong and they didn’t know they would be able to stand it up. [There were] transcripts of trials where you see someone being torn apart really gently as the geography of a house undermines them. Then amazing police officers who have devoted their lives to catching these people and who have all got different ways of helping.
“One of the most extraordinary insights was the fact that an officer we worked with said she would watch YouTube clips of the person she was interviewing before she interviewed them in order that she could flatter them on the way to the interview room. You kind of go, ‘That’s so brilliant that you would think to do that.’ And that, I think, is what drama can do better than any other form in terms of telling a story about this. Drama is about seeing behind the eyes of a case. It was a really daunting prospect but one that felt important to do.”
That sentiment holds true for Walters and Coltrane. The latter, the star of police series Cracker, says the quality of the script and the responsibility of the subject matter meant National Treasure was a project he was keen to join.
“Every day another stone gets lifted and somebody in the judiciary or parliament or a medic [is exposed]. It’s just appalling and I think it appalls all of us,” Coltrane says. “Importantly, at the risk of sounding pious, the power of drama is that you can deal with these things in a way that the judiciary, the police and parliament can’t, or seem unable to. I thought it was an important thing to do.”
While Coltrane faced countless scenes in a police interview room, Walters’ Marie is left at home to come to terms with what her husband has been accused of.
“It was just fascinating playing a woman like that,” the actress admits. “It was wonderfully written; written in a complicated, multi-faceted way and all of the reasons she stands by him were fascinating to go into. Her faith, because she’s a Catholic, is the thing that’s kept everything together. It’s just really interesting – her slightly buttoned-up way and how she could be with someone for that length of time despite whether he’s done this or not, the string of infidelities that have gone on throughout their life, the fact that she wants to keep the family together and the fact she loves him. He’d be out the door but she’s not like that and it’s just really interesting to do.
“It’s a drama about family and that’s what’s fascinating. In the end, it’s how you respond to one another and emotionally how we deal with one another. That’s the most fascinating thing for me about drama and I think it is for most people. You do look at these cases and for me it’s the wife [of the person accused] – I think, ‘I want to know about her.’”
Coltrane, Walters and Riseborough were able to explore the complexities of their characters in full during what Coltrane calls “an almost unparalleled joy” of two weeks of rehearsal before the cameras started rolling.
“It was fantastic because we had a chance to talk through our characters, what their relationship was and how they made a go of their lives together,” he says. “And Jack, the amount of research he did, we asked him questions non-stop for two weeks and he always knew the answer.
“The crucial thing about it is, at some time or other, [the accused is] going to have to stand in front of 12 ordinary people who are going to decide whether it happened or not. So it doesn’t matter how technical or convincing your arguments are to a policeman or a lawyer, they’re not going to be making the judgment. It’s going to be you and me – a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker – and that’s absolutely crucial. It was fascinating from that point of view.
“Episode one is not about whether he did it or didn’t do it. That’s hardly mentioned. What it’s about is what it would be like for any one of us if someone came to the door and said you’d raped somebody 20 years ago and your life literally falls off a cliff. Whether you did it or not, that’s what episode one is. It’s not until episodes two and three where there’s a shift.”
Director Munden credits Thorne with leaving viewers in the dark about whether Finchley is guilty: “The writing’s very clear about this man being neither innocent or guilty,” he adds. “We’re kept on a knife-edge and my job really was to try and preserve that and invite the audience in with their own prejudices to bring to bear on that and just keep people throughout four hours of a drama guessing and because they’re guessing and bringing something to the debate.”
That guessing will continue over the next four weeks as viewers will be left wondering whether Paul Finchley retains his status as a national treasure.
Subtitles are now a familiar element of many TV dramas, but how are languages changing the stories we watch and the way these shows are made?
Across the world, audiences have become much more relaxed about watching imported foreign-language content. The launch of Channel 4’s global drama platform Walter Presents in January this year was a particular sign of the UK’s new tolerance for subtitles.
But beyond audiences watching dramas from other countries, it is notable how many series now combine multiple languages, such as Netflix drama Narcos, which blends English and Spanish to tell the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Another example is Canadian series Blood and Water, which is described as a compelling, character-driven crime drama that delves into the secrets and lies of a tight-knit family. The show, which is produced by Breakthrough Entertainment for Omni Television, stands out because it was produced in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming for Omni parent Rogers, explains: “Different characters speak in all three languages organically throughout the show. Chinese subtitles are featured when English is spoken and English subtitles appear when Chinese is spoken so the widest possible audience can watch and follow the show.
“We wanted a cross-cultural series for Omni that would resonate with a wider multigenerational and diverse audience. The premise of exploring family secrets allowed for a very relatable and fertile story world that would attract a wider audience – drawing viewers in and keeping them there with a crime story with real twists and turns.”
One of the starting points for the spate of TV series now blending languages was Bron/Broen (aka The Bridge), the crime drama that brought police officers Sweden and Denmark together to solve a murder after a body is found on the Øresund Bridge, which links the two countries.
“The unusual thing with The Bridge is it didn’t start out as a creative idea, it started out as a question. We had difficulties getting into the Danish market. Swedish broadcasters were airing everything Danish but the Danish broadcasters never aired anything Swedish, so we asked ourselves how we could cheat our way into Denmark,” recalls executive producer and Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren. “We sat down with the head of (Swedish pubcaster) SVT and tried to work out a crime drama that organically moved between the two countries because it could be in Danish in Denmark and in Swedish in Sweden. That’s how it all started.”
Seizing the chance to have a drama in two languages, where viewers in Denmark had subtitles for dialogue in Swedish and vice versa, made The Bridge part of a “new era” where the acceptance of subtitles is growing around the world, Blomgren adds.
Three different versions of the script were produced – a Swedish one, a Danish copy and a mixed version. And that’s just one example of the logistical challenges that Blomgren says make cross-border productions as “very difficult.”
He continues: “The upside is the creative side. We’re all interested in our neighbours and we can relate to the differences between the cultures. That’s good for the storytelling. And it’s also good for broadcasters because instead of one broadcaster paying 60% of the budget, you can have two broadcasters paying 30% each so it’s win-win for everyone.
“But it’s also very delicate because you don’t want it to become a Europudding. You don’t want to start bringing in actors just because they’re of a nationality that would bring more money to the table. It’s quite easy to do cross-border for solely financial reasons and we’re trying to stay away from that.”
The Bridge went on to have two adaptations. The first, commissioned by US cable channel FX, transplanted the story to the US-Mexico border, using English and Spanish, and ran for two seasons. The second remake began underwater, at the midpoint of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Produced by Endemol Shine Group-owned Filmlance’s sister company Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch), The Tunnel was a coproduction between Sky Atlantic in the UK and France’s Canal+. Season one aired in 2013 and season two, called The Tunnel 2: Sabotage, is now on air in Britain.
Having screened The Bridge before it became an international hit and inspired by the idea of exploring Anglo-French relations, Kudos picked up the format for adaptation. But once the show did become a global success, the creative team was wary of leaning too much on the original.
“It was such a good show, it was pointless trying to imitate it. It would have been very uncreative and that’s not how we make programmes,” says Kudos exec producer Manda Levin. “We tried to take the concept and the compass points of the story but, within that, we felt we had to find our own way with it.
“These days with British crime drama, whatever you make, you’re constantly told you’re aping Scandi noir. I find that really frustrating because it’s a lazy way of grouping stories that are visceral, dark and melancholy and saying they’re all borrowing from the same source. Britain’s always had a tradition of making bleak but spiky and interesting crime drama. I didn’t feel that was what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it very French in its own way and very British with the humour.”
The use of language was also important for The Tunnel’s creative team, with Levin asserting that the days of actors speaking English in “funny accents” are long gone.
“Sky Atlantic and Canal+ are ambitious art house channels that you would hope have an audience that’s happy to deal with subtitles,” she says. “For me, those scenes in which the characters are slipping into French and English are the best parts. We always try to say The Tunnel was the first fundamentally bilingual series in the UK. It definitely felt pioneering when we started, although now international drama has become so accessible to audiences, it’s nice to see many more subtitles on mainstream channels than there used to be. There’s been a real shift in what drama commissioners are prepared to commission and what audiences are prepared to watch.”
Following the success of The Bridge, which has run to three seasons with the possibility of a fourth to come, Filmlance’s Blomgren says he has been approached about other series with a cross-border dynamic: “But in so many cases you feel it’s just a construction to finance the production, and that’s not the right way to do it. One border is enough. Once you bring in too many characters from too many nations, you can’t dig deep into characters because you have too many and it’s a very difficult game.”
However, one series that did bring together characters from a number of different nations is The Team, a pan-European crime drama that unites a team of police officers who fight crime throughout the continent.
Created by Peter Thorsboe and Mai Brostrøm (The Eagle, Modus), the series is shot in original languages with a cast headed by Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens. It is produced by Network Movie for ZDF in association with DR and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Wolfgang Feind, head of series and international coproductions at ZDF, says the idea for The Team was born out of a desire to follow up The Eagle, in which an Icelandic protagonist pursues criminals across Europe.
“The unique selling point is that The Team is a truly European series in which an organic cast investigates real cases and scours all of Europe to snare the criminals,” he says. “What also makes the programme unique is the use of multiple languages – the immersion in original languages, whether Flemish, Danish, German or European English, is what keeps the investigators connected to one another.”
Although having characters speak in their native language added to the authenticity of the series, Feind says it was not without its challenges. “The implementation of different languages was easy; the challenge for the production consisted rather of the how, when and where our protagonists encounter one another,” he reveals.
“We believe there is a trend to break down all linguistic barriers. Young people today want to watch TV series in their original version. Dubbing stopped convincing them long ago. And let’s face it – it is the reality of our lives that language changes. We mix English and German into ‘Denglish.’ We borrow words from other languages, we make up new terms. We’re creating world-spanning communication in the digital age with all these new forms of language.”
Another Sky-Canal+ coproduction to use multiple languages is The Last Panthers, starring Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan. The six-part series, produced by Warp Films and Haut et Court, tells a fictional story based on the notorious real-life Pink Panther jewel thieves. It opens with a daring heist before delving into the dark heart of a Europe ruled by a shadowy alliance of gangsters and bankers.
With the action taking place across the UK, France and Serbia, the script called for characters to speak in the corresponding languages. And writer Jack Thorne says this process was not simply about translating his scripts – he also sought a better understanding of the countries in which the action was set.
“The difficult thing was understanding that there are very big cultural differences in how things operate in different countries,” he says. “The French legal system is one of the most complicated systems I’ve ever come across. I was constantly trying to work out who does what in different situations, why certain people can do certain things, and also trying to make that translatable.
“There were other differences to take on board – spending time in Serbia and understanding what Serbian nationalism means and where it comes from. That was a very alien concept to me as a British person but it’s a very different country with a very different history to ours. It’s a country that’s been invaded by every empire that’s ever existed and has had to fight for its identity, so it has a very different sense of itself.”
One multilingual show that moves away from the ‘neighbour’ dynamic of The Bridge and The Tunnel is Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), which sees a French policeman sent to Sweden to investigate the death of a French citizen.
The series’ roots can be found in the partnership between former Atlantique Productions exec Patrick Nebout and Nice Drama’s Henrik Jansson-Schweizer, who developed the plot together more than four years ago. But it was only when writers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that it gained traction and was subsequently commissioned by SVT and France’s Canal+.
“You’ve seen a lot of Scandi-German coproductions but you’ve never seen Scandi-French coproductions,” Nebout says. “We felt the timing was right; we knew Canal+ was looking for something to do with Scandinavia. We approached Canal+ and SVT with the idea and both reacted positively from the beginning.”
The mixture of languages used in the series was also important to Nebout, who wanted to keep the series “organic.”
“We have a French cop in Sweden. She should be speaking English when she interacts with the Swedes but when the Swedes talk to each other, they should definitely speak their own language. And when our French cop is reporting back to Paris, she should do that in French,” he explains. “That came to us very naturally. We didn’t want to do something completely in English, because that wasn’t part of the story.
“There’s also a fourth language in the series, Sami. Because of the show’s setting in the far north of Sweden, there are many indigenous Sami characters and they speak their language. It felt very natural. Måns wanted to tell a story about Europe today and we felt it echoed well to have these different languages.”
Jour Polaire also features Arabic, taking the number of languages to five.
The script began in Swedish, before it was translated into English and then French. But why did the producers not want to film it entirely in English, as Atlantique had done previously with Borgia – the papal drama set in Italy?
“It made sense to do Borgia in English because it was a very specific and confined environment with characters that were all in the same culture and universe,” explains Nebout, who left Atlantique to launch his own production company Dramacorp. “When Atlantique did Transporter, that was in English because it was targeted at the English-language market. It’s very international storytelling – it’s an action series.
“A couple of years ago, English was a must if you wanted to enable global export. But at the same time we can see tolerance for subtitled shows is growing all over the place – in France, the UK. And it seems it’s coming to the US, where SundanceTV and other channels are starting to air foreign-language shows.”
If there’s one programme that built its production schedule around the use of multiple languages, it’s Welsh drama Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland, pictured top). The crime series, which has been renewed for a third season, airs in a Welsh-only format on commissioning broadcaster S4C.
But to maximise the opportunity for distribution sales, it was filmed back-to-back in English as well, to create an English-only version and also a bilingual edition. BBC Wales aired the bilingual version, which was also picked up by BBC4.
Gwawr Martha Lloyd, S4C’s drama commissioner, says there were two reasons for producing multiple versions of the same series. First, S4C wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch it, and second, bringing coproducers on board meant a bigger budget that could accommodate higher production values.
“It sounds simpler than it is,” she admits. “It’s quite testing for everybody involved, especially the actors because they have to learn double the words and their performance can vary depending on what language they’re speaking so it’s not literally exactly the same. How you would express yourself in Welsh is quite different to how you would in English. But in production terms, Hinterland isn’t heavy on dialogue, so some things they don’t have to film twice, like scenery or chase sequences.”
But what of the process of combining Welsh and English into a single format? Lloyd says the production team first decided which characters would only speak one language.
“A lot of characters live in remote rural areas so it was easy to believe they’d all speak Welsh together in the BBC Wales/BBC4 version,” she says. “They explored what was credible, what contributed to this mythical feeling that’s created when you’re in this setting. The protagonist is from London so had to speak English. And his colleagues speak Welsh to each other but change when he walks into the room. They had to figure all of that out and also which of the locals would speak Welsh to each other or English.”
Lloyd points to BBC1’s The Missing as another good example of a drama using multiple languages. The show, about a man’s search for his missing son, mixed English and French, as the pair are on holiday in France when the child vanishes.
“They used language very cleverly because sometimes they used subtitles when the characters spoke French, but when they wanted the father (played by James Nesbitt) out of the conversation and to make him frustrated that he didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t use subtitles. That was really clever because it made viewers feel like he felt.
“It was really exciting because it added another dimension that you wouldn’t have had if it was all in the same language.”
S4C is now developing a number of new multi-language dramas that Lloyd says reflect the nature of language in Wales. “I feel a desire to do something that’s multilingual. I’ve enjoyed multilingual dramas over the last few years and we’re in a position where we can do this because of the nature of language in our country. It’s definitely an ambition to get one of those away but we’ll have to see which one or how many.”
While this may be a relatively new path in certain territories, Israeli dramas commonly use multiple languages. Distributor Keshet International’s slate includes several examples, most notably espionage thrillers False Flag (Hebrew and English) and MICE (Russian and Hebrew), plus Arab Labor (Arabic and Hebrew), a comedy-drama that explores the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.
“It has to come naturally from the story,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama for Keshet Media Group. “If either part of the story or the way the character lives is based on a foreign language or culture, it has to be part of it. MICE is about Russian immigrants who live in Israel, so they speak Russian to each other. The most important thing is it reflects real life and Israel’s melting-pot society.”
The use of different languages means Keshet dramas are also finding audiences abroad. “Audiences now are more open to stories from different territories,” Ziv says. “Five or six years ago, language was something that made a difference. Nowadays, you don’t really hear the language. When we discovered very good television from Scandinavia, I ignored the language. I don’t really hear it, as I’m so focused on the story and characters. We are more open now to hearing different languages if it’s part of a brilliant story.”
Midnight Sun’s Nebout notes a common plot device threading these series together – a leading character in a strange place, which puts their language at odds with their location. “The easy thing with these shows is you have a fish out of water so you have a good argument to decide you’re going to shoot in different languages,” he says. “As you can see with The Tunnel and The Bridge, more and more shows are using a mixture of languages. For Europe it makes sense.”
It’s a sign of both broadcasters’ and audiences’ openness to subtitles that multi-language dramas are now commonplace – and that can only encourage an increasingly global production sector to introduce viewers to more diverse and unfamiliar stories in the future.
What a month for Bristol-born screenwriter Jack Thorne. After picking up no fewer than three Bafta nominations for his work on The Last Panthers, This Is England ’90 and Don’t Take My Baby, Thorne has now been given the task of adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC.
He called it an “honour and privilege” to be selected for the job, adding: “The His Dark Materials trilogy are vast and glorious books full of beautiful characters. I’m going to work as hard as I can to try and do justice to them.”
Thorne first came onto the TV scene around 2007 when he wrote an episode of Shameless. This was followed by shows such as Skins and Cast Offs before he joined forces with Shane Meadows on the This Is England trilogy. Titles like The Fades, Glue and The Last Panthers confirmed his status as one of the UK’s most in-demand writers – as did a couple of Bafta wins in 2012.
And it’s not just the TV industry that wants him. He has also written the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the screenplay for upcoming Warner Brothers movie The Sandman.
Thorne’s involvement has been given the thumbs up by Pullman, whose Dark Materials books have been published in more than 40 languages and sold 17.5 million copies.
“Jack is a writer of formidable energy and range, and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking to him and learning about his plans for bringing His Dark Materials to the screen. I’m certain he’ll do a superb job and I look forward to seeing the whole project develop as he shapes the story.”
Thorne’s versatility and voluminous output are both hallmarks of his remarkable career to date. His latest TV project, for example, is National Treasure for Channel 4.
A four-part production starring Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters and Andrea Riseborough, it examines the impact – both public and private – of accusations of historic sexual offences against a fictional much-loved celebrity.
The quality of the cast attracted to National Treasure is a good indicator of Thorne’s pulling power as a writer. So expect to start seeing some big names getting attached to the His Dark Materials project, which is being made by Bad Wolf.
In other news this week, filming has begun on season six of the BBC’s hit drama Call the Midwife. Commenting on the show, its creator, writer and executive producer Heidi Thomas said: “My passion for the world and characters of Call the Midwife grows stronger with each passing year. Every season brings new stories, new challenges and new triumphs – yet each one feels like a return to a much-loved home, and season six will be no exception.”
That Thomas has had such success with Call the Midwife is no real surprise when you look at her track record. Having come up through the theatre, she began the transition to screenwriting at the start of the last decade.
Her work on Call the Midwife was foreshadowed by BBC drama Lilies, about three girls attempting to make their way in the world in Liverpool in the 1920s. However, it was Thomas’s work on period drama Cranford that really caught the eye, winning her an RTS Award in 2008. Next came a moderately successful reboot of Upstairs Downstairs before the launch of Call the Midwife confirmed Thomas’s reputation.
The new run will start with a Christmas special set in South Africa before returning to the East End of London. “As the team settle back into Poplar, we’ll see them grappling with all the contradictions and opportunities of the early sixties – the beacon of the pill, the shadow of the Kray twins, the lure of independence and the call to duty,” Thomas said. “And time and time again, in an age of change and danger, we will be reminded of the simple power of love.”
Still in the UK, indie producer Playground has announced two more book deals, after last month securing Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey – The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis.
The first is Penguin Random House Books psychological thriller The Widow. Written by Fiona Barton, it follows the wife of a man who is accused and eventually cleared of kidnapping and murdering a child. The second is non-fiction book Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories. Published by John Murray and written by Thomas Grant, it details the life of the celebrated barrister who played a role in numerous controversial UK court cases involving figures such as Great Train Robber Charlie Wilson.
Sophie Gardiner, creative director of Playground UK, said of the titles: “Though one is fiction and the other is non-fiction, both feature striking central characters caught up in stories that speak to the key issues of our time and should appeal to a wide-ranging audience.”
In the US, the big story of the week is that feted showrunner Terence Winter has left HBO’s lavish music industry drama Vinyl ahead of season two.
Winter has a superb track record, previously working with HBO on series such as The Sopranos and having written the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese is also involved with Vinyl). However, there is a general feeling that Vinyl didn’t quite hit the mark. So HBO and Winter have parted company after creative differences about how the show should get back on track.
HBO said: “As we head into the second season, we have decided it is an appropriate time to make a change in the creative direction of the show. We have enjoyed a longtime partnership with Terry Winter and we look forward to our next collaboration with him. We are pleased to welcome Scott Z Burns, executive producer and showrunner, and Max Borenstein, executive producer, as the new team helming the show.”
Burns is best known for The Bourne Ultimatum, though more recent credits include 2016’s Deep Water and 2011’s Contagion. Borenstein, meanwhile, wrote the screenplays for the most recent Godzilla film and the forthcoming Kong: Skull Island. He was also involved in Fox’s ultimately unsuccessful TV version of hit sci-fi movie Minority Report.
Finally, more than 90 writers from Mississippi including John Grisham and Donna Tartt have signed a statement calling for the repeal of the state’s new anti-gay religious freedom bill.
“Mississippi has a thousand histories,” says the statement. “But these can be boiled down to two strains: our reactionary side, which has nourished intolerance and degradation and brutality, which has looked at difference as a threat, which has circled tightly around the familiar and the monolithic; and our humane side, which treasures compassion and charity and a wide net of kinship, which is fascinated by character and story, which is deeply involved in the daily business of our neighbours. This core kindness, the embracing of wildness and weirdness, is what has nurtured the great literature that has come from our state.”
The UK’s Royal Television Society (RTS) held its annual Programme Awards last week. Winning scripted shows included The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (which took Best Drama Serial), No Offence (drama series), Catastrophe (scripted comedy), Coalition (single drama) and Emmerdale (soap/continuing drama).
There were also writer awards for Peter Morgan (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies) and Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who write and star in Catastrophe.
Morgan overcame competition from Russell T Davies (Cucumber) and Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne (This is England ’90), with judges describing his writing as “skilful and poignant… absolutely first rate.” They called the drama “compelling and tender… it took the viewer on a deeply moving emotional journey.”
Morgan, 53 next month, is not new to TV. But until now he has been best known for a series of idiosyncratic feature films.
Having written the romcom Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence in 1998 and TV series The Jury in 2002, his career took a decisive step forward in 2003 with a TV movie called The Deal, which told the story of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s power-sharing deal. In 2006, he wrote a superb film-length follow-up called The Queen, which explored the reaction of the political and royal establishment to the death of Princess Diana. This earned him an Academy Award nomination and a deserved Golden Globe.
More acclaim followed with productions including The Last King of Scotland (adapted for the screen with Jeremy Brock); Frost/Nixon (play and screenplay); The Other Boleyn Girl, The Damned United, Rush and The Aftermath (the third in Morgan’s so-called Blair trilogy). And then came the RTS Award-winning Christopher Jefferies miniseries, written for UK broadcaster ITV.
Morgan, who has a brilliant knack of making the political seem personal, isn’t finished with TV. He’s currently working with Left Bank Pictures on The Crown, an epic US$100m drama for Netflix.
Based on a play by Morgan called The Audience, it tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s early reign. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s previous writing on the themes of power, establishment and intrigue will appreciate that he is perfectly suited to such a project – though it will be interesting to see how he copes with the much larger creative canvas offered by a 10-part TV series.
When the project was announced, he said: “The Crown is not only about the royal family but about an empire in decline, a world in disarray and the dawn of a new era. I am beyond thrilled to be reunited with partners from film, theatre and TV (director Stephen Daldry and producer Andy Harries) for this epic project and delighted to be working for the first time with Netflix.”
To date, Netflix has only ordered a first season. But it’s highly likely there will be future series of the show covering more recent stages in the Queen’s reign. So it might be a while before we see another movie or miniseries from Morgan.
As an interesting side note, Bafta has just announced its own TV awards nominations and there is no place there for Morgan’s Jefferies drama. Titles shortlisted for this event include Humans, The Last Panthers, No Offence and Wolf Hall (for Best Drama Series); Doctor Foster, The Enfield Haunting, London Spy, This Is England ’90 (miniseries); The Good Wife, Narcos, Spiral and Transparent (International Series); and The C-Word, Cyberbully, Don’t Take My Baby and The Go-Between (single drama).
In the context of the Baftas, the big winner is Thorne, who is attached to The Last Panthers, This Is England ’90 and Don’t Take My Baby.
In other news this week, Sky1 has commissioned a second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, which is produced by Carnival Films in collaboration with Lee’s POW! Entertainment. As the name suggests, Lucky Man is based on an idea by superhero icon Stan Lee. But it’s another example of the trend towards greenlighting dramas with high-profile names and then getting other people to do the actual writing job.
In this case, for example, the show was written by Neil Biswas, Ben Schiffer, Rachel Anthony, James Allen, Stephen Gallagher and Alan Westaway. Biswas, who is credited on all 10 episodes of Lucky Man season one, was already known to Sky, having written an episode of Sinbad a few years ago. His other credits include The Take, Bradford Riots and In a Land of Plenty.
Elsewhere, there was further evidence this week of the superstar status now afforded to leading TV writers, with Channel 4 losing out to Netflix on the UK first-window rights to season three of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
Channel 4 was the first company to back Brooker’s project but a huge financial deal saw Netflix take control of an expanded version of the project for season three. Channel 4 thought it would still be given the opportunity to premiere the show in the UK, but Black Mirror producer Endemol Shine has licensed first-run rights to Netflix. This isn’t hugely surprising but C4 is not happy.
In a statement, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said: “Black Mirror couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show. We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally. Of course, it’s disappointing that the first broadcast window in the UK is then sold to the highest bidder, ignoring the risk a publicly owned channel like 4 took backing it.”
Other projects in the news this week include Hulu series 11.22.63. Based on a book of the same name by Stephen King, the series centres on Jake Epping, a recently divorced teacher from Maine (played by James Franco) who travels back in time and has an opportunity to prevent the assassination of US president John F Kennedy (though things don’t quite go as planned). The show is executive produced by JJ Abrams, Stephen King and Bridget Carpenter, who has also taken a lead role in its writing.
This week, 11.22.63 was picked up by Canal+ in France, having previously been licensed for use by Fox Networks Europe. The show currently has an 8.8 rating on IMDb, which marks it out as a strong performer.
Ahead of The Last Panthers’ world premiere at Mipcom in Cannes this week, Michael Pickard discovers there’s much more to the drama than its classic jewellery-heist plotline suggests.
From the opening scenes featuring a daring diamond heist, The Last Panthers appears to carry all the hallmarks of a classic crime caper.
But that’s where the pretence ends, as viewers are plunged into a pan-European thriller set across three countries and portrayed in three languages.
Based on real events, the story begins with a robbery that looks to be the work of the notorious Pink Panthers gang, but the inadvertent death of a little girl sets off a chain of events across Europe that places British insurance loss adjuster (Samantha Morton), her nefarious boss (John Hurt), a French-Algerian cop (Tahar Rahim) and a Serbian gang member (Goran Bogdan) on a dangerous collision course.
Commissioned by Sky in the UK and France’s Canal+, The Last Panthers is written by Jack Thorne, based on an idea by Jean-Alain Laban and Jérôme Pierrat. It is produced by Haut et Court TV and Warp Films, and distributed by Sky Vision and StudioCanal.
If the plot seems misleading from the start, that was entirely the intention of the producers, who wanted to create a layered and far-reaching drama in which the action spans countries and decades.
Warp Films executive producer Peter Carlton says: “Our deliberate idea was to start with a classic crime story – a heist – and look at the ripples that go outwards and backwards. Through these three characters it takes you into a crime thriller with action and tense drama sequences in each episode but it also becomes more and more a personal drama and a tragedy around those three characters.
“The big attraction for us was not a crime series but using the crime to take us into another place. But if you do lure people in with a crime, you can’t forget that completely. You have to keep the audience with you and if you put a diamond heist at the front of something that turns into a very worthy, dull, wordy political drama, you’re not going to get thanked and no one’s going to follow you. You have to deliver on that promise of excitement and the thriller element while also bringing the audience with you through every twist and turn.”
Haut et Court’s Caroline Benjo, who also exec produces the six-hour series, adds: “We want to tease the viewer because there’s something very smart and sophisticated about TV audiences and this is where we want to go.
“The frustration and teasing is very important. Audiences want to be brought to something they don’t get all at once. Our world is extremely complex and this is what’s interesting. Our characters are going through a complex world and they intimate an inner world that’s even more complicated. You have to have a certain level of entertainment – it’s very action driven. There’s one quite spectacular action sequence in each episode but it was very important to link these to the story and the characters’ emotional trajectory.”
Benjo was approached by Pierrat and Laban with an idea for a film about the Pink Panthers, but she quickly identified that their story could go much deeper as a television miniseries. She brought Carlton on board with Warp as a coproduction partner, before Canal+ and Sky both committed to the series. Thorne was then brought in to write the script.
Carlton, who has worked with Thorne before on series such as Channel 4’s This is England, says the writer’s distinctive voice, coupled with his knowledge of European politics, made him a standout candidate for the job.
“Knowing we were making a big European tragedy, we needed a writer who could handle big emotion on a big canvas,” he says. “A lot of British writers sare a bit shy and embarrassed by big emotion and I knew from working with Jack on This is England that this wasn’t the case with him. Although this is a very different show, it’s a melodrama in the best sense of the word.
“He’s a fearless writer, he masters genre and has a distinctive voice, can write sophisticated politics and isn’t scared of big emotions. So when we proposed it to Jack, he bit our hands off.”
Bringing Thorne on board meant The Last Panthers had a writer who would put together a tightly scripted, extremely focused story across six episodes. There will be no vague closing scene that leaves things open for a second season.
“It’s not designed to be a returning series,” says Carlton. “We felt six episodes was the right length for the story. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t get put into it but I don’t think we’d go back to the Panthers again. However, we did become fascinated by this way of storytelling: that one event brings together two or three different destinies, allowing you to explore backwards and forwards at the same time.
“So Jack, Johan (Renck, the director) and us are sitting down and talking about new stories. Whether what comes out of that process feels like The Return of the Last Panthers, The Last something else or something completely different, it’s always tempting to follow your success – but we haven’t had any success yet. There’s rich creative ground but it’s quite hard to see what exactly what that is at the moment or what it might turn into.”
As European coproductions become more commonplace, Benjo says they are still “one of the trickiest things” to do, adding that it was integral to the project that everyone shared the same vision for the series.
“Not only was there a shared ambition and approach between us and Haut et Court but we also have, in Canal+ and Sky, an aspiration, an ambition and a desire for a certain type of programme that was very similar,” Carlton explains. “In detail there were differences but we never had either us as producers or them as broadcasters pulling in different directions.
“They wanted something ambitious, something with layers, that on the one hand has excitement and is a thriller but underneath it is finely driven more by character and emotion. We all agreed it was going to be pan-European, and it needed some big names and great actors to carry it and keep it as authentic as possible. We agreed on day one that we would shoot in certain countries and in original languages and we never varied from it. That isn’t always the case.”
The series takes place in London, Marseille and Belgrade and, as such, the action is filmed in English, French and Serbian. Above any other challenge facing the €20m (US$22.4m) production, Benjo says the multi-lingual approach to The Last Panthers was the biggest obstacle.
“The Last Panthers is spoken in the language of the protagonist,” she says. “But when they’re together, the common language is English. So we had to do enormous work on the adaptation because Jack writes in English so we had to do very precise work to turn it into French and Serbian. We also had two broadcasters with their own sensitivities. It was interesting because we tried to meet our broadcasters’ needs as much as possible without going against the project and it’s almost like working for the UN. You are constantly peacekeeping, trying to keep everything as smooth as possible.”
The size of the production budget, coming in at more than €3m per episode, also led to conversations about how best to use it. Benjo adds: “We always put all our money on screen because if we don’t, there’s no more money coming back.
“Everyone’s talking about feature film versus TV production. What’s happening in TV production now is that it’s not ‘how can we make as much money as possible?,’ it’s ‘how can we put all the money on screen?’ And ‘how can we have production values that will be mind-blowing for the people who watch?’ Here I think we have found that level. Everything is filmed in real countries, the action scenes are quite spectacular and it’s very well crafted. It’s definitely a beautiful-looking series.”
One of the most important jobs a drama producer can do is read the news. Everyday there are so many bizarre and unusual stories taking place around the world that news can be a rich source of ideas and inspiration.
There are challenges, of course. Some stories are so shocking it seems indecent to write them up too quickly. But the risk of moral hesitation is that someone else will beat you to market. There’s also the possibility of wandering into a legal or PR minefield.
The best stories require producers/writers to make tough judgement calls about how to portray living or recently deceased characters. Even the most subtle manipulations of the truth can blow up into career-wrecking controversies.
One solution, of course, is to create shows that are similar to high-profile news stories but not exactly the same. This way you can capture the zeitgeist of the real-world events but create enough distance that it doesn’t look like a commentary on real figures. This, for example, is what ABC Family is doing with Guilt, a one-hour drama series about an American abroad in London who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her roommate. No prizes for guessing the inspiration for this production.
In the UK this week, Channel 4 (C4) announced plans for a similarly conceived series called National Treasure. Produced by George Faber’s new indie The Forge, National Treasure is about a fictional high-profile comedian who is accused of committing a historical sexual crime – a subject that has been front-page news in the UK for the last couple of years. Over the course of four episodes, the show will explore how the central character, his family, manager and partner are affected by the resulting police investigation.
The show will be written by Jack Thorne, whose credits include the This is England franchise, Glue and The Last Panthers. It was commissioned by C4 head of drama Piers Wenger, who said: “It’s a powerful drama that goes beyond recent headlines, exploring the human and emotional impact when a whole life is called into question. In Jack’s hands it’s an insightful and thought-provoking exploration of memory, truth, age, doubt and how well we really know ourselves and those closest to us.”
There’s no question this is an interesting subject – and in Thorne’s hands it is likely to be a powerful piece of drama. But it does enter complicated territory, with so many sex allegations against British celebrities still subject to judicial proceedings. No wonder Faber is keen to reiterate it is a “fictional drama” that “tackles the complex relationship between celebrity, sex and power.”
As for Thorne, he’s pleased C4 is willing to keep up its reputation for tackling such subjects: “What I’ve always loved about Channel 4 is that it’s a place to discuss big ideas. National Treasure is a piece about doubt, about the smell of abuse, about how we as a society live in Yewtree times (Yewtree is the name of the UK police operation handling such allegations). Paul (the central character in the show) is a man who could be innocent or guilty. We’re going to examine him from all sides and ask that big question – how well do we know the people closest to us?”
Of course, one way of ensuring there is no possibility of any kind of legal challenge is if the central character is found to be innocent.
Over the in US, meanwhile, it is notable that there has been a bit of a swing in favour of legal dramas recently. This isn’t new territory, of course, as fans of Petrocelli, LA Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Law & Order and Damages will attest. But the success of How to Get Away With Murder and Suits seems to have inspired US networks to go back to the pool.
ABC, for example, is now developing The Jury, a project being executive produced by Carol Mendelsohn. The series will follow a murder trial from the perspective of individual jurors over the course of a single season. On paper it sounds like the latest in the current trend towards anthologies.
CBS is working up a legal series called Doubt. In this case, the centre of attention is a defence lawyer who gets romantically involved with one of her clients, who stands accused of killing a teenage girl. Katherine Heigl stars in this one.
Over the last week, all eyes have been on the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. Historically a conflab for UK-based executives, the event is now as likely to present a few visiting dignitaries from the US TV business. So for the last few days there’s been a steady drip feed of trade press stories about what US execs are doing about diversity, how they feel about the differences of the UK TV writing model andwhy they think the BBC should be protected.
One of this year’s star turns was Michael Ellenberg, HBO’s executive VP of programming, who gave some insight into what is coming up on the premium cabler in the near future. He showed the first promotional reel of Westworld, a remake of the 1973 movie that will star Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright. He also said the channel is getting close to finalising Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated drama about the A&R scene in the 1970s.
Sticking with the subject of movie remakes, Amazon Studios has signed up to develop a TV series based on the 1999 sci-fi movie Galaxy Quest. For those who haven’t seen it, Galaxy Quest is an amusing film about a group of TV sci-fi actors who are abducted by aliens who think they are genuine space adventurers. In some ways it is a precursor to films like Land of the Lost and Guardians of the Galaxy. With Guardians proving to be such a huge film franchise, Amazon probably reasons that a TV version of Galaxy Quest can ride the coattails of this kind of retro-comedy sci-fi concept.
Other interesting greenlights this week include the news that ABC is backing a ballet-themed comedy drama to be written and executive produced by Liz Heldens (Mercy), with Sue Naegle also on board as an exec producer. The origin of this one is a C4 reality series that focused on 18 amateur, plus-sized dancers, many of whom were told they were too fat to dance when they were young. The scripted show is expected to have the feel of Billy Elliott, but has presumably also been made possible by the love directed towards Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in the recent Pitch Perfect film franchise.
News out of Germany this week is that leading producer Christian Becker and Beta Film are joining forces to revive Western series Winnetou. Based on the best-selling books by Karl May, Winnetou became a series of cult movies in the 1960s. The new 3×90’ version will air on RTL in Germany while Beta will launch the production to the global market at Mipcom next month.
Finally, proof that TV is a cruel world came this week with VH1’s decision to cancel its scripted show Hindsight, despite previously having greenlit it to season two. The channel said: “Scripted series have been a successful part of VH1’s primetime line-up since 2010 and will continue to be in the future. We love Hindsight and couldn’t be more proud of the series. But in this overcrowded and rapidly changing climate, we need to carve out VH1’s distinct place in the scripted marketplace and deliver the biggest audiences possible for our series.
“As a result, we’re no longer moving forward with a second season of the show. We’re so appreciative of show creator Emily Fox, the cast and the teams and look forward to working with them again.” Reports suggest that the production team is looking for a new home for the show.