Tag Archives: Kudos

Blast from the past

Kit Harington stars in and exec produces BBC1’s Gunpowder, which dramatises the plot to kill King James I. Alongside co-star Liv Tyler and the show’s writer and director, he reveals his very personal reason for getting involved.

Most people have at least one black sheep in their family tree, a relative who perhaps earned a less-than-honest living or brought dishonour to the family name with their actions or lifestyle.

However, very few of us can claim to be related to someone who tried to kill the king of England. Step forward Game of Thrones star Kit Harington – a direct descendant of the chief conspirator in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I.

For anyone thinking that means Jon Snow himself is related to Guy Fawkes, think again, as while Fawkes was the man caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder under the House of Lords, it was Harington’s “great, great, great, great, great something-or-other” Robert Catesby who actually spearheaded the plot.

As such, it’s Catesby, played by Harington, who is at the forefront of BBC1’s three-part miniseries Gunpowder, which aims to be a faithful dramatisation of the events now marked across the UK every November 5 with fireworks and bonfires.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington as his ancestor Robert Catesby

The Game of Thrones star also executive produced the show, which launches this Saturday at 21.00 – “the Taboo slot” – and was produced by Kudos. Endemol Shine International is the distributor.

Discussing the appeal of the programme, Harington says he “prefers to avoid the term ‘passion project,’” but admits: “Really the idea spawned from a piece of family curiosity, which is that my mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby… I was always told, ‘Did you know you were related to the leader of the Gunpowder Plot?’

“More than that, me and Dan [fellow exec producer Dan West] couldn’t really work out why it hadn’t been dramatised. It’s such a significant piece of typically English folklore and we mark it every year, so it seemed odd.”

Indeed, while the gist of the Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-known slices of history in the UK, the facts and detail behind the story are much less widely understood.

With a PhD in history, writer Ronan Bennett is surely better equipped than most TV scribes to bring a truthful account of the events to the small screen. Yet even he admits that, upon being approached to pen the series, “I had forgotten if I ever knew about Catesby; that Catesby was actually the real mastermind of it.”

Liv Tyler also has a major role in what is her first UK television series

Bennett adds: “If you ask most people what they know about the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll go, ‘Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament’ – something like that – and everything else is empty. People don’t really know anything about it.”

Making the show, therefore, became something of a history lesson for all involved, including the impressive cast, which also boasts Hollywood star Liv Tyler, Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes.

“I think I knew more than some people about the Gunpowder Plot, but not a lot,” says Harington. “It was only by doing some research into it that I started to understand who [the conspirators] were.

“[Catesby] is a widower, he doesn’t connect with his son, he’s experiencing huge persecution and he’s a very proud man,” he says of his ancestor who, along with his accomplices, attempted to take drastic action against the king’s discrimination against Catholics. “In some ways, he’s on some kind of a death wish and he pulls a lot of people – some innocent people – with him into this plot.

“It was just fascinating learning about this piece of history.”

Guy Fawkes is played by Tom Cullen

Harington also reveals that, as the production went on, his feelings towards the plotter changed significantly, adding that what was once almost a sense of pride over Catesby shifted to feeling “desperately sorry for him.”

“As you will see, he was a deeply sad man who botched the one thing he wanted to do. He fucked it up. Deep down, he was tortured.”

Securing Tyler’s services marked something of a coup for the production, with the high-profile actor only having one other TV series to her name, HBO’s magnificent Damon Lindelof drama The Leftovers.

Now living full time in the UK, having moved to London last year, Tyler’s first UK series sees her play Anne Vaux, who assisted Catholic priests when practising the religion was outlawed.

“I don’t think these guys would have been thinking of me at all for this part, but I read it and I loved it,” she says. “I was really drawn to it. As an American, I know a little about the story but I don’t know everything, and it’s always nice to be learning something.”

The show’s first episode depicts executions in graphic detail

As for her convincing English accent, Tyler, who previously had to lose the American twang to play Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, says it “kind of just came back – it’s like skiing.”

Gunpowder also marked a first for J Blakeson, who became the latest in the ever-growing line of film directors to try their hand at TV when he signed up for the show.

Having helmed features such as The Disappearance of Alice Creed and The 5th Wave, Blakeson says the involvement of big names like Harington, combined with the subject matter, meant it was an “easy decision” to board the project.

“You get a lot of scripts and read them, but very rarely are they ones you want to do. But this one… to read a script where you’re 25 pages in and you’re still in the first scene, it’s a rare thing.

“It was incredibly well written and it had that dream thing for a project, which is that people think they know [the story] and there’s recognition of it, so people are interested in it, but actually you have a story to tell that’s interesting and enlightening and people don’t know it. So there’s a real opportunity there.

Derek Riddell as King James I, the principal target of the Gunpowder Plot

“But primarily it was just a really good script and I really liked it.”

A strong sense of authenticity runs through the production, not least in the language, with Bennett explaining that many lines in the script were lifted directly from historical accounts.

That realism also extends to the depiction of the harsh era in which the story unfolds. One scene begins with King James defecating into a bucket just inches from his bed, with the royal stool then being carried away by an unfortunate servant.

But what really stands out in the first episode is the explicit portrayal of capital punishment. Indeed, a grisly and prolonged execution scene is as graphic as anything you’re ever likely to see on the Beeb.

Warts-and-all representation of the era was key to Blakeson, who says: “We have this very nostalgic view of the past, of it being this lovely place, but one of the great things about Ronan’s script is it’s not described as that at all. There’s no indoor plumbing, there’s no sewer system. People would die in the street – death was everywhere. It’s a horrible place.

“So showing the history as being like that – being textured, being lived-in – was quite important. It was like a living, breathing version of history.”

Gunpowder’s story is obviously not one that lends itself to a sequel, but having clearly enjoyed his first taste of exec producing, could more work behind the camera follow for Harington after Game of Thrones concludes?

“Yes,” is the resounding answer from the actor, who has launched prodco Thriker Films along with West and describes Gunpowder as being “like a tester” for projects to come.

“We very much want to continue looking for things, sourcing things, producing things. We’re looking for that next thing now,” he explains. “This was a test to see if, on a personal level, this was something I enjoyed doing, and I did enjoy it very much. I felt so proud of it all the way along, in a way that I find much harder to do as just an actor.”

Still, with Harington’s Catesby bearing Jon Snow’s trademark curly locks and beard, no one could blame the actor for seeking something totally different next time out. “Why I keep desiring to film in cold, muddy places on horses, I have no idea,” he jokes. “It must be something built into me from a past life.”

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Gunpowder, treason and plot

Kit Harington and Liv Tyler travel back in time as the stars of historical thriller Gunpowder. Production designer Grant Montgomery tells DQ how he recreated 17th century England for the three-part miniseries.

Grant Montgomery

It’s one of the best-known stories in the UK – but a three-part drama aims to shed new light on the people and the politics behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Every year on November 5, Guy Fawkes Night is marked with bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the discovery of the conspiracy to kill King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament in 1605.

The festivities take their name from the man who, having been caught red-handed guarding the gunpowder, became most strongly associated with the plot. But as forthcoming BBC1 drama Gunpowder depicts, Robert Catesby was actually the lead conspirator.

Kit Harington takes the lead as Catesby – of whom the Game of Thrones star is a direct descendant – in a cast that also includes Peter Mullan, Mark Gatiss and Liv Tyler.

But long before the cameras began rolling, it was production designer Grant Montgomery who was tasked with recreating 17th century England.

The series was filmed predominantly at Dalton Mill in Keighley, Yorkshire, where Montgomery also recently recreated Victorian London for horror film The Limehouse Golem.

Gunpowder stars Kit Harington and Liv Tyler

“The problem with a lot of Elizabethan or Jacobean properties is you can’t recreate them, there aren’t many streets left,” he says. “They don’t really exist. We looked at The Shambles [a period street] in York but to close that down and physically take it over on the budget we had was probably nigh on impossible.

“So essentially we built a backlot at Dalton Mill. Then we built the Tower of London set inside that as well, a cavern where they plot, houses, plus a section of the Palace of Westminster, which is what they were trying to destroy. That was all built in there, we took it over.”

The seven-week shoot took place between February and April this year, but Montgomery estimates just seven or eight days were spent filming on location during that period. The reason, he reveals, was somewhat unusual: “We found that at a lot of locations, we couldn’t burn enough candles. There are a lot of restrictions on a lot of these properties, especially [those owned by the] National Trust. We went to one and we were told we could only light 25 candles, and we wanted to light 150.”

L-R: The set for King James’ extravagant bedchamber and a platform for public executions

That meant sets were built for Baddersley Clinton, a manor house that served as a refuge for Jesuit priests at the height of Catholic persecution, the king’s bedchamber and spymaster Robert Cecil’s (Gatiss) war room. In total, about 80% of the shoot was filmed on set, which was first built to represent London and was later redesigned as Warwick, where the plot began.

Locations used included Fountains Abbey, in North Yorkshire, which served as both the undercroft beneath the House of Lords where the gunpowder was stored and the exterior for Baddersley. Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire was used for Catesby’s family home.

Location scout Nick Marshall had scoured great swathes of northern England looking for suitable filming sites, but when few possible places turned up, Montgomery and producers Kudos and Thriker Films decided to build the sets instead. That convenient and cost-effective decision also turned out to be a creative masterstroke.

Harington, who plays Robert Catesby, on set

“The more research I did, the more I realised that a lot of the panel work [inside these houses] had been decorated. If you were rich, you painted your panels,” he explains. “So while we didn’t necessarily colour-code them, we started to paint the interiors. It gives it such a distinctive look and the audience also knows where it is at any one point. That’s really important because it’s quite a convoluted plot – it feels like a John le Carré spy story.”

Some sets couldn’t be built, however. The River Thames, for example, was recreated by adding CGI to a section of water in York. “We cheated a bit,” admits Montgomery, whose other small-screen credits include Peaky Blinders, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Jamaica Inn and Brontë sisters drama To Walk Invisible. “I like to do everything I’m able to [on camera] but as long as you blend live with CGI, you get something that looks interesting. It’s complete CGI shots that have to be really well done [if they are to look believable].”

Throughout the project, authenticity was a keyword for the design team. Montgomery even joined a tour of the Tower of London to ensure the show was as true to its period as possible – even if the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

The producers were keen for the show to look as authentic as possible

“It has an authenticity because it was there in the language and embedded in the script when I first read it,” the designer says of the show, which is distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It was great to be able to get that muddy London look and to try to keep away from it being super clean. You even see a scene where the king is at his toilet and you just think this must be a really filthy world, even at the court. No wonder they didn’t live long!”

Despite the BBC series, which launches on October 21, not falling on a particularly notable anniversary, Montgomery says the ever-present threat of terrorism in modern-day Europe means this 400-year-old story remains hugely relevant.

“It’s still contemporary,” he concludes. “The questions it asks you are still pertinent – what does the government do to control you? How does it rule? Does it take away people’s liberties? All those questions are bound up within the script.

“I don’t think it’s black and white; it’s much more complex than that, and that makes it a very relevant piece of television. Even though it’s a period piece, it still has something to tell us from the past.”

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A human story

In his first screen drama, novelist Patrick Gale tells two gay love stories set 60 years apart. DQ speaks to the writer and actors Vanessa Redgrave and Joanna Vanderham about starring in Man in an Orange Shirt .

Patrick Gale

From the sidelines, it looks like a cosy scene. Stepping down from Battersea Park’s picturesque bandstand, arm in arm, in immaculate 1940s dresses, Joanna Vanderham and Laura Carmichael are deep in conversation.

While extras in period costume walk behind them (and assistant directors, also in period costume, shoo away curious dog walkers) they are seemingly oblivious as their characters swap the closest of intimacies. The pair play sisters Flora and Daphne and the scene is at the heart of an ambitious new BBC2 drama, Man in an Orange Shirt, chronicling the modern history of gay lives in one family, set 60 years apart.

Vanderham, complete with a huge prosthetic pregnant bump, plays Flora, who just hours earlier discovered something that would change her life, the life of her unborn child, and his child too, forever.

Cleaning a desk belonging to her husband Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she finds letters from his lover Thomas (James McArdle), an artist who had been her husband’s best man at their wedding. She’d burned them and hastily arranged this meeting with her sister. But as she muses the reality of her husband being a gay man, she finds that she can’t even tell her big sister this dark, dark secret. The possible consequences – divorce and even jail – are too tough to contemplate.

“The way this scene is described in the script is ‘the women meet for lunch and everything is perfect’ with lots of exclamation marks,” says Vanderham. “But of course, the opposite is true. There are all of these things going on underneath the surface but Flora swallows it down. It’s a very British thing to do. She never says anything, she never says how she feels.

Joanna Vanderham (left) and Laura Carmichael as sisters Flora and Daphne respectively

“From this moment she moves forward in a way that means outwardly it looks like things are fine. But what we see is the cost and how much keeping everything bottled up costs her. At the start of the film she’s full of life and vitality; excited about her marriage and becoming pregnant. By the end she’s a tight-lipped, close-mouthed, unhappy and lonely woman.”

The two-part story of The Man in an Orange Shirt has been written by novelist Patrick Gale, whose original commission was the rather open-ended idea of doing something about the experience of gay men in the 20th century. He decided to turn the tale inward; in some ways it is his own story.

“It was the most terrifying commission I’ve ever had,” admits Gale, who is making his screen debut with the project. “The gem of this whole story comes from when I tried to come out to my mother when I was 22. I had written my first book about being gay and it was my way of coming out to her. But instead of talking about it, she revealed to me that my father had had an affair with another man when she was pregnant with me. She had found some letters and had burned them. The amazing scene that is in the first film actually happened to my mother but in real life she never confronted my father. She never told him.

“She just waited until I grew up and told me. Thanks mum! To my dying shame I never had a conversation with my father about it. He knew I was gay and was very sweet about my lovers but – being so British – we never really had a conversation about it. I wonder, I still wonder, what he thought of it all.”

James McArdle as Thomas (left) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Michael

The second of the films brings the action into the present day. Flora, now played by Vanessa Redgrave (who also played an older version of Vanderham in Richard III at London’s Almeida Theatre recently), is bringing up her grandson Adam (Julian Morris) after both his parents were killed in a car crash. He is gay but his grandmother’s attitude towards homosexuality means he can’t confide in her, and he’s filled with self-hatred over his own sexuality, spending his time meeting up with strangers for meaningless sex without even bothering to find out their names.

When he meets a man he genuinely likes, an architect called Steve (David Gyasi), he is frightened by his feelings and jeopardises the relationship.

“For me, the first storyline was about the enemy without and the second one is about the enemy within,” says Gale. “The core of gay shame is one we learn very young. My parents were very Christian and supportive but they passed on gay shame to me. Mine came out in appalling eczema I experienced in my teens; my shame came out in my skin.

“We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality [in the UK] but I think the problem of gay shame is one that won’t go away, however much legislation you pass. We will always be a minority, we will never apply to that Disney model of gender roles.”

The story depicts two timelines 60 years apart

Appearing in the drama, which is produced by Kudos and distributed by FremantleMedia International, also made Redgrave think about her own experiences. One of Britain’s most famously liberal stars, whose husband and father were both bisexual, she took some convincing to play the part of the embittered Flora. Gale wrote her a three-page letter explaining why Flora acts as she does in an attempt to win over the veteran actor – and it clearly worked.

“I had to start with the thought that she wasn’t always brusque and difficult,” says Vanessa. “She was somebody very nice who has had to fabricate a whole denial system in her life. The impact of that has built and built throughout her life.

“It has made me think a lot about my father’s generation. He was bisexual and a lot of his friends were totally gay; there were quite a few lesbians too. To protect themselves, they protected each other. How could we have called ourselves a democracy up until 1967 when this was illegal? The cruelty! What a cruel, harsh attitude of you can do this, but you can’t do that. Total stupid rubbish!”

The Man in an Orange Shirt, which debuts on BBC2 on July 31, is one of the cornerstone dramas commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the decriminalisation of homosexuality and it shows the legacy of draconian laws that meant it was impossible to live as an openly gay person. “It’s a drama about some people who are gay and some who are not,” adds Vanderham. “Flora is the female protagonist and she suffered just as much as the men in her life. More than a gay story, it is a human story which needs to be told.”

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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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Pick of the bunch

Writer Amanda Coe and executive producer Manda Levin reveal how they won the battle to turn Louise Doughty’s best-selling novel Apple Tree Yard into a four-part BBC drama starring Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin.

Apple Tree Yard follows a passionate but destructive affair

It’s described as a provocative, audacious thriller that has won legions of fans around the world. Louise Doughty’s novel Apple Tree Yard has sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK alone, and has been translated into dozens of languages since it was first published in 2013.

Now this gripping story is coming to television, after BBC1 in the UK commissioned a four-part adaptation from Kudos, the makers of Broadchurch, River and Utopia.

Married with two grown-up children, Yvonne Carmichael (played by Emily Watson) lives a contented, conventional suburban life. But her world spirals into chaos when a chance encounter leads to an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin).

Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk, as a life-changing act of violence leads to a trial.

Written by Amanda Coe and directed by Jessica Hobbs, the executive producers are Manda Levin and Lucy Richer. Due to launch on BBC1 on January 22, it is distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Here, Amanda Coe and Manda Levin reveal how they brought Apple Tree Yard to television after being captivated by Doughty’s original novel.

Manda Levin

Manda Levin: Kudos has a head of literary acquisitions, Sue Swift, who pans for gold, and when she is as excited about something as she was about Apple Tree Yard, we sit up and take notice. Apple Tree Yard was literary catnip to the women in Kudos. Here was a compelling page-turner which was about so many other things that matter to us deeply; our self control versus our most atavistic impulses, nature and nurture, the stories we tell ourselves, the mystery of the ‘other,’ the sheer hard work of being ‘good’…

Part of its cleverness is how the story segues between the visceral excitement of an affair into a shocking act of violence, and then the intensity of a great courtroom drama, giving all its rich themes a gripping narrative musculature. We took it straight to one of our favourite screenwriters, Bafta-winning Amanda Coe (Room at the Top), whose elegant, grown-up approach seemed perfect for this most precious prize. She was extremely patient with our hagiographical excitement about the prospect of an adaptation. But we certainly weren’t the only TV producers in town who had their heart set on optioning Louise’s incredible novel.

Amanda Coe

Amanda Coe: I read the book in a day, as gripped as its many other fans. I get sent a lot of books with a view to adaptation, and the ones that I’m least seduced by tend to be thrillers. Not because I don’t enjoy reading them, but because I’m loth to commit to spending months of writing time on a piece that is purely plot-led or sensationalist. It’s a bit like spending days in the kitchen to produce a packet of crisps — why not just pop out to the shop? Also, I find the violence against women in TV thrillers problematic, to say the least. But Apple Tree Yard so clearly uses the tricks and pleasures of the genre to sophisticated and thought-provoking ends, while never losing its grip on the narrative. It’s a rare beast. Less high-mindedly, I was also excited by the opportunity to explore such different registers: sexy affair! Crime! Court room! Family drama!

I’d never been involved in a pitch to an author, but Louise was generously responsive to our approach, as well as unusually understanding of the need for me to take on the book and turn it into something that stands alone in a different medium. A lot of the book’s power resides in its tight first-person identification with Yvonne, who is an unreliable but compelling narrator. On the page, we experience every moment through her eyes and soul. The great challenge in making the transition to screen is to retain that audience sympathy with her character, given a much more external aesthetic. Crucially, apart from a few tiny moments, every scene has Yvonne in it. Clearly we were hoping to attract an actor of Emily Watson’s calibre to take us on the journey, and how lucky we are that she agreed to do it.

The casting of talent of the calibre of Emily Watson was key says Coe

The story felt like it had the legs for four parts, giving each episode a different pace and texture, while shading in the complexities and contradictions of Yvonne’s character. Back-story, so organic to prose, clogs up the flow of a screen narrative, so I took the decision to run the unfolding crisis in Yvonne’s marriage to Gary alongside her affair with Costley. On screen, it makes the question of marital loyalty, as opposed to purely sexual fidelity, even more morally crunchy than in the book. For me, it tips the TV Apple Tree Yard towards a drama that asks questions about the mysteries of marriage and family life as much as a thriller about a woman’s sexuality on trial.

While writing the scripts I had the luxury and pleasure of proper time with Jess Hobbs, the director, so that every nook and cranny of the world and the story had been interrogated and explored before a single frame was shot. I think this attention to detail, both material and emotional, shines through in every moment Jess has put on screen. She has a wonderful mixture of rigour and empathy.

Levin: Something we hope feels pioneering in Apple Tree Yard is the portrayal of a middle-aged woman enjoying her sexuality. At the beginning of the story Yvonne is at a moment of transition, when women evolve from being extremely visible to virtually invisible, but crucially, she’s captured at the moment just before she accepts that fact. Having done everything so very right for so very long, on some level Yvonne believes she deserves this last fling. Before everything goes wrong, she’s lit up by her affair with Mark Costley in a way we’re not used to seeing on screen.

Louise Doughty’s novel sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK alone

Unfortunately, something we fear may also feel pioneering is having a middle-aged woman as the protagonist at all, the person to whom things happen and who makes things happen in their turn. Yvonne isn’t just a mother, or a daughter, or a wife, or a ‘career woman,’ but all of those and a lover to boot – a complex, contradictory leading lady, portrayed with courage and passion by the extraordinary Emily Watson.

Our aspiration for the show is that the audience will walk in Yvonne Carmichael’s shoes for four gripping episodes. And along with judging her – whose transgression has such catastrophic and punitive repercussions – they might flip the mirror to reflect on our society’s rush to judgement of all women, and in particular those who own their sexuality.

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Brits show progress in LGBT drama

Patrick Gale (photo by Daniel Hall)
Patrick Gale (photo by Daniel Hall)

British novelist Patrick Gale is writing an original drama for BBC1. Produced by Endemol Shine-owned Kudos, Man in an Orange Shirt is a two-parter that will explore how a painting links two gay love stories told 60 years apart.

Commenting on the project, Gale said: “Man in an Orange Shirt is the most exciting screen project I’ve worked on to date: an original drama exploring strands of gay male experience since the 1940s. It has been such a privilege to be given such an open brief and then allowed to run with it.”

Gale says he doesn’t want to give too much away, “but after much experimenting, we’ve ended up with two hour-long films — one set in the 1940s and 50s and one set in the violently contrasted present; one depicting a love story made impossible by pressures from society, one a love story nearly derailed by the long-term fallout from the 1940s story.

“People who know my novels will be unsurprised to hear that the stories give equal focus to wives and mothers and are about tensions between family bonds, the need to be good and the urge to seize happiness. I hope they’ll appeal equally to straight and gay viewers, but also that they’ll leave either side feeling challenged about things they take for granted.”

Russell T Davies' Cucumber
Russell T Davies’ Cucumber

Lucy Richer, BBC acting controller of drama commissioning and executive producer, added: “Patrick is an outstanding and bestselling novelist whose stories connect with readers worldwide. Distinctive, original voices are at the heart of BBC Drama and we are thrilled to be making his first original television drama for BBC1. Man in an Orange Shirt has all the hallmarks of a Patrick Gale novel: captivating stories with unforgettable characters who will strike a chord with us all.”

It isn’t uncommon for UK drama to include gay strands in stories. But a primarily gay-themed drama on mainstream British TV is still something of a novelty. The last high-profile example (2015) was Russell T Davies’ trilogy of dramas for Channel 4, entitled Cucumber, Tofu and Banana, each of which explored a different dimension of male gay culture in 21st century Britain.

Looking back over the last 25 years, the first landmark title in the LGBT canon was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a 1990 BBC series based on the novel by Jeanette Winterson – with Winterson adapting for TV.

Nine years later, Russell T Davies kicked the door down with his provocative debut series for Channel 4, Queer As Folk. Davies delivered another gay protagonist two years later in Bob & Rose, but it’s QAF that stands out as a landmark in the portrayal of contemporary gay Britain (or one subset of it).

Queer as Folk
Queer as Folk

While Davies is very much LGBT TV’s rock star, the last decade saw arrival of Sarah Waters on the scene, with adaptations of her lesbian protagonist novels Tipping the Velvet (2002), Fingersmith (2005) and The Night Watch (2011) – all for the BBC. If there’s a key difference, of course, it is that Davies has been writing original shows while Waters’ works were already acclaimed novels before being adapted for TV by Andrew Davies (Tipping the Velvet), Peter Ransley (Fingersmith) and Paula Milne (The Night Watch). Davies also does contemporary, while Waters favours historical.

In 2006 there was a BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s acclaimed gay-themed 1980s novel The Line of Beauty (starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Again adapted by Andrew Davies, the show received mixed reviews. The Independent called it “intelligent properly grown-up drama” but The Guardian said it was a “creative flop” that “exposed how poorly the BBC serves gay viewers.”

On balance, it seems as though broadcasters pay slightly more attention to the lesbian experience than the male gay experience – at least in terms of TV dramas with LGBT protagonists.

In addition to the above-mentioned titles, for example, there has been Channel 4’s Sugar Rush, based on Julie Burchill’s novel of the same name. The story of a 15-year-old lesbian called Kim who moves from London to Brighton, Sugar Rush ran for 20 episodes in 2006 and was adapted for the screen by Katie Baxendale.

Tipping the Velvet
Tipping the Velvet

More recently, there has been Lip Service, about a group of lesbians living in Glasgow. There were two seasons from 2010-2012, created by Harriet Braun and produced (again) by Kudos for BBC3.

Other shows that fit within the broader LGBT theme include Vicious, the 14-episode sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years. Backed once again by Kudos (and Brown Eyed Boy), this series (2013-2016) was unusual in that it aired on commercial network ITV, which shows that pulling power of McKellen in particular.

Vicious was created by Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, though the latter wrote all of the episodes and specials. It is worth noting that Janetti is actually a US writer drafted in to give the comedy a bit of US sitcom pizzazz (he was executive producer on Will & Grace).

Every bit as ground-breaking as the new Patrick Gale drama is Boy Meets Girl, a BBC2 sitcom about the developing relationship between a 26-year-old man and a 40-year-old transgender woman (played by transgender actor Rebecca Root). Although there have been mixed reviews of the quality of the comedy (also true of ITV’s Vicious), there’s no question that Boy Meets Girl – which is currently in its second season – is an example of the BBC trying its hardest to do diversity properly.

The genesis of Boy Meets Girl was a Trans Camp event organised by All About Trans, the purpose of which was to explore media portrayal of the trans community. From this, the BBC ran a talent search called the Trans Comedy Award, which offered writers up to £5,000 for scripts with positive portrayals of transgender characters.

Boy Meets Girl
Boy Meets Girl

One of the winners was Elliott Kerrigan for Boy Meets Girl. The show was commissioned on the basis of a pilot and Kerrigan was paired with Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam to write a series. The Tiger Aspect Production was then renewed.

If there’s a difference between the US and UK approach to LGBT inclusiveness at present, it is that the US is further down the road in portraying LGBT characters and stories as a part of the day-to-day tapestry of life, as regular people who aren’t overly focused on the politics of their sexual orientation.

US organisation GLAAD, which monitors LGBT portrayal in US TV and film, makes this point neatly when it counsels producers against using characters that “are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”

It will be interesting to see how Gale manages to address this in the context of a mainstream channel audience with Man in an Orange Shirt.

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YouTube takes scripted Step

Channing Tatum and wife Jenna Dewan Tatum in the Step Up movie
Channing Tatum and wife Jenna Dewan Tatum in the Step Up movie

The scripted TV business received another boost this week with the news that YouTube has moved into original scripted programming for the first time.

Unveiling a slate of six shows across a range of genres, it revealed that its paid-for service YouTube Red has ordered a TV adaptation of Step Up, the popular street dance movie franchise that featured Channing Tatum.

The series, to be made by Lionsgate TV, will follow dancers in a contemporary performing arts school. Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum, who starred in the original movie, will executive produce.

So far, the US$10-per-month service has focused on shows starring top YouTubers such as Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie. However, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has given a strong indication that scripted content will play an increasingly big part in her plans.

Unveiling the slate, which also included a scripted comedy called Rhett & Link’s Buddy System, she said original series and movies are one of the leading drivers of YouTube Red subscriptions, “with viewership that rivals similar cable shows.” Interestingly, more than half of people watching Red originals are doing so via mobile phones – suggesting there may be a future for vertical video.

The Frankenstein Chronicles stars Sean Bean (centre)
ITV Encore’s The Frankenstein Chronicles stars Sean Bean (centre)

Still in the world of streamers, SVoD behemoth Netflix announced that it is backing a true crime drama based on Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace.

The novel follows Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant living in Canada who, along with stablehand James McDermott, was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employers. The six-part miniseries will be written and produced by Sarah Polley and will air on Canadian public broadcaster CBC in Canada. Netflix will stream it worldwide.

Also this week, JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot has linked up with US talkshow host Tavis Smiley on a miniseries about the death of music icon Michael Jackson.

The series is based on Smiley’s book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days. Abrams and Smiley are also working on a TV version of the Smiley’s 2014 book Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Year.

Elsewhere, it has been a busy week for ITV’s pay TV channel ITV Encore, which has announced a series renewal and a miniseries commission. The renewal is for Rainmark Films’ well-received period drama The Frankenstein Chronicles, which stars Sean Bean and was created by Benjamin Ross and Barry Langford.

Billed as a “thrilling and terrifying reimaging of the Frankenstein story,” the first season followed detective John Marlott, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo who was battling his own demons and is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. In pursuit of a chilling and diabolical killer, Marlott’s investigation took him into the most exalted rooms and darkest corners of Georgian London, a world of body snatchers, anatomists and scientists whose interests came together in the market for dead bodies.

The new series has been commissioned for ITV by controller of drama Victoria Fea and commissioning editor Sarah Conroy. Production is set to begin in Northern Ireland in January 2017.

Suffer the Children is being adapted into a series called Dark Heart
Suffer the Children is being adapted into a series called Dark Heart

“We are thrilled to be working once more with Sean Bean in the role of John Marlott, who is a returning hero like no other,” said executive producer Tracey Scoffield. “With the continued support of ITV and (the show’s distributor) Endemol Shine International we want to be more ambitious than ever.”

ITV also announced a new two-hour crime thriller for ITV Encore entitled Dark Heart. In this production, Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s Demon, Monroe) plays Will Wagstaffe, a workaholic detective leading the investigation into the deaths of two unconvicted paedophiles.

The two-hour drama, set in London, is written by acclaimed writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten, A Mother’s Son) and based on the novel Suffer the Children by Adam Creed.

Dark Heart is an ITV Studios production for ITV Encore. It is executive produced by Lang, Kate Bartlett (Jericho, Vera) and Michael Dawson (Vera, Holby City). The producer is Chris Clough (The Missing, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) and the director is Colin Teague (Jekyll & Hyde, Da Vinci’s Demons).

ITV Studios’ Bartlett said: “Chris Lang has written a truly compelling and atmospheric script. Adam Creed created a fascinating character in Will Wagstaffe with so many layers, and Chris has brilliantly brought him to screen. We’re thrilled Tom Riley is playing him.”

Still on the subject of novel adaptations, there are reports this week that Endemol Shine-owned drama label Kudos has picked up the rights to Robert Harris’s best-selling Ancient Rome-based Cicero Trilogy, which comprises the novels Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator. No broadcaster is attached and Kudos is yet to decide on the format of the adaptation, but the project is likely to attract interest given the calibre of those involved.

Das Boot the movie was released in 1981
Das Boot the movie was released in 1981

In a busy week for new production announcements, pan-European satellite broadcaster Sky and Germany’s Bavaria Film announced that they are developing a €25m (US$27.5m) TV series based on the classic wartime submariner novels Das Boot and Die Festung by Lothar-Günther Buchheim. The series is being set up as a sequel to the 1981 film version of Buchmein’s novels.

Set in 1942 during the Second World War, the eight-hour series will focus mainly on the German point of view as submarine warfare became increasingly ferocious. Tony Saint (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, The Interceptor) and Johannes W Betz (The Tunnel, The Spiegel Affair) have been signed up as head writers, while Oliver Vogel and Moritz Polter are attached as executive producers.

Christian Franckenstein, CEO of Bavaria Film, said: “The 1981 film Das Boot is unique, and we are approaching our work with the greatest of respect for this masterpiece. We want to build on the strong brand of Das Boot, telling the story in a contemporary manner by making use of every filmmaking and storytelling technique available to us.”

Still in Germany, UFA Fiction has just unveiled plans to make a film biopic based on the lives of magicians Siegfried and Roy, two of the few truly global celebrities Germany has ever produced.

Siegfried & Roy
Siegfried & Roy

The film, which will likely be extended into a miniseries for television, will be directed by Philipp Stölzl (Winnetou, Young Goethe in Love, North Face) and scripted by Jan Berger.

Nico Hofmann, UFA producer and co-CEO, commented: “The prospect of working with Siegfried and Roy is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. It’s not only the story of two Germans who became world famous but a plunge into the world of magic and illusion. The lifework of Siegfried and Roy derives from an almost inexhaustible store of energy and creativity. This is the story of two men who set new, never repeated standards in the tough world of show business.”

Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Uwe Horn met on a cruise ship in 1960, where they developed their first joint show, driven by their shared passion for the art of magic and illusion. They had their international breakthrough in 1966 at a charity show in Monte Carlo. From 1990, they had their own show at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas featuring white tigers, which became their trademark. The spectacular Siegfried and Roy Show was one of the most elaborate stage shows ever. On October 3, 2003, however, the artists’ unique career was brought to an abrupt halt when Roy was critically injured by his favourite tiger, Montecore.

Alongside all of the above production activity, it has also been a busy week for distributors. ITV’s Maigret has been sold by distributor BBC Worldwide to broadcasters including Channel One in Russia, NRK in Norway, TVNZ in New Zealand, RTÉ in Ireland, Finland’s YLE and Prima TV in the Czech Republic. Simultaneously, StudioCanal has sold Section Zéro to Channel One Russia.

AMC’s international network AMC Global, meanwhile, today announced that it has acquired the upcoming anthology drama series The Terror, an adaption of the bestselling novel by Dan Simmons. Scott Free, Emjag Productions and Entertainment 360 are producing the 10-episode drama, which will premiere globally within minutes of its broadcast on AMC in the US.

Is there still hope for Hannibal?
Is there still hope for Hannibal?

Written for TV by David Kajganich, the series is set in 1847, when a Royal Naval expedition crew searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks the ships and their crew in a desperate game of survival.

“We’re very excited to bring this gripping dramatic story to AMC Global,” commented Harold Gronenthal,  exec VP of programming and operations for AMC and Sundance Channel Global. “With a distinctive combination of science fiction and historical non-fiction, The Terror will complement AMC Global series as Fear the Walking Dead, Humans and Into the Badlands.”

Finally, there are reports this week that showrunner Bryan Fuller is still hoping to revive serial killer drama Hannibal. The show was cancelled by NBC after three seasons but Fuller said there might be room for a revival in late 2017 – once he has dealt with the small matter of a Star Trek reboot for CBS and Starz’ American Gods.

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BBC reveals diverse slate

David Nicholls' Us
David Nicholls’ Us is being adapted by Nick Payne

The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.

But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.

The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.

As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.

Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”

Barbara Windsor
Barbara Windsor

Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”

For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.

Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”

The Boy With the Topknot
The Boy With the Topknot is being made into a series for BBC2

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”

On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.

Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.

Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”

The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.

To Be a Better Man
To Be a Better Man centres on a Chinese chef

Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”

In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.

The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.

Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.

Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.

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Watch your language

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.”

The Bridge
Set on the border of Sweden and Denmark, The Bridge uses both countries’ languages

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 adaptation The Tunnel combines French and English
The Bridge adaptation The Tunnel combines French and English

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.”

The Team
Pan-European crime drama The Team

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.”

The Last Panthers
Sky and Canal+ drama The Last Panthers

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+.

Jour Polaire/Midnight Sun
Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) centres on a French police officer in Sweden

“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.

The Missing
Like The Tunnel, BBC1’s The Missing also mixed English and French

“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.”

MICE
MICE is about Russian immigrants living in Israel

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.

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Sky takes drama to new heights

The Last Dragonslayer
The Last Dragonslayer is coming to Sky as a ‘family adventure’ drama series

In the US, big-budget drama has become a key battleground between pay TV platforms and their fast-growing SVoD rivals. Now, the same pattern is emerging in other parts of the world. After months of announcements from Netflix and Amazon about their new European dramas, DTH satellite platform Sky has hit back by announcing a formidable slate of six original shows.

At the end of last week, the firm said: “Responding to demand from customers for more original drama, the new productions combine with Sky’s groundbreaking HBO and Showtime partnerships to build on Sky’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best storytellers. (This is Sky’s) most ambitious slate of original productions yet, adding to its growing portfolio of drama.” No wonder they’re putting my subscription up by £4.25 next month…

Made by producers including Kudos (The Tunnel); Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude) and Carnival Films (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man), the six shows are expected to air across 2016/17. The writing and acting talent isn’t too shabby either. Writers include John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rowan Joffe (28 Days Later), while Idris Elba, Dawn French and Tim Roth are among the actors attached.

In truth, some of the series that are bundled together in the Sky announcement were already known about, though perhaps not with full details. Rowan Joffe’s Tin Star, which stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, was first discussed in March. Described variously as “a contemporary take on the western genre” and “a revenge thriller,” it tells the story of Jim Worth, an ex-Met police detective who starts a new life in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.

Neil Jordan’s Riviera, meanwhile, has been in the public domain since February. Starring Julia Stiles, Sky calls it a glamorous thriller “set in the world of the super-rich, where art, money, sex and love all come at a price.” Also known about for some time is Bill Gallagher’s period drama Jamestown. Produced by Carnival, it is set in 1619 during the early days of the first British settlers in America. It “tells the story of a group of young women as they leave the Old World and their old lives behind them.”

Idris Elba, pictured here in Luther, will star in Sky's Guerrilla
Idris Elba, pictured here in BBC detective series Luther, will star in Sky’s Guerrilla

News of The Last Dragonslayer first leaked in January. Based on the first of Jasper Fforde’s novels, it’s “a family adventure that follows the story of orphan Jennifer Strange, who reluctantly discovers her destiny is to become the last Dragonslayer.”

The last two projects on the slate (which are divided evenly across Sky Atlantic and Sky1) are Delicious, a four-parter starring Dawn French, and Guerrilla, a copro with Showtime starring Idris Elba. Written by John Ridley, the latter is “a love story set against the backdrop of the 1970s. It follows “a young couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London”.

Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “We know our original content is highly valued and a reason why customers choose and stay with Sky. Combining the scale and ambition of our Sky original productions with the best of the US and exclusive partnerships with HBO and Showtime, we believe our customers enjoy a better choice of drama at Sky than anywhere else in the world.”

Head of drama Anne Mensah added: “Our customers adore original drama, whether that’s a rich and complex storyline on Sky Atlantic or a blockbuster adventure on Sky1. We are incredibly proud to be working with such amazing talent across all our dramas. Everything we do at Sky is about being passionate, bold and unique and that philosophy underlines all of these shows.”

Sky drama boss Anne Mensah
Sky drama boss Anne Mensah

Sky said the new productions join eight original drama series already on air or set to air in the coming months on Sky Atlantic and Sky1. These include The Tunnel: Sabotage, Penny Dreadful, Fortitude, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Agatha Raisin, The Young Pope, Harlan Coben’s The Five and Hooten & the Lady. In terms of international distribution, Sky notes that Guerrilla will be handled by Endemol Shine International; Tin Star by Sky Vision and ESI; Riviera by Sky Vision; and Jamestown by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

In the US, meanwhile, premium pay TV channel HBO has just announced renewals for three of its key shows, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep, all of which started new seasons last night in the US. Game of Thrones, which has just started season six, will have a seventh season in 2017. Veep will now run for at least six seasons, while Silicon Valley will air for a minimum of four.

In the same week, A+E-owned cable channel Lifetime unveiled a range of new scripted projects last week, including Sea Change, a supernatural drama based on the young adult novel by Aimee Friedman. Also in development is None of the Above, a coming-of-age drama about a girl whose status as a homecoming queen is called into question when she discovers that she is intersex. Lifetime is also developing Deadline, a satirical one-hour drama that follows aspiring journalist Emily Twist, who is struggling to get noticed in a world that values gossip over investigative news.

Silicon Valley's third season started last night on HBO
Silicon Valley began its third season last night on HBO and has already been renewed for a fourth

Still in the US, producer Mark Gordon (Quantico) has teamed up with Mel Gibson on a project called The Barbary Coast, which will star Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson and Gibson, who will also co-write and direct. Backed by Entertainment One, the series begins during the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 and tells the story of San Francisco’s formative years.

“Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means,” said Gordon. “I’m excited that Kurt and Kate are working alongside Mel, whose astute direction will bring this devious time in our history to life.”

As yet no broadcaster has been attached to the production.

In a busy industry calendar, one event that seems to be attracting an increasing amount of attention is Paris-based Series Mania, which came to an end last week. As part of the event, there is a Coproduction Forum, which showcases projects looking for partners or finances.

This year, 16 projects from 10 countries were in the spotlight. The titles on display were 16 Knot (Lux Vide, Italy), Belle Epoque (Scarlett Production, France), Eden (Lupa Film/Atlantique Films, Germany/France), Flight 1618 (Makingprod, France), Gastronomy (Drama Team, Israel), Hidden (Yellow Bird, Sweden), Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, UK), Let’s Save the World (Constantin Film, Germany), Liar (Two Brothers Pictures, UK), One Square Mile (Pampa Production, France), Pipeline (Apple Film Production, Poland), Pwned By The Mob (Submarine, Netherlands), Stella Blomkvist (Sagafilm, Iceland), The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada), The Specialists (Fridthjof Film, Denmark) and Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark).

Series Mania general director Laurence Herszberg said: “The Forum has now become a key date in the calendar for TV series professionals from around the world. The 16 titles that were chosen reveal a wide range of forms and genres, including procedural thrillers to historical dramas, and all the way to edgy contemporary stories without forgetting mainstream fare.” It will be interesting to track these shows as they build momentum.

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Vikings prosper on History

Vikings' 20-episode fifth season will air next year
Vikings’ 20-episode fifth season will air next year

The thesis that high-quality TV drama can lift the fortunes of any TV network, no matter its positioning in the market, was partly inspired by the success of Vikings on History in the US.

Launched in March 2013 as a nine-part series, the Michael Hirst-produced drama encouraged the reappraisal of a network that had become a little too reliant on reality TV series like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. The fact that History had previously been perceived as a factual-only TV channel also encouraged an array of other networks to try their hand with scripted series.

Vikings, which is positioned as an Irish/Canadian coproduction, has grown into a huge franchise for History. After following up the first season with two more batches of 10 episodes in 2014 and 2015, the channel upped its commitment to 20 episodes for season four, which is currently on air. And that isn’t the end of the story – History has just ordered a further 20 episodes for 2017.

In total, this means there will be 69 episodes of the show by the end of 2017, which is also great news for MGM TV, which handles international distribution.

To date the main headline regarding season five, aside from the number of episodes, is that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) will be joining the cast. Production starts this summer.

Vikings has proved a ratings stalwart for History at a time when the channel has been busy developing other scripted ideas for its slate. Shows set to appear on History in the near future include Roots, Six, Knightfall and the acquisition War & Peace.

Rowan Joffe
Rowan Joffe

Meanwhile, there are reports that Sky Atlantic has commissioned indie producer Kudos to make its next big-budget drama, Tin Star. Created by Rowan Joffe, The Calgary Sun in Canada says the series is “an epic tale of deception, betrayal, murder and revenge set against the backdrop of a remote and beautiful Canadian mountain town; a perfect idyll, transformed when big business moves into the area.” The series will shoot near Calgary in late spring.

Joffe, the son of renowned director Roland Joffe, has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as Brighton Rock, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall and Before I Go to Sleep. As yet there are no casting details on the project.

With Empire a breakout hit for Fox and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson doing well on FX, it’s interesting to note that the depiction and treatment of African-Americans is starting to become a key focal point for the Fox family of channels.

At the mainstream end of the spectrum, Fox followed Empire with crime procedural Rosewood, while in the case of the American Crime Story franchise, FX is planning to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in season two. Fox has also placed a straight-to-series order for Shots Fired, which will analyse the recent racial tensions and police shooting incidents that have spurred demonstrations and outrage across the country.

Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood Hunt, Shots Fired looks set to be a major piece of work with a high-profile cast including Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer. It will focus on the political, commercial, legal and social repercussions of a North Carolina shooting, with Hunt playing a fictional North Carolina state governor and Dreyfuss a real-estate mogul who owns privatised prisons.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters has been given a second run on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family)

In other developments, US cable channel Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, has renewed its supernatural fantasy drama Shadowhunters. Based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, it tells the story of humans born with angelic blood who protect humanity.

NBC, meanwhile, has confirmed the fourth show in its Chicago procedural portfolio will be a legal series called Chicago Justice. The new show will be introduced to viewers during episode 21 of sister series Chicago PD, which is coming up in April.

This isn’t an especially active time of year for new drama greenlights, with the emphasis being on renewals and acquisitions. In terms of the latter, UK pay TV channel Sky Living has added Jennifer Lopez crime drama Shades of Blue and season four of country music drama Nashville to its line-up (The latter previously aired on More4). These join an existing slate of US series that includes Scandal, Elementary, The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Bones and Blindspot. Shonda Rhimes’ new show, The Catch, will also soon feature on the channel.

Distributor Hat Trick International, meanwhile, has announced a number of sales of three-part period drama Doctor Thorne. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, the fact this is Julian Fellowes’ first project since Downton Abbey was always expected to generate strong interest among buyers.

Channels to have jumped on board so far include VRT Belgium, DR Byen Denmark, UTV Ireland, YES Satellite Services Israel, Prime New Zealand and SVT Sweden. The show has also been licensed for the US and Canada by The Weinstein Company.

Doctor Thorne
Doctor Thorne has sold into a number of territories

Hat Trick sales director Sarah Tong said: “Doctor Thorne received a great deal of interest from the outset and we are delighted to announce these pre-sales ahead of MipTV (the Cannes market at the start of April). The unique combination of the original Trollope story together with Julian Fellowes’ first-class adaptation and input from the production team at Hat Trick has delivered a miniseries that will no doubt become a classic. We are looking forward to screening episodes of the drama to our clients.” Next week we’ll take a closer look at some of the dramas being presented at Mip.

Finally, a cancellation story: ABC in the US has axed biblical drama Of Kings and Prophets after just two episodes. The show, which tells the story of Saul and David from the Old Testament, already had a shadow hanging over it after ABC moved it out of the autumn schedule to make a few changes. But dismal ratings in the first two episodes sealed the show’s unhappy fate.

Two interesting themes come out of this story. The first is that ABC has a major problem with Tuesday at 22.00, with a long line of shows failing to perform in the slot (including Wicked City). The second is that biblical stories don’t seem to be able to gain much traction on US network TV.

While Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible did exceptionally well for cable network History, its sequel, AD: The Bible Continues, was aired on NBC and only lasted a single season before it too was cancelled.

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Strange bedfellows boost TV

E4 is adapting Turkey's Mesudarim (pictured) as Loaded
Channel 4 is adapting Keshet’s  Israeli series Mesudarim (pictured) as Loaded

This has been a fascinating week in terms of scripted shows that cut across traditional creative and commercial models.

In the UK, for example, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital network E4 is to coproduce an online gaming-inspired series with SVoD platform Netflix. Called Kiss Me First, the show is a six-hour thriller from Skins creator Bryan Elsley and a team of new writers. In the UK, it will air on E4 then Netflix. Elsewhere it will be on Netflix.

It is the first time C4 has done a deal of this kind with Netflix, though it has moved more aggressively into the coproduction area recently with shows such as Humans (a copro with AMC) and Indian Summers (with PBS).

Interestingly, the last time C4 and Netflix were mentioned in the same story was when the latter ‘poached’ Charlie Brooker’s dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (which first found its fanbase on Channel 4).

The underlying theme seems to be that C4 is looking for ways to get high-quality drama at an affordable price. This explains why it has also been showing interest in scripted formats recently. After the success of Humans (based on a Swedish show), it is now working on Loaded, an eight-part comedy drama that originated in Israel with Keshet Broadcasting. The UK version, to be written by Jon Brown (Fresh Meat, Peep Show, Misfits), follows four life-long friends who become multi-millionaires overnight. In Israel, the show was called Mesudarim and debuted in 2006.

The Shannara Chronicles will air on Channel 5 in the UK
MTV fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles will air on Channel 5 in the UK

E4 is also reportedly looking for a coproduction partner on Foreign Bodies, a backpacking comedy-drama from indie producer Eleven Film in which two British guys on a gap year go travelling with two American girls they meet in China.

Elsewhere, Televisa USA, a subsidiary of Mexican media giant Televisa, has partnered with Atalaya Productions to develop an English-language series called Aztecs, about the pre-Columbian civilisation. Michael Chernuchin (Marco Polo, Black Sails) has signed on as showrunner of the series, which is based on the Daniel Peters book The Luck of Huemac. Written in 1981, the book has virtually no profile on Amazon, so hopefully the show will encourage a few new copy sales.

Aztecs will feature a multi-ethnic cast and will follow a family living in the waning moments of the Aztec civilisation as the Spanish invasion looms. Televisa calls it the first TV project to tackle the subject of the pre-Columbian empire from its own vantage point rather than that of the Conquistadors.

“The team we assembled is perfect to bring this shockingly tragic cultural tale to TV in an authentic and respectful way,” said Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA. “Intrigue, betrayal and romance will be part of this great story and it all will be told from the eyes of the people that built and lost this civilisation.”

Cuba Gooding Jr will play OJ Simpson in a drama series following the ex-NFL star's murder trial
Cuba Gooding Jr plays OJ Simpson in a drama series about the ex-NFL star’s murder trial

Underlining the new battle lines being drawn in scripted content, Televisa USA has dramatically increased production over the past year. Other titles on its slate include Maleficio, being made with Starz; the Dougray Scott-fronted Duality; and Gran Hotel, adapted from the hit Spanish show and set in pre-Castro Havana. This comes in addition to Devious Maids, already airing on Lifetime.

It’s also been a busy week for acquisitions, with networks around the world stocking up on scripted shows for 2016. In the UK, Viacom-owned digital channel 5* has picked up fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles following its premiere on MTV in the US (another Viacom channel).

It’s not the first time that Viacom has kept a high-profile drama in the family in this way. Earlier this year, ancient Egyptian drama Tut aired on Viacom’s Spike in the US and was then picked up by 5* sister Channel 5 in the UK.

Still in the UK, BBC2 has acquired American Crime Story, a 10-part US anthology drama that spends its first season looking at the OJ Simpson murder trial.

Prison Break is coming back
Prison Break is coming back

With Simpson played by Cuba Gooding Jr, the show is set to debut on FX in the US on February 2. A few years back, you probably wouldn’t have seen an FX show on BBC2 but BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw called it a “gripping, highly distinctive” series, adding: “With an outstanding cast and a top-rate creative team, it is the kind of grown-up, contemporary drama I want on the channel.”

Amazon has also been busy, picking up PBS drama Mercy Street and acquiring all nine seasons of classic sci-fi series The X-Files. The latter is a shrewd move designed to take advantage of the buzz around the new X-Files series, coming soon from Fox.

With the return of The X-Files causing so much excitement, it’s no real surprise to see that Fox has also decided to bring back Prison Break, another of its cult series – last seen in 2005. According to reports from the US, the network has given the show a straight-to-series order. Its creator, Paul T Scheuring, is writing a script and a bible for that is expected to be an eight- to 10-part production.

dfdaf
BBC1 is adapting Apple Tree Yard

Another project in the news is Apple Tree Yard, based on the international bestselling thriller by Louise Doughy. The TV production is being made by Kudos for BBC1 in the UK and will be distributed internationally by FremantleMedia International.

Adapted by Amanda Coe, the four-part thriller “puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we make.” It stars Emily Watson (A Song for Jenny, The Theory of Everything) as a married woman who embarks on an impulsive and passionate affair with a charismatic stranger (Ben Chaplin). “Despite all her careful plans to keep her home life and career safe and separate from her affair, fantasy and reality soon begin to overlap and everything she values is put at risk,” says the pre-production blurb.

Coe, whose credits include Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, Bloomsbury Set, Life in Squares and an adaptation of John Braine’s Room at the Top, said: “Apple Tree Yard is a perfectly executed page-turner that’s also a gripping exploration of the difficult moral choices we face in adult relationships.”

Jon Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead (pictured left) will star in The Punisher
Jon Bernthal (left), best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, will star in The Punisher

Other new projects doing the rounds include American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a coproduction between SDE and Playboy-owned Alta Loma Entertainment. As yet, no network is attached to the project.

Also in the works is a new Marvel series based on its character The Punisher. Destined for Netflix, the series will star Jon Bernthal, known to fans of The Walking Dead as Shane Walsh – the Rick Grimes sidekick who loses the plot in season two. Anyone familiar with his terrific performance in that show will know he is perfect for Marvel’s morally dubious vigilante.

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