Tag Archives: Laura Mackie

A walk down Mainstreet

Mainstreet Pictures co-MDs Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie tell DQ about making the third season of crime drama Unforgotten, the trouble with in-demand writers, and their aim to produce television people want to talk about.

Unforgotten is the quiet star of the television crime genre. It is unshowy and patient, yet each season boasts a gripping storyline, ducking and weaving until it lands an emotional right hook that can floor even the most hardened viewer.

At once about the police investigation into a historic crime and also the ‘family’ of potential suspects introduced early on, the ITV series, written by Chris Lang, keeps you guessing until DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan – played by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar – piece together the clues before a devastating denouement.

Laura Mackie

The show returns for a third season this Sunday that will again see the duo delve into an emotionally charged cold case. The new season sees Alex Jennings (A Very English Scandal), Kevin McNally (Designated Survivor), Neil Morrissey (The Good Karma Hospital) and James Fleet (Indian Summers) play a close-knit group of old school friends who have stood by one another through thick and thin. But when the body of a teenage girl who went missing at the turn of the millennium is found at a building site, the four men find themselves and their relationships in the spotlight.

And though the crime at the heart of the story may be several years old, the characters also face more topical themes such as the stigma around mental health problems and the dark side of social media.

Distributed by BBC Studios, Unforgotten comes from Mainstreet Pictures, and was the first series produced by the label set up by former ITV drama heads Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes in 2013 after they both left the broadcaster. They have since gone on to produce another ITV miniseries, Paula Milne’s domestic horror HIM, while BBC drama Age Before Beauty, written by Debbie Horsfield (Poldark) and set in a Manchester beauty salon, will air this summer. They also recently won another BBC commission for Gold Digger, written by Marnie Dickens (Thirteen).

Unforgotten, however, is in that unique sweet spot. With two seasons behind it, the show is a bonafide hit – six million people watched the second run – and everyone involved in making the series now knows what the finished product should look like.

“It’s interesting with Unforgotten this year because Victoria [Fea, senior drama commissioner] has looked at all the cuts, but you do get to the point where a show knows what it is,” says Mackie. “It has its DNA and it’s a much faster process. We’ve got into the groove of what that show is and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s very much a different story but remains an emotional genre piece, particularly this year.”

Speaking to DQ inside their Holborn office in central London, it’s clear Haynes and Mackie have a lot of love for Unforgotten. “It’s our first child,” says Mackie, who notes that the third season is slightly unusual in that one director, Andy Wilson, has steered all six episodes.

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar play the detective duo at the heart of Unforgotten

But above all, “it’s a very deceptively simple format,” she says. “The clever thing about it is when Chris pitched it to us, he understood you need a satisfying whodunnit plot but he also wanted to look at society and different families and the secrets and lies within families. And that’s the format, whether it’s dealing with the characters of the age of Tom Courtenay in season one, a younger cast in season two or the suspects in season three who are all friends and it’s a slightly more notorious case. That gives it a slightly different feel.”

As Haynes notes, “it’s hard to find a gap in the crime genre without going to jazz hands or alien detectives.”

Some shows might do that, but it’s hard to imagine Cassie or Sunny breaking into song and dance midway through their investigation. Instead, it’s hard to recall a pair of more down-to-earth and unflashy detectives on screen, and the tender relationship they share is always at the heart of the drama, whatever case they are investigating. Haynes admits there’s something “rather wonderful” about the pair’s bond. “It’s very subtle and very sweet but it’s very engaging. Nicola is stunning.”

“Cassie’s an empathist – she just quietly gets on with the case and I think people have liked the fact that, in a world where there are a lot of quite noisy crime shows, this is quite a quiet show but probably better for it because it feels a bit different,” Mackie adds.

Mackie and Haynes, co-MDs of Mainstreet Pictures, both worked together at the BBC, where their credits included Cutting It and Bleak House. They then made the move to ITV, where Mackie was controller of drama and Haynes was director of drama commissioning, responsible for series including Scott & Bailey, Vera, Endeavour, Appropriate Adult, Broadchurch and Downton Abbey.

Neil Morrissey is among those starring in Unforgotten’s third season

Now five years after leaving the broadcaster, their aim at Mainstreet is to produce edgy shows that appeal to a mainstream audience. “Our ambition is to make big shows that people talk about,” Haynes says. “A lot of the shows we greenlit at ITV, that’s our taste – Downton, Broadchurch, Appropriate Adult. I love making shows for a lot of people to watch.”

Mackie picks up: “We’re both populists and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t want to do more of the same and not everything’s going to work. We did HIM; it probably wasn’t right for ITV and perhaps could have sat more comfortably on another channel, but you don’t always know. You have to go with your gut.”

Having overseen Downton’s extraordinary success both at home and around the world, the pair say they have two period dramas in development as they look for a gap in a genre that is seemingly a constant presence on British television, whether it’s The Miniaturist, Little Women and Poldark on the BBC or Victoria and the forthcoming adaptation of Vanity Fair on ITV.

“When we commissioned Downton, there was no period apart from a couple of classic adaptations – we did Wuthering Heights with Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley,” Mackie continues. “It was the era that, every autumn, we did classic adaptations. When Julian [Fellowes, Downton creator] and Carnival brought us Downton, period drama wasn’t in vogue but we really liked it. I still remember when we read that script and we said to each other, ‘I love it.’

“When we’re developing, we have to try to find something that’s so obvious, you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. They’re the best ideas, but they’re hard to find. Gold Digger has a real voice to it but that’s very much our taste; Age Before Beauty and Unforgotten too. All you can go on is your gut.”

Mackie and Haynes were responsible for commissioning mega-hit drama Downton Abbey

The duo waited three years for Horsfield to find the time in between seasons of Poldark to write Age Before Beauty. The show’s long development process exemplifies one of the biggest challenges facing UK drama, namely the reliance on a top tier of first-class writers.

But when it comes to finding writers to work with, Mackie argues you must look beyond the usual suspects. “We’ve got Debbie and Chris but people get booked up,” she says. “We had to wait for Debbie because she’s writing Poldark. So you have to look at writers of all levels. We both started as script editors, so we love finding new writers.”

The bigger difficulty, they claim, is the lack of opportunities for writers to cut their teeth on long-running serials. “When we were at ITV, there was Heartbeat and The Bill and various other things,” Mackie continues, noting that commissioners are still drawn to series that carry one author’s voice. “But new writers like Marnie are being given opportunities to write their own authored stuff. It’s not easy, but I think broadcasters are open-minded if the project is good and it’s with a company they think can support it.

“Some writers could just do with time on series, because it’s hard. But there’s always room for people coming through. You can’t just rely on the usual suspects, because they’re all too busy.”

It shouldn’t be hard to draw Lang back for a fourth season of Unforgotten, with Mackie and Haynes teasing that the writer already has a story in mind.

For Haynes, the show’s success boils down to its simplicity. “It’s an emotional story that is also a genre piece,” she says. “I’ve read every script dozens of times, watched every cut dozens of times and still have a cry.”

Mackie adds: “Because Chris wanted to write about the suspects and their lives, it does allow you to tell a family drama or the stories you don’t have room for in a traditional crime drama. Cassie and Sunny are also deceptively ordinary, and ordinary is hard to do. It’s an emotional thriller.”

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James Patterson enters the true crime arena

Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer
Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer

Series that deal with real-life crimes are nothing new, but until recently they have mostly inhabited the factual/reality TV space. Currently, however, there is a growing trend towards true crimes as the subject of scripted series.

Netflix’s Making A Murderer was one of the triggers for this genre. Although it was a documentary series, its filmic style – combined with the way it unravelled over 10 episodes – had an immediate impact on the way producers looked at the potential of true crime. Then there was The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, an excellent FX drama that has picked up a number of Emmy nominations this year.

Choosing the right crime is clearly half the battle in making a series like this appeal to audiences. But then you also need a writer who knows how to skilfully balance fact with fiction, someone who is willing to do the necessary research – for the sake of accuracy – but also knows how to make the characters and storylines engaging and immersive over several episodes.

Last week, for example, we reported that Rene Balcer is going to write a Law & Order-branded true crime scripted series based around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996. Balcer is an ideal example of the kind of writer who can handle this type of project, because he combines a forensic attention to detail with a storyteller’s verve.

James Patterson
James Patterson

This week, US network Investigation Discovery announced that it is also getting into the true crime game. Although it hasn’t yet named the subject, it has signed a development deal with author James Patterson – who will create a six-part series. Explaining why the channel has elected to work with Patterson, Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, said: “As the best-selling author around the world since 2001, there is no bigger name than James Patterson. He is the ultimate storyteller, and for a television network known for its own powerful storytelling, to have him as our ‘partner in crime’ is truly a match made in heaven for his readers and ID’s viewers.”

It’s not clear yet whether Patterson will actually pen the scripts, or simply provide the storyline to the ID show. However, there’s no question his name will add gravitas to the project, in the way the Law & Order franchise will do for the Menendez project.

The blurring of the line between fact and fiction – and the need for writers to be able to operate in this space – is also evident in the case of Harley & The Davidsons, another high-profile production doing the rounds. Discovery Channel has just released a trailer of the limited series, which tells the story of the founders of Harley Davidson Motorcycles at the start of the 20th Century. At time of writing the trailer had been viewed seven million times, more than any other Discovery programme trailer ever.

Harley and the Davidsons
Harley & The Davidsons is being prepared for Discovery

The show is being made by Raw Television, a company best know for its factual productions, and written by Evan Wright and Seth Fisher. Wright’s credits include Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and FX’s The Bridge, while Fisher worked on National Geographic’s founding-fathers drama Saints and Strangers. Harley Davidson opened up its archives and family members provided historical details to help the production form characters and key events. However, producers had complete editorial independence, underlining the need for a compelling story to carry the show.

In other news, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a four-part drama series to be written by Chris Lang and Matt Arlidge. Called Innocent, the show tells the story of a man who spends seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife. When he is acquitted over a technicality, he sets about proving his innocence to his estranged family. Lang’s writing credits go all the way back to sketch comedy series Smith & Jones in the 1980s, though more recent credits include Unforgotten, Undeniable and The Tunnel. Arlidge counts Mistresses and Monarch of the Glen among his credits. The show was commissioned by ITV controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “Innocent is a contemporary relationship drama with a thriller pulse. Chris and Matt’s scripts have created an intense web of characters with interwoven lives – with a seemingly ordinary husband and father at its heart.”

Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson
Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson

Other projects revealed to be in the works this week include a superhero drama for Starz that has been created by Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Jackson was also involved in the creation of Starz hit series Power, though the actual writing job on that is handled by Courtney Kemp Agboh. The new project, called Tomorrow Today, is about a military veteran who, after being falsely imprisoned, becomes the experiment of a mad doctor trying to create the perfect man.

Starz is also working with Lionsgate and Televisa USA on an adaptation of Mexican telenovela Teresa. Writer/producer Carlos Portugal will showrun the series, which follows an undocumented young Latina as she makes her way into the world of LA wealth. “Teresa will showcase a modern take on what it means to be Latina in America,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik.

Portugal’s previous credits include Meet the Browns and East Los High. The latter is an Emmy-nominated Hulu series about a group of Latino teens in their final years at a fictional high school in East LA. Portugal and the producers of the show worked with various public health organisations to incorporate storylines that encouraged young Latinos to make healthy life choices.

Katori Hall
Katori Hall

Starz has also unveiled plans for a series called Pussy Valley, which looks at the lives of pole dancers working in a strip club in Mississippi. That might look like controversial territory, but Starz has put the project in the hands of playwright Katori Hall – whose numerous acclaimed theatre shows include The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King Jr’s last night before his assassination.

Commenting, Zlotnik said Hall “has successfully created exciting and complex roles for black women in American theatre and we’re confident she’ll continue to do so with Pussy Valley.”

This week has also seen announcements about a brace of new shows centred on personal grooming. In the US, Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) is writing a series called Claws that is said to be in the vein of Desperate Housewives. It follows the lives of five Florida manicurists. In the UK, the BBC has ordered a drama from Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield called Age Before Beauty.

The new drama will follow the lives and loves of workers in a salon. It is the second time Horsfield has explored this area (after Cutting It in 2002). The show is being made by Mainstreet Pictures, the independent production company set up by Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes. Commenting on the series, Mackie said: “Debbie is writing at the top of her game and in Age Before Beauty she’s created a colourful and memorable set of characters and a story that examines our obsession with the ageing process in an emotional, entertaining and surprising way.”

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Under the influence: Unforgotten writer Chris Lang

With his new ITV show Unforgotten focusing on the investigation into a 39-year-old murder case, writer Chris Lang tells Michael Pickard how police documentaries have changed the way he looks at crime dramas.

Could you live with yourself for 40 years after committing a heinous crime? That’s the question at the heart of Unforgotten, a new six-part drama now airing on ITV.

Created and written by Chris Lang (Undeniable, A Mother’s Son), it opens as the bones of a young man are found beneath the foundations of a demolished house, launching an investigation into a 39-year-old murder that will unravel the lives of four people who discover the past won’t stay buried forever.

Chris Lang
Chris Lang

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar pair up as DCI Cassie Stuart and DS Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan, who gradually unravel the secrets hidden by four potential suspects – played by Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve, Ruth Sheen and Tom Courtenay.

“It’s been an incredibly enjoyable experience,” says Lang of the show’s production. “I would relish the opportunity to do it all again. It’s such a difficult process making shows and you never quite know if the alchemy is going to come together to make something good and if it’s going to be an enjoyable experience. It is just a kind of magic when it works, and I believe it has on this occasion.”

Lang’s initial inspiration for the story came from a news report concerning a historical police investigation that led to the conviction of an 80-year-old man: “I was struck by how that person’s life, in a space of a few hours, had collapsed. I just thought that was a really interesting starting point – what’s it like to live with a crime for 30 or 40 years and have a family and career, only to see them dismantled in an instant? What’s that like for the person and all those people around you? That crystallised a few ideas and then other ideas were added to that to create a story.”

The series, which is distributed internationally by BBC Worldwide, is the first commission for Mainstreet Pictures, the fledgling production company formed by former ITV drama heads and Unforgotten executive producers Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes.

Unforgotten stars Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker as a pair of detectives
Unforgotten stars Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker as a pair of detectives

“It was quite an easy commission,” Lang recalls. “I took it to Laura and Sally who I knew very well and who had just left ITV (in June 2013). We met and had a chat; I wasn’t expecting to pitch to them but they seemed very excited by the idea.

“I was working on something else and they did what good producers do – they kept hassling me to give it to them. So they did their job well and I’m glad they did. Then we pitched it to ITV and they got it immediately. It seemed a natural fit and they’ve been extremely supportive all the way through.”

In less than two years, Unforgotten has grown from an idea to a fully realised drama, which is partly attributed to Lang penning the script in just six months.

“People often say I’m a fast writer. I don’t think I’m particularly fast but I work long days,” he explains. “I start at 08.30 and often don’t finish until 19.00, and I don’t really take a lunch break. I put the hours in. People often ask me how one becomes a writer – well, you sit down at a desk and write. Quite often what you write is rubbish, but you go back the next day and rewrite it. I probably wrote the whole series in six months. Each episode probably took four or five weeks to write.”

The show was greenlit by ITV in March 2014 and went into pre-production last December with the unusual advantage of having all six scripts completed.

Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings) also has a leading role
Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings) also has a lead role

“For production purposes that’s a godsend because you can tie down so much,” Lang adds. “You know where everything’s set and what characters you have to cast. When I’ve worked on other people’s shows and written for existing series, you’re frequently working in a state of total chaos. The scripts might not come in until three or four days before shooting – it’s terrible for everyone. I hate doing that, so I always endeavour to have all the scripts ready before we go into pre-production.”

Explaining Unforgotten’s tone, Lang says there’s no blood or gore – “It’s not that sort of show.” Instead, he has firmly rooted it in reality in order to demonstrate changes in society over the past 50 years.

“I wanted to reflect something of the movement in society and our various attitudes,” he says. “I never wanted the storyline to feel forced or fantastical in any way. I’ve written many thrillers over the years and I hope the more I do it, the more I learn that telling stories that are completely rooted in believability are much more appealing to an audience. I hope I’ve achieved that. That was the ambition.”

The premise of the story does bring with it one particular test for any writer: how do you introduce so many characters at the beginning of a series and ensure viewers stick with it until they learn how they might all be connected? Lang says it was a “real structural challenge” but that it was a deliberate strategy, aided by a strong cast.

Unforgotten is the first commission for Mainstreet Pictures
Airing on ITV, Unforgotten is the first commission for Mainstreet Pictures

“A lot of dramas employ a structural device that’s quite linear, that presents one suspect and discounts them and moves on to the next again and again over the course of six or 10 parts,” he says. “I began to find that quite unsatisfying because you would invest your time and emotion in one character and then they’d be gone, so I really wanted to present a cast of characters that viewers stay with for the whole show.

“It helps when you’ve managed to attract the cast we did. Within the first 14 minutes of the show, we have introduced to the audience not just Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Baskar but Tom Courtney, Trevor Eve, Bernard Hill and Ruth Sheen and all their families, featuring Hannah Gordon, Gemma Jones and Claire Goose. If we can’t hold them with that cast, we’re sunk, but I think we can.”

With additional credits including ITV’s The Bill and Sky Atlantic/Canal+ coproduction The Tunnel, based on Scandinavian mega-hit The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Lang has plenty of experience writing police dramas.

But he credits documentary series such as 24 Hours in Police Custody, The Met and The Detectives with influencing the realistic tone and style of Unforgotten.

“The genre has evolved massively in my time as a writer,” he says. “The Bill was incredibly procedural and all about the minutiae of on-the-job coppers, but shows like 24 Hours in Police Custody are rewriting the rules about how we see the police. Our design team and director Andy Wilson used them as really helpful templates for how policing looks and feels.

“There’s a definite and deliberate move away from the highly stylised police shows where you’ve got beautiful offices and moodily lit basements where it’s arty and gorgeous. Ours are just incredibly ordinary but I hope incredibly real. Hopefully it reflects the reality more than the stylised shows do.”

For now, Lang is thankful he is working in “the best time to be a writer that there’s ever been.” In particular, he points to the “paradigm shift” demonstrated by the movement of creative talent from film to television, rather than the other way.

“Drama is riding high everywhere,” he says. “I’m constantly going to meet producers who are moving from film to television because it’s where a lot of the real creativity is now taking place in a way it wasn’t 10 or 20 years ago. In television, writers have always had more respect than in film – even more so now. So it’s a great time. Television just feels incredibly creative and it’s the place where talent wants to be. Making a film was always the holy grail of being a writer or director but I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

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