Sean Bean, Helen Hunt and Lesley Manville head the cast of World on Fire, a seven-part series that follows ordinary people from across Europe as the continent becomes consumed by the Second World War.
In this DQ interview, writer Peter Bowker and executive producer Helen Ziegler reveal the origins of the series and explain how it follows the lives of multinational people on all sides of the global conflict.
They also discuss how they tried to distance the show from any elements of nostalgia, building the series around a love story between a British translator (Jonah Hauer-King) who falls in love with a Polish waitress (Zofia Wichłacz), despite his relationship with factory worker and singer Lois (Julia Brown) back home.
World on Fire is produced by Mammoth Screen for BBC1, and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
World on Fire aspires to be the definitive Second World War drama. DQ reveals how writer Peter Bowker has taken the global conflict and reduced it to a domestic level, weaving an emotionally tangled web of multi-national characters whose ordinary lives intersect through love, hope and tragedy.
“It sounds more complicated than it is,” explains writer Peter Bowker when he recalls the plot of his latest series, World on Fire. Described as an adrenaline-filled, emotionally gripping and resonant drama set during the first year of the Second World War, it follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people as they grapple with the effect of the war on their everyday lives.
But what makes the show stand out from other wartime dramas, such as HBO’s celebrated miniseries Band of Brothers, is the way it watches the conflict unfold from a multi-national perspective. Polish, French, German, American and British characters are at the heart of the seven-part series, as it charts the experiences of individuals and families facing the fall-out from war.
Bowker says it had never occurred to him to write a period piece about the consequences of military action, despite having penned Iraq War drama Occupation (2009). Yet when Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer asked him whether a Second World War drama could ever match the scale and emotional intensity of iconic documentary series World at War, an idea was planted that the writer couldn’t shake. “I turned him down a couple of times but the idea wouldn’t go away, and that’s usually a good clue that you should be writing it,” he says.
At the heart of the story is Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), a British translator who leaves home to work in Poland on the eve of the conflict. Back home in Manchester, he is romantically linked to Lois (Julia Brown) but then falls in love with Polish waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz). Sean Bean plays Lois’s father Douglas, Lesley Manville is Harry’s mother Robina and Helen Hunt is American journalist Nancy Campbell.
When conceiving the idea for the show, Bowker says he was keen to avoid the ghosts of British comedies ’Allo ’Allo and Dad’s Army. One way around them was to employ a natural use of language, with characters largely speaking their native language, rather than have everyone talking English with accents. “It just looks silly now,” he says. “I don’t think you can get away with two Germans speaking English with a German accent anymore.”
The other issue he had writing the series was to avoid some of the language used by real people during the war. “I’ve read a lot of diaries in the Imperial War Museum [in London] and it’s amazing stuff, but of course the language of the 1940s is very much, ‘Gerry is on our tail again,’ which is a kind of comedy cliché now,” he continues. “It’s finding a way to make the language sufficiently of the time yet not fall into those types of clichéd tropes.”
Bowker also looked to introduce real events in a new way, such as following shell-shocked troops on the long road to the Dunkirk beaches, rather than simply meeting them on the sand. But above all, what surprised – and reassured – him the most after reading the accounts of young Polish waitresses living in Warsaw, on the cusp of the war, was learning that the hopes and dreams, fears and worries of people were just the same as they have today.
“They talk about boys, making a decent coffee, being annoyed with their parents,” he says. “Then they say, ‘Something interesting happened today. I joined the Resistance.’ It was so reassuring because nobody’s different in time. Historically, our concerns remain the same and that was exciting and felt new.”
Shepherding the project, which is produced by Mammoth for BBC1 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, alongside Timmer has been Mammoth’s exec producer Helen Ziegler, who joined while the show was still in development.
“What grabbed me so utterly and completely is that Pete has this amazing way of making you feel like you’re absolutely there and making it incredibly immediate,” Ziegler says. “It just felt like I had honestly never seen that perspective on the war or felt like I was living and breathing it. I was with the characters and his aim of taking these ordinary lives absolutely sung off the page of the first script.”
For the most part, filming took place in the English city of Manchester and in Prague, with the Czech Republic capital doubling for Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. Then, to distinguish the various settings, production designer Paul Spriggs, lead director Adam Smith and series producer Chris Clough emphasised their architecture. Warsaw, says Ziegler, is a beautiful, glamorous city with an Art Deco style, while the show also embraces Berlin’s strong lines and Manchester’s industry and red bricks.
“It is an epic piece but we always want it to be intimate, we always want to see it through the eyes of the characters,” she says. “One of the rules of cinematic style is to be with the people whose story we’re following and see their worlds from their perspective.
“Paul, Adam and Chris found these incredible ruins and they built part of our Warsaw set within them so that we could show, as the bombing of Warsaw starts, how the city starts to crumble, and then go into the ruins and use them. It was such a clever idea, it’s such a feat. There have been lots of different creative ways to give this piece the scale it needs.”
Bold in scale, the series is also hugely ambitious. World on Fire is designed as a multi-season drama, with each season marking one year of the war. Each episode also includes a major sequence from the conflict, with season one featuring the fall of Paris in episode one, as well as the fall of Warsaw, the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, among other events.
“We’re based in London but we had so many different units filming all over the place,” Timmer says. “There would be a unit filming scenes in Berlin and another in Warsaw and scenes in Manchester, and the rushes would be coming in. Sometimes you’d go from watching Lesley in Manchester to something happening in Warsaw. It did feel like the war was unfolding in real time. It was quite curious.
“There’s a lot of visual effects but we try to do as much in camera as possible. Dunkirk was at St Anne’s Beach in Blackpool. It was the end of May, beginning of June, and for complicated reasons we had no choice but to shoot it in February when we were blessed with the bluest skies, incredible sun and what could have been our Waterloo turned out to work really well. But it was massive in terms of the technical exercise.”
Confined to filming most of her scenes in Manchester and nearby Wigan, Manville plays Harry’s mother Robina, an upper-middle-class woman she describes as frosty, private and cold. Still angry at her husband’s suicide, she mellows as the drama moves forward, particularly when Harry returns with a young Polish boy who she takes into her home.
“What was really lovely to play about this character was that it’s not a complete metamorphosis, but in her own quiet way she goes on a little voyage of discovery,” the actor says. “She finds true feelings for this boy and comes to care for him deeply.
“She lives in this huge pile of a house, alone and doesn’t seem to have much of a life or friends. In some ways, cold as she is, deep down she’s had this desire for something to make her feel and be warm and understand things. That’s what happens. And she’s got some very dry, funny lines as well. Peter has written some choice bits of dialogue for her. It’s upmarket Hyacinth Bucket [the snobbish lead character in UK sitcom Keeping Up Appearances], in terms of the comedy. It’s not ‘ba-boom’ but it’s very dry and witty. It’s lovely. Some of the later scenes with her son are quite powerful and potent.”
Later in the series, Robina discovers Lois is pregnant with Harry’s child, while he ends up marrying Kasia to rescue her from the war. “There’s a great line from Robina,” Manville reveals. “‘If I’d know he was going to marry a Polish waitress I would have seen you [Lois] as more of a prospect.’ That’s her in a nutshell.”
Harry’s relationship with Lois also fosters a blossoming friendship with Robina and Bean’s Douglas, who Manville admits are an odd couple. “What is lovely about it is these two characters, were it not for the war and the situation of her son impregnating his daughter, they’re an unlikely match,” she says. “He’s a bus conductor and she’s a wealthy upper-middle-class woman who doesn’t work. But they certainly develop this friendship that’s really rather tender. She starts to see that underneath all the layers of class, there are people who are human beings who you can have the same conversation with. They just sound different.”
Like Robina, Douglas is a single parent, having been left along with children Lois and Tom after their mother left home. He’s also still struggling to come to terms with his experiences during the First World War. “He’s a beaten man in some ways,” says Bean. “You can still see the strong character that he once was, but he’s been battered down and demoralised by the bloodshed and the horror that he saw out there. He’s not on his own either. There were many who were seen in that way and were treated as if there was something wrong with them. They didn’t really recognise shell shock, which has such a devastating impact on so many men.”
This means that on the brink of the Second World War, working-class Douglas is a conscientious objector – a position that leaves him open to criticism from his friends and neighbours.
“He’s chosen a very hard war to be a conscientious objector in because on the surface it was quite cut and dried,” Bean explains. “He’s very brave to have done that. He gets a hard time from everyone really and when he would go out to get food, people would turn their back on him. It was a very lonely life for him and he’s just trying to do his best. He’s trying to bring his kids up the best he can and he’s still suffering, psychologically and mentally. Then he meets a woman who’s got quite a lot of money. That brings Douglas out of himself and it helps Robina as well because they’re totally different.”
During filming, many of his scenes were emotionally intense, and viewers will see Douglas fall apart when he’s left on his own. But Bean also got to spend a lot of time in a kitchen, next to a fire, having cups of tea and reading the paper, “which was great,” he jokes.
Bowker adds: “What I’m particularly interested in is informing the universal, not establishing the universal and coming down. Sean’s found me out really because all I’ve done is reduce the world to a kitchen.”
As Poldark returns for its fifth and final season, series creator and writer Debbie Horsfield tells DQ how the period drama departs from its source material and outlines her approach to bringing the saga to a close.
It’s the last season of a costume drama, based on a series of popular novels, where the writer has left behind the source material to round out the story. But while Poldark may not generate the same number of furious Tweets as Game of Thrones’ finale, surely one of the most polarising in television history, creator and writer Debbie Horsfield is looking forward to the inevitable discussion that will surround her show’s conclusion.
“What’s not to like about robust and hearty debate?” Horsfield tells DQ. “There are always going to be people attached to certain versions of the books. I’m personally attached to a certain version of my script and I often lament the fact the scripts don’t make it in their entirety to the screen, for all kinds of reasons. We all have an attachment to our own personal version of something because we all view things through our own personal perspective. That’s just part and parcel of doing an adaptation.”
The writer believes there is less pressure on the conclusion to a piece of original drama, as viewers and fans will have no pre-existing expectations of what may or may not happen, unlike with an adaptation of a popular set of novels. “But even then,” she continues, “once you get to the second season of something, people have a set idea of how they want it to go, but that’s the deal. You write something, you put it out there and you expect people to have an opinion about it. You at least want them to watch and have a debate.”
As Poldark returns for a fifth and final eight-part run, it’s very much business as usual, with a new story unfolding and characters old and new uniting at the turn of a new century.
In terms of the production, everything is as it should be, from the magnificent, sprawling Cornish landscapes to the fast-paced scenes and quick cuts that propel the story forward and ensure the main characters are all serviced during the hour-long opening episode, setting them on the path that will lead to the series’ conclusion.
Season four ended in 1799, at the end of Winston Graham’s seventh Poldark book The Angry Tide. But in a departure for the series, Horsfield has set this new season in 1800, filling the time jump before the eighth novel, The Stranger from the Sea, which opens in 1810.
Episode one begins with Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) determined to spend more time with his family following the death of Elizabeth Warleggan (Heida Reed). But when Ross’s former army colonel Ned Despard (Vincent Regan) and his wife Kitty (Kerri McLean) ask for his help, he is compelled to challenge the establishment and question his loyalty to king and country.
Meanwhile, as Dwight and Caroline Enys (Luke Norris and Gabrielle Wilde) join the cause, Ross’s wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) must contend with dangers closer to home, while George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), deep in grief over Elizabeth’s death, courts corrupt powers whose influence spans the British Empire.
At first, Horsfield adapted two of Graham’s books per season. Then, as the novels grew longer, the adaptation slowed down to one-and-a-half books for each of the most recent two seasons due to the amount of material the show needed to cover. Season four concluded at the end of book seven, but owing to the fact book eight takes place after a 10-year time jump, Horsfield decided season five would bridge that gap, taking place between 1800 and 1802, immediately after season four.
“I hadn’t done an adaptation before Poldark so normally I just make stuff up, but it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that,” Horsfield says about her approach to the new season. “We wanted to preserve the integrity of the later books. There are five more books and we didn’t want to do anything in this season that was going to go against anything that happened in the later books. Also, in book eight, there are a lot of details and references to things that happened in that intervening decade, so I used that as a basis for a lot of the storylines.”
Season four and book seven end with Poldark as a mine owner and a rather frustrated politician, unable to effect change in the way he had hoped. Book eight then picks up with him on a secret mission in Portugal as a government agent.
“There’s very little in the books about what led him to that, so basically season five imagines what circumstances might have conspired to put Ross on that journey,” Horsfield explains. “Then my path was to look at what was happening historically in the period 1800 to 1802. Was there even a secret service in existence at that point? It turned out there absolutely was. There was a very active spy network in London because it was a time of fear of there being an English revolution following the American and French ones.
“So what I discovered in the research was the context was very much there for Ross to become an agent of the government, but it was just tracing those steps one by one to see how he gets there.
“We did work very closely with Andrew Graham [Winston Graham’s son and series consultant for his estate] and put all the storylines to him. He was very much in agreement that the methodology we were going with was what his father would have done. It was great to have that support.”
Horsfield admits the production team never knew from season to season whether the series would return, while the “best case scenario” was always that it would last for five seasons – the length of the stars’ contracts. The series is produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
As a result, she says writing this season’s finale – the show’s ultimate conclusion – was no different to penning the final episode of previous seasons. “You always want your final episode to be very climactic but leaving the audience wanting more,” she says. “It’s always nice to quit while you’re ahead and leave the audience wanting more, so that was in my mind as I was writing that finale.”
But with other Poldark books yet to be adapted, is this really the end for the show? “You can never say never,” Horsfield responds, though there is certainly no immediate plan to return to Cornwall.
“Who knows where everybody’s going to be in 10 years’ time and whether there will be an interest from anyone, the public included. I know most of the cast and crew, and certainly myself, are on other projects, so a lot of people are busy for quite some time. Obviously there are five more books, so one can never predict what will happen.”
The ABC Murders is the latest Agatha Christie novel to be reinvented for the BBC by writer Sarah Phelps and producer Mammoth Screen. The creative team behind the project gathered at Content London 2018 to discuss the adaptation process and casting John Malkovich as Poirot.
Based on the classic 1936 novel, The ABC Murders is next instalment in the collection of Agatha Christie novels to be adapted for the BBC.
Following in the footsteps of And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016) and Ordeal by Innocence (2018), the three-part miniseries sees John Malkovich step into the storied shoes of iconic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
The cast also includes Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, Andrew Buchan as Franklin Clarke, Eamon Farren as Cust, Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Hermione Clarke, Bronwyn James as Megan and Freya Mavor as Thora Grey.
Set in 1933, the show sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as ABC. First the killer strikes in Andover, then Bexhill. As the murder count rises, the only clue is the copy of the ABC Railway Guide at each crime scene. If Poirot is to match his nemesis then everything about him will be called into question: his authority, his integrity, his past and his identity.
Directed by Alex Gabassi and produced by Farah Abushwesha, The ABC Murders is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Limited drama for BBC1 and Amazon, with Endeavour Content distributing. The executive producers are writer Sarah Phelps, plus Damien Timmer and Helen Ziegler for Mammoth Screen, James Prichard and Basi Akpabio for Agatha Christie Limited and Elizabeth Kilgarriff for the BBC. It debuts in the UK on Boxing Day.
The ABC Murders was the subject of a case study at Content London 2018, where Phelps, Prichard, Timmer and Kilgariff discussed making the series.
James Prichard, CEO and chairman of Agatha Christie Limited and great-grandson of Agatha Christie: In terms of Agatha Christie’s full body of work, The ABC Murders is relatively early. We’re in the mid-1930s but, in terms of this story, Poirot is quite well developed. This is a story about Poirot ageing, and there are significant references to the fact his hair is changing colour. Part of the point of the story is Poirot being tested by this serial killer [and we get to see] whether he still has the faculties to solve it. It’s very different in terms of most of the Christie stories in that it plays over the canvas of the whole of the UK. Most of her stories are set in a country home or an enclosed location. The whole point of this is technically the killer could be anyone – it isn’t just a list of 10 suspects you have to work through, and that’s half the fun of it and half the power of it. It is testing Poirot to a level that he probably hasn’t been tested to anywhere else.
Sarah Phelps, writer and executive producer: A confession: I’d never read a Poirot book before I read The ABC Murders. A confession: I’ve never watched a Poirot adaptation all the way through. Obviously I know he has been played by Peter Eustinov, Albert Finney and, most famously, David Suchet. He’s unmissable. I have seen Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. So in much the same way I was familiar with Agatha Christie before I started working on these books but I hadn’t actually read any of the books, I was aware of him. But I didn’t know him at all. So I deep-dived into it to ask all the questions that get asked of Poirot throughout: Who are you? What compels you? Why do you do the things you do? Right down to the fact that I never refer to him as Poirot in my script. He’s always character-headed as Hercule, because I want to know who the private man is behind the famous public persona.
Damien Timmer, executive producer, MD of Mammoth Screen: I grew up with Agatha Christie, read all the books more than once, collected the books, loved the covers. In my weird young Hinterland, Poirot was a huge deal. In later years, I was privileged to work on the later David Suchet adaptations for ITV, which was wonderful. But I was sad because there were certain titles that had already been done, and one of them was The ABC Murders, which I genuinely thought was the most exciting Poirot novel. It has such scale. There was a sense that at some point soon we might be allowed to do a Poirot. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what the title was. I just think we all instinctively felt The ABC Murders was the one to do.
Elizabeth Kilgariff, senior commissioning editor for drama, BBC: We talked about lots of different options and I agree that as a Poirot and as a standalone Poirot, it is a brilliant story. So it stands on its own merit as a real event piece for us.
Phelps: The thing is, I didn’t really want to do a sleuth. I like the Christie mysteries where no one’s going to come along and save you. I really love And Then There Were None – what a brutal, savage book. I really love the short story of The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence because no one is going to come along and help. No one’s going to come along and explain things. They’re not going to parcel it up and return this sense of security and Englishness back to you and you can carry on playing your game of tennis or whatever it is you were doing before this body so rudely arrived on the carpet. So I really didn’t want to do a sleuth, I didn’t want to do the thing where they come along and they’ve got all the answers. But I liked the story and I thought it was grubby and seedy and you could smell that 1930s world. Then if I’m going to do it, Hercule has to be the mystery, because he’s a mystery to me as I don’t know him. So I just ran with that. There were two mysteries running side by side. That felt to be the right way to go about it, rather than presuming all this knowledge because somebody has always been the way they’ve been just because we think we know them.
Phelps: The story was written in 1936 but I’ve set it in 1933, very specifically, which is the date when the British Union of Fascists started to gain real traction in Britain. The language of the British Union of Fascists is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump that we see now. Hercule Poirot is a foreigner. He’s not from Britain, he’s from Belgium and the backlash against people who had arrived as part of the exodus from Europe before the First World War had changed very specifically. Hercule finds himself rather diminished, rather friendless, in this new world. The place he was comfortable in, Scotland Yard, he’s no longer really welcome.
Phelps: There was a stage adaptation of And Then There Were None after the Second World War in America and the producers of that apparently said, “Look, everyone’s really depressed – we need to have a happy ending and cheer everyone up.” So in this stage adaptation, Philip Lombard and Vera Claytorne escape – because there’s nothing like a multiple murderer and a child killer going off into the sunset hand in hand to really put a zip in your stride. Yes, I made changes. When I was writing The Witness for the Prosecution, I carried on long after that story had left off. I made changes to And Then There Were None. But, in this, I took very seriously what is utterly canonical about this character. Because I was unfamiliar, I could deep-dive into those things and deconstruct it a little bit to find the man beneath it. In many ways I think it’s faithful, but it’s my interpretation; like everybody has an interpretation, this is mine. James and the Christie estate are incredibly generous and trusting.
Prichard: Sarah pushes us to places that make me deeply uncomfortable but the point of it is these are adaptations; they’re not direct translations, and you don’t get someone with the genius of Sarah if you don’t allow them a little bit of licence to interpret the things in the way that she sees them, and that’s the point. With The ABC Murders, the clue is in the title. I thought we’d be safe because it is A, B, C. Little did I know that she’d go a little bit further, to E.
Kilgariff: That this is Sarah’s interpretation is actually very important for us. This is a story that’s been adapted before – why do it if you’re not going to bring something new for the audience? We all know Sarah will always do something brilliant and special to any of the pieces she adapts but, in a way, that always makes them feel new and distinctive, and that’s obviously really important for us. Otherwise, why would we do it?
Timmer: We were filming in different places around Yorkshire. The story is set in London but the first murder is in Andover, the second is in Bexhill-on-Sea – we did film there. But principally we have brilliant locations in and around Yorkshire doubling up for all sorts of different bits of the UK.
Phelps: Bradford has the most beautiful council buildings, and they played the role of Scotland Yard in the 1930s. But they are still council buildings, so you’d have all these people going about their business with clipboards and lanyards, going up and down these stairs past the cameras and every now and again encountering John Malkovich and Rupert Grint in period costume. It was quite surreal.
Building the cast
Phelps: John said the scripts went to his agent and his agent gave him a call and said, ‘It’s the BBC and it’s Poirot and it’s Christmas, you don’t want to do this.’ He went, ‘Have you read the scripts?’ and his agent said, ‘Yes we read the scripts, you don’t want to do this.’ He said, ‘I’ll take a look anyway.’ He gets the scripts and calls them back and says, ‘You didn’t read these scripts did you? I didn’t think so, because I’m doing it.’ Con Air [in which Malkovich stars] is one of the greatest movies ever made and you just think, ‘What the hell?’ Every now and again I go, ‘John Malkovich is in my show!’
Kilgariff: These pieces do attract an amazing cast but this one is really special, and that’s testament to Sarah’s scripts. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie. Everyone knows what that is, which is very exciting, but I do think it’s the quality of the scripts. More and more, the scripts and the writing speak for themselves and we are getting some amazing casts.
Phelps: We only had one casting disappointment – there’s a pug, and the first pug we had kept peeing on the furniture, so we had to sack it and get a new pug.
Behind the camera
Timmer: Alex Gabassi, our completely magnificent director, is a really extraordinary talent. It was a big deal for him because it’s the first big British show he’s done [Gabassi is Brazilian], but we’ve all been impressed by the skill he has. He’s taken such ownership of every aspect of the show with such a cheerful twinkle.
Phelps: Alex likes to storyboard so he brought in a lot of storyboards and a lot of mood boards and we talked a lot about everything, which means by the time we’re ready to go, I completely and utterly trust him to do what he’s brilliant at.
Prichard: It’s not stretching a point too far to say [the BBC adaptations] were almost the beginning of a change in perception of my great-grandmother, where people began to take her seriously again. I’m not doing down any of the ITV shows, because I think they were brilliant and some of the later Poirots were among the best. But there was a feel to them and they felt of their time. And Then There Were None blew the doors off that, and since then people have realised you can do Agatha Christie in a different way, that she is a serious writer, and it has opened doors for us. We even got nominated for a Bafta, which would never have happened five years ago. There’s a credibility that’s come from the way Sarah has treated these stories that has definitely made an impact.
Beginning with And Then There Were None in 2015, UK producer Mammoth Screen and screenwriter Sarah Phelps have reinvented several classic Agatha Christie stories for BBC1.
This Christmas, they return with their fourth collaboration, Poirot thriller The ABC Murders.
In this DQTV interview, Mammoth MD Damien Timmer talks about the company’s approach to adapting Christie, what Phelps brings to the titles and how each miniseries takes a different view of events of the 20th century.
The ABC Murders is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Ltd for BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video, and distributed by Endeavor Content.
British actors Dakota Blue Richards and Lewis Peek tease the return of Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour for a fifth season, while also discussing life on set and the impact of the #MeToo campaign.
It’s strange to recall that, when it was first commissioned, Endeavour was intended as a one-off special marking the 25th anniversary of long-running detective drama Morse. As if its popularity would ever be in doubt: since that 2012 prequel, a further 16 feature-length films have aired on UK broadcaster ITV over the last four years.
It’s a sign of the show’s continuing success, with Shaun Evans taking the lead as the young Endeavour Morse, that the upcoming fifth season has been extended to six films, also proving that traditional ‘whodunnits’ like this and Midsomer Murders are far from antiquated in the face of competition from modern serialised crime dramas.
The new season, which begins in the UK on February 4, opens in 1968 with the recently promoted Detective Sergeant Morse facing changing times as Oxford City Police merges with another constabulary. His personal life also faces challenges as Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers) returns to Oxford, with many issues unresolved following her disappearance last season and Morse’s unexpected proposal.
Other returning characters include Roger Allam as Detective Chief Inspector Fred Thursday, Anton Lesser as Chief Superintendent Reginald Bright, Dakota Blue Richards as WPC Shirley Trewlove, Sean Rigby as Sergeant Jim Strange, James Bradshaw as Dr Max DeBryn, Caroline O’Neil as Win Thursday and Abigail Thaw as Dorothea Frazil.
But Morse’s life is further complicated by the arrival of a new recruit, Detective Constable George Fancy, whom he reluctantly agrees to mentor.
“He’s not happy about that,” actor Lewis Peek says of Morse’s reaction to his new partner. “[Fancy is] like a puppy: he’s eager to please and a bit naive. He’s got really good intentions and sometimes things don’t really go the way he planned.”
Try as he might, Fancy’s attempts to win Morse over don’t entirely go to plan, the offer of a lunchtime drink in particular going down like a lead balloon.
“He definitely comes from a completely different background than Morse,” Peek says. “In the first episode, he tries to suss out Morse but he doesn’t give a great impression. Then he’s being very pally with the beers and the social side but he’s not being very professional. He doesn’t really know what to expect and he’s facing this wall of stubbornness from Morse that is very hard to break down.”
Peek and Fancy have a lot in common, not least their Devonshire roots and the fact they are both joining a well-established team. But the actor says his experience joining Endeavour could not have been more different from that of the character he plays.
“It was terrifying, I was very nervous,” he admits. “But I think the nerves at the start helped a bit with the character. He’s new, he’s meeting everyone for the first time. I’m as new as Lewis, to the job and meeting everyone for the first time. I think it helped.
“I remember reading the scenes for the first time and I had a good feeling because I saw a lot of myself in the character when I was at school, and that definitely helped.”
Peek is also clear about what separates Endeavour from other crime series. “It has this class about it,” he says. “The cinematography is exceptional, but what I love about the show is the human nature. It is a detective show but if you’re not caring about the characters, you’re not going to want to watch. It captures real human spirit and emotions, and that’s what draws people in.
As well as the ongoing changes facing the police and a murder to solve, the opening episode of season five is also notable for new arrival Fancy’s attempts to flirt with WPC Trewlove, who clearly isn’t impressed by the new recruit.
“He tries so hard and he has the best of intentions but he just says the wrong thing at every available opportunity,” says Richards, who plays Fancy’s potential love interest. “He definitely has a go at Trewlove but goes about it in completely the wrong way, totally underestimates her and she’s largely unimpressed by his advances. But as the season develops, Trewlove begins to see through his klutziness and takes him under her wing a little bit, whereas Endeavour is not making that effort.”
Richards, who rose to fame as the star of 2007 big-screen adventure The Golden Compass before appearing in Channel 4 teen drama Skins, is a settled member of the Endeavour team, having joined the cast ahead of season three.
She points to episode six as her favourite of the forthcoming season, “mostly because it’s the one I’m in the most,” but reveals that viewers can expect to see a much more emotional side to her character.
As to whether WPC Trewlove is facing up to the challenges of being a female police officer in a very male-centric environment, Richards admits the battle for equality “is much more my fight than hers.” The actor continues: “Trewlove’s a hard worker but is acutely aware of the limitations being a woman will put on her. There’s one really lovely scene with Fancy where he says, ‘I feel like I’m invisible.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, imagine!’ She’s overlooked constantly, despite all her best efforts. But I think she’s come to terms with that and she doesn’t let it show most of the time.”
Richards puts the success of the show – penned by series creator Russell Lewis, produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment – down in part to the “fantastic performances” from the cast, and particularly Evans and Allam as the show’s central pairing, Morse and Thursday. “It’s also something about the workings of the human mind and figuring out a mystery that will always draw people’s attention, partly because people like to play along. Everybody loves watching a whodunnit show because they get to guess the murderer. That’s always fun, it feels more interactive.”
Returning to her comments about fighting for equality in the workplace, Richards is of course pointing to the ongoing #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns supporting gender equality and an end to sexual misconduct, launched in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and others that have subsequently rocked the film and television industry.
“We need to show support and understanding to everybody that has been a victim of it but we need to be very careful because we are increasingly relying on a trial-by-media, and that is inherently dangerous because that’s not how justice ought to work,” the actor explains. “We need to be very careful about the way in which these very serious issues are dealt with. They need to be dealt with with a level of weight and importance and intelligence I think that the victims deserve and the perpetrators deserve equally.”
Richards reveals the issues raised by the campaigns were discussed on the Endeavour set, with the conversation highlighting how prevalent the problem is in the industry.
“Every single woman and some men I know in this industry have been victims of some form of sexual misconduct. Every single one,” the actor says. “The trouble is it’s so ingrained and we need to be very careful about treating just the symptoms and not the disease. I have experienced awful behaviour, really quite appalling behaviour from directors, producers, other actors. Generally the consensus is as long as you are not physically harmed, you just shut up and deal with it because it is so common. But if you complained about every single incident, no one would ever get any work done. That’s the problem we need to be addressing.
“But it’s the same with all the problems in our industry. Racism is inherent in our industry as much as sexism, as much as sexual harassment. We need to really re-evaluate the way we deal with these sorts of things and the way we work with each other. What needs to change is that we need to be able to discuss things more openly. The real problem has been how silenced everyone has been, and that’s what’s allowed it to persist for so long and to get as bad as it has.”
Richards concludes: “The really important thing now is people are being more inspired to come forward. Hopefully we can dig out the worst offenders and hopefully that will inspire discussion and change within the industry, but I think we have an awfully long way to go.”
Emmy-winning actor Archie Panjabi stars alongside Jack Davenport in espionage thriller Next of Kin. She tells DQ about taking the lead in her first British drama and explains why she thinks the series will provoke a timely discussion among viewers.
Growing up in the humdrum north London suburb of Edgware, Archie Panjabi knew she wanted to be an actress but saw very few Asian role models on television. There was a family in EastEnders and there was Amita Dhiri in This Life, and that was it.
“There really weren’t very many roles for British Asian actresses,” says the star. “Even in the cinema there was nobody from my background apart from in Bollywood films.”
However, things are changing, slowly, and Panjabi is leading the way. Having first found fame in films such as Bend it Like Beckham and The Constant Gardener, she is best known for her Emmy-winning role as the enigmatic Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.
But it is only now that the 45-year-old is taking to the screen in her first lead role in a British drama, Next of Kin, an exciting contemporary series set in the world of terrorism and espionage. It is made by Mammoth Screen for ITV and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“From the moment I read the script, I wanted to read the next one but it was the character of Mona that really excited me,” Panjabi says. “I’ve worked my entire career to get an opportunity like this and I think for the whole shoot I was just smiling away. It was amazing to get an opportunity like this. When I was younger all I dreamed of was having a small part on television; I never thought my career could take me to America or a job like this.”
She’s still smiling when DQ visits ITV’s London headquarters shortly after the show has wrapped. Written by Vera and Indian Summers creator Paul Rutman and his novelist wife Natasha Narayan, Next of Kin was conceived as they watched the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.
Since then, sadly, there have been many other atrocities for the writers to draw inspiration from. But while sympathy always, obviously, lies with the victims of the attacks and their families, Next of Kin looks at the story from the other side.
Punjabi’s Mona is a GP whose family emigrated to Britain from Pakistan when she was two. Her older brother, Kareem (Navin Chowdry), who is also a doctor, still has ties to Pakistan but she is married to an Englishman, played by Jack Davenport, and feels British, as do her two younger siblings Ani (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and Omar (Mawaan Rizwan).
The story unfolds in both Pakistan (filmed on the Indian border) and the UK. The story begins in the former as Kareem is kidnapped just before flying home to Britain. Meanwhile, in London, as they wait for news of Kareem, the family witnesses the smoke from yet another terror attack on the capital.
Debuting in the UK on January 8, Next of Kin was filmed last summer in London as the country reeled from a series of terrorist attacks. They were filming not far from London Bridge when eight people were murdered by Jihadists in July.
“There was a weird energy on set the next day,” recalls Panjabi. “It felt a bit surreal. On one hand, we are using art to talk about a subject that is happening right before us, a subject we don’t fully understand. But on the other, people have just died because of this subject. It was odd and sad and I think it made us all reflective. It was a strange, sad time.”
In the show, it rapidly emerges that there may be a link between the kidnapping and the terrorist attack; what is unclear is how much Kareem’s son Danny, Mona’s nephew, had to do with each. What follows is a Homeland-style thriller but one very much with a family at its heart.
“It’s a timely piece; it really shines a light on the area of the families of terror suspects and I think it will provoke a discussion,” says Panjabi of the six-part series. “One of the things the show doesn’t do is seek to explain it or understand it, because it’s such a complex thing to understand. The focus is very much on what happens to a family when a younger member is suspected of being radicalised. How does that affect each member of the family?
“I do spend a lot of time crying on the show,” she adds. “It was emotionally draining and also emotionally challenging. Her brother has been kidnapped and her teenage nephew is suspected of something by the police. She believes 100% – at the beginning, at least – that he is innocent. She is fighting tooth and nail for him but, at the same, time she’s struggling to keep this big family unit intact. So it is traumatic for her, and playing her is quite traumatic because you don’t just want to cry all the time – you have to build up a whole different repertoire of crying. I don’t think I’ve ever had that opportunity to do something like this before.
“Every time I felt stressed I could hear my mother saying, ‘Well, you wanted to be a lead!’”
For Panjabi, the icing on the cake of getting the role was working with Pirates of the Caribbean actor Davenport, who starred in This Life – the show that inspired her so much.
“I didn’t tell him this, he has no clue,” she giggles. “But it was one of my favourite shows. It was such groundbreaking drama at a time when I was just starting out acting, and I remember thinking how wonderful it was that the characters were so messed up, so flawed and yet so immensely likeable. They were always the kind of characters I want to play, even now. So working with Jack was kind of like a dream come true.
“He has this quality where he’s very strong and confident but he’s also very charming and not afraid to be affectionate.”
Panjabi is currently living in New York, where she keeps her Emmy hidden in a box, but wouldn’t rule out a return to the UK should more work arise.
“We are making so much good-quality stuff now in the UK that every American actor wants to come here, so it’s a very exciting time because we’ve really caught up,” she says. “I feel lucky to be part of both worlds.
“There isn’t very much difference apart from the budget. In America, when you’re offered a coffee, you’re offered coconut milk, almond milk… whereas in England it’s just milk! You also get a chair with your name on it over there. But other than that, I think the etiquette is pretty much the same; you have a group of individuals who want to make something magical and memorable.”
In the meantime, Panjabi is pleased that at an age when actresses were traditionally put onto the scrapheap, she’s going from strength to strength.
“People from my background say it’s tough for us but I think it’s tough for any actor, especially when you get older. Someone once said when you turn 30 that’s it, so I think I am lucky. From growing up at a time when there weren’t that many roles for British Asian actresses, I’ve found that I have been working pretty solidly so I feel very grateful and so very lucky.”
Nigel Lindsay and Catherine Flemming reveal the secrets of ITV period drama Victoria as the series, starring Jenna Coleman as the British monarch, returns for a second season.
The second season of Victoria opens in Afghanistan, with shivering soldiers fending off the freezing conditions by huddling together beside a fire. It’s a world away from the monarch’s privileged existence inside Buckingham Palace, though she appears increasingly frustrated at the number of servants on hand to comfort her as she is pushed about in a wheelchair, just weeks after giving birth.
The opening scenes reveal a glimpse of the challenges facing Victoria as she learns to juggle her new responsibilities as a mother with those of a dedicated Queen. In the next room, Prince Albert is among a large group of politicians, including prime minister Robert Peel, as they discuss the next move for their troops abroad, preferring not to trouble Victoria with news of foreign affairs until the headstrong monarch barges in, going against both medical advice and her mother’s wishes.
Picking up one month after the end of season one, Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes reprise their roles as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they face challenges at home and abroad across eight new episodes. Produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, it is written by series creator and executive producer Daisy Goodwin.
Once again, the show is exquisitely shot and designed from the outset, with the stunning backdrop of the palace belying the real filming location, a disused aircraft hangar in Church Fenton, Yorkshire.
Coming to the fore this season is actor Nigel Lindsay, who plays Sir Robert. The politician initially enjoyed a fractious relationship with Victoria but she slowly warmed to him during season one. Now the series is back, Lindsay promises viewers will see a lot more of him now that he is prime minister.
“I’m in every episode, although there are a couple of episodes where they go off to France and Scotland and I stay at home to run the ship, but I’m around the whole time,” he says. “I’m in charge, basically. I think they were thinking of changing the series to Peel & Victoria but I said no, it was too embarrassing!
“In season two, you see Victoria and Peel finally getting to understand and like each other. It takes a long time but you finally see that. There are still a lot of scenes where he’s pretty stuffed up and going into the office just telling her what the order of the day is and they’re not bonding, but they do by the end.”
As ITV’s spiritual successor to fellow hit period drama Downton Abbey, there was a lot riding on the success of Victoria. But after season one drew critical acclaim and record ratings, Lindsay says the atmosphere on set was more relaxed this time around.
“There’s a little less pressure this year, although you want to keep the standards up,” he admits. “But a lot of the crew is same, you know the other actors and you know your character, so everything is a bit more relaxed and I think that helps with the filming. If you’re happy and relaxed when you’re working, it tends to be borne out by the drama and shows how good the drama can be. I’ve had a really good time this year and I’m sorry to leave it.”
When is a spoiler not a spoiler? When it’s a historical drama, perhaps. As season two ends around 1845, it tallies with the end of Sir Robert’s premiership and will see Lindsay written out of the series should it move forward with a third season in 2018. The real Sir Robert died in 1850.
“When I did my last ever scene on Victoria, I was expecting the traditional send-off – when a person finishes on set, you get a round of applause and it’s all very moving,” he explains. “But it was lunchtime and everyone forgot. As we finished the scene, they’d all buggered off to get their sandwiches. But Jenna, bless her, called everyone back and said, ‘You do know this is Nigel’s last scene.’ So they call came back to say goodbye, which was very nice.”
It’s a story that speaks to the relationship Lindsay enjoyed with Coleman as their characters shared more time on set. Their final scene together saw the pair sitting around a large table discussing the queen’s impending visit to France. “It was lovely,” Lindsay recalls, adding that Coleman has really grown into her character this year.
“There was a lot of pressure on Jenna in the first season, playing Victoria in a series called Victoria. She got ill in the first season because she worked so hard; it was quite tough. But this season is more relaxed and I thought Jenna and I got a real rapport going by the end.”
The same can’t be said for Lindsay and the horse he had to ride during filming, with the actor finding himself literally left behind by Hughes in one horseback scene. “I sat in a carriage last year but this year I rode a horse in three different scenes,” he says. “It was quite fun but Tom likes to give it a go on his horse so the trouble is, once he’s off, my horse will follow because I don’t know what I’m doing.
“There was one scene where Tom suggested we ride off either side of the camera. I thought that was a really good idea but I didn’t realise quite how fast he was going to be going, so I followed on behind as gamely as I could. My hat flew off but I think that was off camera.”
Currently filming Netflix’s forthcoming mystery Safe, also starring Michael C Hall (Dexter) and produced by Red Production Company, Lindsay says he finds it easier to embody a character in a period drama than in a contemporary series where a character might be similar to his own personality or situation.
“Obviously it’s a little less naturalistic when you’re doing a period drama but you get so much help on Victoria, from the set to the costumes to the language,” he explains. “Something like [ITV crime drama] Unforgotten, I find quite difficult because I was playing what I am – the husband of somebody. When it’s very near to yourself, I always find that more difficult. But you have to trust yourself that doing nothing is OK. If he speaks like you, that’s fine. Whereas with Victoria, I get to take myself away into a different century with different clothes and a different accent. I find that easier to make myself believe that I’m somebody else.”
As Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, German actor Catherine Flemming enjoys a combustible on-screen relationship with Coleman, as the monarch often chooses to ignore her motherly advice.
“Very often, children find it extremely difficult to accept what their parents think is best for them,” she says. “In the case of Victoria, everyone seems to want something different from her, pulling her one way and the other. And as her mother, the Duchess tries to protect her child, but the child has other ideas. She is in the process of becoming a queen but, for the Duchess, she is still her little child. No wonder there are conflicts between them.”
Off screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth as Flemming describes Coleman, who picked up a Golden Nymph award in Monte Carlo earlier this summer for her role as Victoria, as “a really great young actress.”
She continues: “She gives 150% in every scene she’s in and it is a gift to play opposite an actor like that.”
In the first episode of season two, which debuts on ITV this Sunday, Victoria appears to be as dismissive as ever of her mother and her advice, but Flemming hints at a rekindled relationship between the pair.
“There is a beautiful scene where I am allowed to hold my grandson, Victoria’s youngest child, and I look at him and say to Victoria, ‘He has your eyes.’ At first she seems sceptical, but then she looks over my shoulder at the baby and seems to get soft all over, and says simply, ‘Perhaps,’ and her eyes get a little misty. This is the beginning of a new relationship between mother and daughter.”
Understandably, the actor describes the greatest challenge on set as mastering English, admitting that, like her character, she came to England without a perfect command of the language. “But it was a great privilege to take part in the series. It is a dream to play the mum of Queen Victoria. I love history and am able to learn so much about this particular period of British and German history.”
As German dramas become more popular among international audiences, Flemming is keen to work outside her homeland again in the future. For now, though, she is back in Germany working on Rübezahl, a family drama based on a local fairy tale, in which she plays Baroness Ottilie von Harrant, adversary of the gnome Rübezahl.
“It is true that German productions are gaining in popularity and in quality, especially when they tell their own stories instead of copying them from abroad,” she adds. “For me it was a great education to see how such an amazing television series was produced in Great Britain and, yes, I would love to work abroad again.”
Writer Sarah Phelps reunites with Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions to adapt another classic Christie novel. Michael Pickard finds out more about The Witness for the Prosecution.
At just 23 pages long, Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel The Witness for the Prosecution might seem a fairly lightweight proposition for a television adaptation.
But after the success of 2015’s And Then There Were None, writer Sarah Phelps and coproducers Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions have combined once again to bring another Christie tale to BBC1. It is due to premiere later this year and will also air on Acorn TV in the US.
“In the world of Agatha Christie, in terms of her iconic titles, it’s absolutely up there,” executive producer Damien Timmer says of the source material. “Some of her novels cast a very long shadow but The Witness for the Prosecution is one of her best conceits. It’s a very dark, twisted love story that collides with a big courtroom drama. It’s irresistible.”
Set in 1920s London, the short story opens with the brutal murder of glamorous and rich Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall, pictured top). All the evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life, at least according to the housekeeper, Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan).
Leonard, however, is adamant that his partner, enigmatic chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence. Solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig) represent him in court.
“It is one of her absolute best stories,” exclaims James Prichard, chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd and the author’s great-grandson. “It’s got a phenomenal twist to it. Romaine is one of the best characters my great-grandmother wrote. It’s a great story and it deserves the Sarah [Phelps] treatment.”
The length of the original tale failed to faze Phelps, who was new to the story and has stuck to her rule of not seeing previous adaptations of a property she is working on. She also specifically wanted to adapt the original short story, rather than the 1953 play Christie wrote based on it.
“I wanted to do the short story because it was the one that grabbed my imagination,” she admits. “Even though it’s incredibly brief, it builds up to this extraordinary twist and it felt exciting, like there was a lot of room in it for extrapolation and interpretation and creative input.”
She adds of the adaptation process: “It’s always about finding the story. You can have a novel that’s 800 pages long or a 20-page short story, but it’s always about asking what the story is. Whether it’s finding the key line through it like with Great Expectations, or with Witness, it’s the tiny little mentions and suggestions that make me think of something and it just sort of breathes and grows. I really enjoyed working on it.”
Published in 1925, it was one of Christie’s earliest works, set during a fascinating period of British history in which society was polarised between the rich and glitzy society life and the poverty experienced by many people in London in the years after the First World War.
“We talk about the glamour of the 1920s but the champagne, the shingled hair and the dancing on tables was only present for the proportion of the population who had money,” says Phelps. “Everybody else was caught up in a terrible postwar depression where people were starving. People came back from the war and pawned their medals and begged on street corners. So within those two extremes of that world, you throw in a story about money, sex and murder and it feels really explosive.”
Prichard continues: “There is this extraordinary disparity between the rich world of Emily and her ilk and the poorer world of Leonard, Romaine and Mayhew. Whereas And Then There Were None played towards the fears of the Second World War, this harks back to the after-effects of the First World War and how it impacted on everyone.”
Filming for the two-part drama took place earlier this year in Liverpool, which Timmer explains was a good match for a foggy 1920s London. “But we also needed locations outside London – big theatre set pieces and scenes set in the south of France,” he reveals. “We scouted all over the place and found Liverpool had more to offer than anywhere else. It has some glorious exteriors that do a very good job of passing for period London, arguably better than London itself.”
Telling a story that spans several different locations also presented a challenge for Timmer and Mammoth Screen, with just 120 minutes of screen time to fill.
“It’s two hours of television but in that time you’ve got to recreate large-scale courtroom scenes, London exteriors, 1920s vaudeville, big lavish scenes in the south of France and scenes in First World War trenches,” he notes. “We’re lucky to have [director] Julian Jarrold, who is one of our best filmmakers, and a pretty amazing production team assembled around him. We haven’t stinted at any of these things; the sheer scale of it is pretty remarkable.”
Phelps picks up: “It’s claustrophobic as well. You do spend a lot of time in the courtroom but it became a set of staircases and small rooms full of dark corners. It felt like place was really important and it was about creating a city around the people in The Witness for the Prosecution, all of whom were carrying this trauma of the war with them.
Collaborating with Jarrold was also a positive experience for Phelps, though the writer admits her scripts can be quite detailed in how she sees the story being brought to life on screen.
“I’m very descriptive with stage directions and almost what you could smell or feel if you were really there,” she admits. “I explain how cold it is or whether the carpet’s thin or so plush that your foot sinks in and leaves a footprint like Robinson Crusoe seeing a footprint on the beach. So that’s all there for anybody reading it to feel the world the way I feel it.
“You always have these conversations with your directors and you can tell people get really into it. Our art designer fell in love with the Mayhew house and was incredibly proud of the set. You have those conversations and you understand each other. The director and director of photography will also have thoughts and ideas of how to realise what I’ve written in the script, so there’s always got to be a trust and you’ve got to give people their own artistic licence.”
Timmer says Phelps is “brilliant” at adapting classic material. “Sarah claims not to have read any Agatha Christie so by coming to her work fresh and simply treating it as a classic novel, it leads to something very fresh in the world of Christie adaptations,” he explains. “Having been on the journey with her for And Then There Were None, we all felt her sensibility applied to Agatha Christie’s best stories is a very fruitful one.
“Sometimes people see Agatha Christie as much lighter than the writing actually is. They think it’s a very chintzy, Cluedo murder mystery but actually she is almost always much more complex than that. And Then There Were None was partly an exercise in making people reassess her and see quite how stark and dark and psychologically complex her writing can be, and Sarah is well placed to get to grips with that.”
Prichard says of Phelps: “She seems to be able to get between the lines of Agatha’s writing in a way that is very special. One thing she says is it’s an adaptation, it’s not a translation, so she does adapt, but to adapt means you’re working from the original and it has to be based in the original. And she does have this ability to take my great-grandmother’s stories and make them very real and bring them into a modern sensibility in a way I haven’t seen for a while. She’s just a great writer, and great writers create fantastic television.”
Following the success of And Then There Were None might seem daunting, but while Prichard admits that show was “the best thing we’ve done on TV ever,” he adds that with Phelps and Mammoth back at the helm, The Witness for the Prosecution could be even better. A+E Networks is distributing the series around the world.
“What Sarah and everyone else has brought to this is a different insight,” he says. “Everything Sarah puts in the story is in the original works if you read them properly. Particularly with Witness, which is just a short story, she’s added bits and given backstories but actually it all feels as if it fits within that. She’s taken a cough that the solicitor Mayhew has and she’s built a complete backstory around this one line in the book. It’s extraordinary how she gets this feel from these stories.”
Mammoth and Phelps will be back together again for another Christie adaptation in 2017, this time taking on Ordeal by Innocence, which is the first of seven adaptations the BBC will air over the next four years. Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders will follow, with writers and producers to be confirmed.
“I’m in no way an aficionado of her work; all I can say is this is my take and this is what I think, what I see and what I think these stories are about,” Phelps explains. “But maybe because I’m unfamiliar with them, that unsettling quality perhaps comes across because I don’t have any prior relationship with them.
“I think she is an unsettling writer and she nails very succinctly and very forensically a sense of identity, a sense of Englishness where actually there’s a real tension to that identity – and there’s a tension to it because there’s a body on the floor and that body’s been murdered. They’re entertaining stories and deliciously plotted but there’s also something else going on, something quite worrying and dangerous.”
Having produced the long-running Poirot series for ITV, Timmer says he has a soft spot for the author and hopes to continue that relationship in the future.
“We’re relishing this chance to take some of the very best titles and treat them as standalone modern classics,” he adds. “As long as one can access those titles, we’re happy to continue as long as we’re wanted.”
In one of the least surprising renewal stories of the year, UK broadcaster ITV has commissioned a second series of ratings hit Victoria from Mammoth Screen. Scripted by Daisy Goodwin, the show has had an excellent first season – even managing to hold off strong competition from the BBC’s returning hit Poldark.
Series one launched in late August and is currently averaging around 7.7 million viewers, which makes it ITV’s top-performing drama of the year so far. ITV director of television, Kevin Lygo said: “Mammoth Screen and Daisy Goodwin have brought the characters so vividly to life in this series and we’re thrilled with the reception for Victoria. We’re pleased to be able to confirm Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes will return to continue the story on ITV.” Just as significantly, Goodwin will again be writing and executive producing the series.
Season one starts with the young Victoria’s coronation and explores how she becomes increasingly sure-footed in the fields of politics and diplomacy. It also looks at her close relationship with Lord Melbourne and burgeoning romance with Prince Albert, her eventual husband. As with series one, the new season will be a coproduction with PBS Masterpiece.
Goodwin added: “Even though she reigned in the 19th century, Victoria is a heroine for our times. In the next series she faces the very modern dilemma of how to juggle children with her husband and her job. As Victoria will discover, it’s hard to be a wife, a mother and ruler of the most powerful nation on earth.”
Mammoth Screen’s Damien Timmer, another executive producer on the show, said: “Following the audience response to Victoria, we are delighted that Jenna Coleman will be returning to her throne for a second series. The next few years of Victoria’s reign are packed full of extraordinary real-life events, with constitutional crises, scandals at court and personal challenges aplenty for the Queen and Prince Albert. God Save the Queen!”
Meanwhile, in the US, the trend towards TV drama series revivals seems to be picking up pace. After CBS launched MacGyver this week with a decent 10.9 million audience, there are now reports that ABC is lining up a spin-off series based on the 1980s classic Magnum PI, which starred Tom Selleck. Echoing another recent trend in US TV, the plan is for the show to have a female lead – with Magnum’s daughter moving to Hawaii to take over the business.
The reboot business is in full swing now with The X-Files, Gilmore Girls, 24 and Prison Break all having been revived, or coming up. The new Magnum will be written by John Rogers, whose TNT series Leverage ran for five seasons from 2008 to 2012. Rogers also created TNT’s hit scripted series The Librarians.
Still in the US, there’s good news for fans of Atlanta, the new comedy from Donald Glover that airs on FX. The network has just announced a second season. It has also revealed that it is returning Better Things, another comedy that has been performing well. “It’s really gratifying to launch two new comedies that have received overwhelming critical acclaim right out of the gate and that are emblematic of FX’s award-winning brand,” said Nick Grad and Eric Schrier, heads of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions. “It is clear to us Atlanta and Better Things have struck a nerve with viewers.”
Atlanta follows two young, black cousins as they try to make it rich out of rap. International buyers will get to see what the fuss is about when Fox brings the show to the Mipcom market in Cannes next month as part of its slate. Better Things is co-created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. Adlon plays Sam, a woman trying to raise her three daughters, while also attempting to hold down a career in Hollywood. Still with Fox’s international ambition, the distribution arm of Fox Networks Group is also heading to Mipcom with Ron Howard’s forthcoming space epic Mars. The six-part series, about a fictitious mission to colonise the red planet in 2033, will receive its world premiere in Cannes ahead of its debut on National Geographic later this year.
Also in the US, The CW is developing a new supernatural series called Stick Man with Cameron Prosandeh (Helix) and Tim Kring (Heroes). Stick Man is about an amateur documentarian who returns to her hometown to chronicle the events of her brother’s murder and the ensuing trial. While there, she discovers evidence linking her brother’s death to supernatural events.
There was also more evidence this week of Netflix’s considerable clout in the international rights market following news that it has secured international streaming rights (excluding North America) to ABC drama Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The deal was done with rights holder Entertainment One (eOne). Last month, Netflix also secured the rights to CBS’s highly anticipated new iteration of Star Trek, which is coming some time in 2017.
In one of the week’s more intriguing commissions, Verizon has greenlit a political comedy for its streaming service Go90. Executive produced by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, the 6×30′ show is called Embeds. It explores five reporters covering the US presidential election and has been created by Scott Conroy and Peter Hamby. Go90also also recently commissioned a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise.
Back in the UK, Scottish producer Synchronicity Films is developing a crime thriller based on Graeme Macrae Burnet novel His Bloody Project. The book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, explores the sanity of a teenager convicted of a brutal triple murder in 1869 in a remote Scottish crofting community. Early discussions are underway with a major UK broadcaster, with screenwriters currently being considered.”
Claire Mundell, creative director at Synchronicity, said: “We are delighted to have discovered this wonderful novel on our own doorstep. It’s also great to work with an indie publisher [Saraband Imprint Contraband] that believes in backing undiscovered talent as much as we do.”
For the past week, the British media has had a lot of fun hyping up the ratings war between ITV’s new drama Victoria and the BBC’s returning series Poldark (both of which, ironically, are produced by ITV-owned production company Mammoth Screen). But the truth is both sides can be pretty happy with their performances.
Victoria, produced by Mammoth for ITV and PBS in the US, debuted at 21.00 on Sunday August 28 with 5.7 million viewers. Keen to build on its momentum, ITV then scheduled the second episodes of the eight-parter on the following night, a bank holiday in the UK. This episode attracted 5.2 million, suggesting the show had done a good job of retaining the audience’s interest.
The direct clash between the two shows came the following week, when they were scheduled against each other at 21.00 on Sunday September 4. In this slot, Victoria secured 4.8 million viewers and then picked up a further 400,000 in a second showing an hour later on ITV+1. Poldark, meanwhile, attracted 5.1 million viewers to what was the first episode of its second series.
Different media outlets have interpreted these figures in different ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to attack Poldark by saying a) it was beaten by Victoria (with its amalgamated 5.2 million figure) and b) this year’s Poldark launch was weaker than last year’s, which attracted 6.9 million. However, neither of these interpretations should take away from the fact that it was a good opening for Poldark. The only meaningful comparison between the two will come after 14 to 28 days when we begin to get a sense of time-shifted viewing. By then, we’ll also have a clearer idea of whether Victoria can sustain its ratings.
Good news for both broadcasters is that the critics have praised the two shows. Both have scored 8.4 on IMDb, putting them at the upper end of audience approval ratings.
Looking to the long-term, the Victoria vs Poldark battle is likely to become a pretty permanent feature on the UK drama scene. Neither broadcaster wants to give up the 21.00 Sunday-night slot to the other but both have plans to run and run with their respective series. Poldark has already been commissioned for a third season and could easily run for five or six. ITV is also envisaging a similar life span for Victoria.
Congratulations are of course due to Mammoth Screen for pulling off a remarkable feat. And to ITV, which gets to distribute both shows to the international market (it has just licensed Victoria to ITV Choice in Asia and the Middle East). It’s also still something of a novelty for female screenwriters to run primetime dramas – so it’s a positive sign that these shows are penned by Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) and Debbie Horsfield (Poldark).
Another show in the news this week is The Young Pope – a Sky, HBO and Canal+ co-production that sees Jude Law play a feisty young American Pope. The ten-part series has been hyped up a lot in recent months by its distributor FremantleMedia International (FMI) –and it looks like it could turn out to be the hit the company has been hoping for. The first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival and received glowing reviews from the media. The Telegraph was especially enthusiastic, reporting that: “The first, feature-length episode is like the skin-prickling opening to a game of chess played across a board of gold and marble – with each piece, from king to pawn, gliding enigmatically into place for the coming battle”. Law, says the Telegraph, is a “force of nature.”
FMI has also reported strong interest among buyers. Broadcasters that have already picked the show up include MNET (Pan-Africa), HBO (Pan-CEE), BETV in Belgium, OTE TV in Greece, 365 in Iceland, Sky in New Zealand and Hot in Israel. Nordic SVoD platform C More, which belongs to Sweden’s TV4 Group, has also acquired the series. As part of the latter deal, The Young Pope will also air on TV4’s free-to-air channel in Sweden. As for the partners in the show, Sky Atlantic will air it across its territories from October 27.
One of the most-talked about programmes of the last couple of years has been Netflix’s Pablo Escobar drama series Narcos – a double winner at the 2015 C21 International Drama Awards. This week, Netflix announced it had renewed the show for third and fourth seasons. It’s lucky that the creators called the show Narcos rather than Escobar – because the new series will follow the Medellin cartel after the death of the Colombian drug lord in 1993.
As we’ve noted on several occasions, Netflix doesn’t release audience figures – so it’s difficult to know how well the Spanish-language show does on the platform. However, a deal between Netflix and Univision means the show is also due to air on the US Hispanic network in the near future, so it should soon be possible to get a perspective on its appeal. Interestingly, Netflix and Univision are also partnering a series called El Chapo, which is based on the life of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán. In the US, this series will air on UniMás in 2017 before appearing on Netflix. Outside the US, the show will make its debut on the streamer.
It’s been evident in recent times that there is a strong audience in the US for scripted series that place black actors at the centre of the story (Empire and Power being a couple of the most recent successes). There’s more evidence of this from a couple of newly launched shows. The first is Queen Sugar, which has just debuted on OWN. Following the same pattern as fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, the Tuesday and Wednesday roll-out of Queen Sugar drew a healthy 2.42 million viewers. With The Haves and the Have Nots also doing well on OWN, the channel’s drama output is currently firing on all cylinders.
More good news for the black creative community has been the early response to Community star and rapper Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta, which has just launched on FX. Set in the world of local hip hop, the show has been warmly received by critics and secured a promising 1.1 million viewers in its 22.00 slot. With an 8.9 rating on IMDB, Atlanta could shape up as one of the year’s surprise critical hits, though there was some grumbling among audiences that it was scheduled directly against the launch of Queen Sugar.
Anyone familiar with the work of UK writer Jez Butterworth will know that he has established his reputation primarily through theatre and film.
Although he co-wrote a couple of short films for ITV and Channel 4 in the early 1990s (both with his brother Tom), his breakthrough moments were the 1995 play Mojo and the 2001 movie Birthday Girl, which starred Nicole Kidman. Subsequently, career landmarks include the play Jerusalem (2008) and movies such as Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass and Spectre.
Now, however, he is set to make a major impact on the small screen as writer of Britannia, the first coproduction between Sky and Amazon. The lavish 10-part drama will star Kelly Reilly (True Detective), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, The Hollow Crown), Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Stanley Weber (Outlander).
Butterworth will again team up with his brother (who has already established his reputation as a TV writer with Fortitude and Tin Star), as well as Richard McBrien (Spooks, Merlin), on the writing.
According to Sky, Britannia is “set in 43AD as the Roman Imperial Army – determined and terrified in equal measure – returns to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld.”
The series is shooting on location in Prague and Wales and will appear on Sky1 in the UK and Ireland and Amazon Prime Video in the US in 2017. International distribution rights (excluding the US) for Britannia will be handled by Sky distribution arm Sky Vision.
Commenting on the show, Butterworth said: “Besides being hard, hard warriors, the Celts have a belief system which makes them almost invincible. It’s a deep, heavy magic. Last time the Romans tried to invade, the mighty Julius Caesar took one look, turned round and went straight home. Now, almost a century later, the Romans are back. I’m fascinated in what happens when gods die. When an entire, ancient faith stalls, topples, collapses – and a whole new one grows in its place. New names, new faces, to suit the new times. Here we have a war between two pantheons – the Roman gods v the Celtic gods. It’s the heavyweight clash of all time, the one which most shapes who we are today. And we see it all from a human perspective, of individual survival, ambition, courage, lust, loss, revenge. All the stuff the gods have always loved us humans for the most!”
Another high-profile writer in the news this week is Patrick Harbinson. Although Harbinson’s most recent credit is as a writer-producer on Showtime’s Homeland, he is actually a Brit who broke into the business writing episodes of UK dramas Soldier Soldier and Heartbeat. Since then, he has managed to carve out an impressive career working on both US and UK series such as Person of Interest, Lewis, 24, The Day of the Triffids, Wire in the Blood, Dark Angel and Hornblower.
Now he is working with producer Mammoth Screen on a six-part series for ITV entitled Fearless. The show, starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), centres on Emma Blunt, a solicitor known for defending lost causes. She is investigating the killing of a schoolgirl in East Anglia and trying to free the man she thinks was wrongly convicted of the girl’s murder. But as she digs deeper, she begins to sense powerful forces, in the police and the intelligence services at home and abroad, who want to stop her uncovering the truth. Harbinson calls Fearless “a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide.”
Harbinson said he was first approached by Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer three years ago: “[He] asked me if I was interested in writing a legal series inspired by the work of lawyers like Gareth Peirce and Helena Kennedy. I immediately said yes. Much of the work I’ve done in America in the last 10 years has been about life in the post-9/11 world. The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the ordinary workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach – and the great majority of us are prepared to accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions, who fights for those outside the normal run of society, and who is uncompromising, difficult and indifferent to unpopularity and danger. The result was Emma Blunt and Fearless.
“I’m delighted Helen McCrory has agreed to play Emma. She is a complex and contradictory character, and I am lucky to have someone of Helen’s wit, warmth and intelligence bringing her to life.”
Fearless will be produced by Adrian Sturges (Houdini and Doyle, The Enfield Haunting, The Disappearance of Alice Creed). Filming will begin in London and East Anglia in September 2016.
Butterworth and Harbinson are currently two of the film and TV industry’s most in-demand writers. However, breaking into the industry in the first place continues to be a struggle for most. One company that has a good track record for unearthing diverse new talent, however, is Disney-ABC though its writing programme.
Organised on an annual basis, the Disney-ABC writing programme accepts submissions from May and selects writers in around December. These writers then participate in a one-year programme that starts in February. If they turn out well, then they are given jobs on Disney-ABC series, examples being Veena Sud (The Killing, Cold Case) and George Mastras (Breaking Bad).
This week, Disney-ABC announced today that all eight of the writers selected for the 2016 programme have been given jobs on TV series. These include Dayo Adesokan (Downward Dog), Amanda Idoko (Imaginary Mary), Andrew Mathieson (Dr Ken), Ron McCants (Speechless), Miguel Ian Raya (Famous In Love), Janine Salinas Schoenberg (American Crime), Christina Walker (Still Star-Crossed) and Jeffery Wang (Notorious).
Commenting on this year’s bumper crop, Tim McNeal, VP of creative talent development and inclusion at Disney-ABC Television Group, said: “We’re proud that our selection of writers proved appealing to not only creative executives but also showrunners.”
One particularly impressive aspect of the programme is the number of writers who continue to build their career after that initial lift-off. For the coming year, 50 alumni will be employed at various levels in the industry, from staff writers to executive producers. Zahir McGhee, for example, is co-exec producer on ABC’s Scandal.
“Just as we pride ourselves by introducing new diverse voices to the creative process at the lower level, we find it equally rewarding to champion the staffing of programme alumni as a means to career longevity,” said McNeal.
In another piece of Disney news, its Freeform channel (formerly known as ABC Family) has greenlit a new scripted pilot called Issues. Inspired by the life of Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, it follows three young women who set out to conquer New York City together.
Issues is the brainchild of Sarah Watson, who worked for more than 100 episodes on NBC’s Parenthood, rising from mid-level staff writer to executive producer during that time. Having broken into the business on That’s So Raven (2004), she then worked on shows like Monarch Cove, The Unusuals and About a Boy before her career-transforming six-season stint on Parenthood.
Jenna Coleman swaps the TARDIS for Buckingham Palace in a forthcoming ITV period drama. DQ speaks to writer Daisy Goodwin and executive producer Damien Timmer about Victoria.
If the mere mention of Queen Victoria conjures up the image of a “boot-faced old bag in a bonnet,” an eight-part drama starring Jenna Coleman (pictured above) could be about to change perceptions of Britain’s second longest-reigning monarch.
Previously travelling the galaxy as Doctor Who’s companion, the actor’s first starring role away from the TARDIS is as the young queen in an ITV drama simply titled Victoria, which opens with her ascension to the throne at the tender age of 18.
The series then follows the monarch through the first three years of her reign, including her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert (played by Tom Hughes).
While being a teenager on the throne might have thrown up some challenges for Victoria, series creator and writer Daisy Goodwin also faced a steep learning curve – this is her first ever screenwriting commission.
But she describes the experience as “a revelation, an education and a great privilege,” adding: “To do something you feel very passionately about and have it realised so splendidly is something most writers spend their entire career waiting for and it’s happened to me right out of the gate. I’m totally thrilled. And I find none of it boring because I’ve never done it before.”
Goodwin reveals her “affair” with Victoria started when she was 18 and studying history at Cambridge. “I was reading her diaries and came across this extraordinary entry that described how head-over-heels in love she was with Albert and it made me laugh,” she recalls. “I had a moment where I realised she was a teenager who was having to learn how to be queen in the full glare of the public eye.”
Goodwin went on to have a successful television career, not in drama but in the factual space, first with Talkback Productions, where she devised shows such as Grand Designs and How Clean is your House?. She then founded Silver River Productions, before her first novel – the Victorian era-set My Last Duchess – was published in 2010. Her second, The Fortune Hunter, landed in 2014.
“I was reminded what an interesting character Victoria was – and at the same time I have a daughter who’s a teenager and the same height as she was, just under five foot. We had a huge row one morning and I looked at her and wondered what would happen if she woke up tomorrow to find she was the most powerful woman in the world. I thought that was the starting point for a fascinating drama and I like the idea that Victoria’s a teenage queen with all that that implies.”
In particular, Goodwin says she was drawn to the idea of making a historical drama with wit, verve and humour. “Just because it has bonnets doesn’t mean it has to be stuffy in any way,” she asserts. “I’ve tried to tell the story as it would have unfolded at the time. Our perception of Victoria is always as a boot-faced old bag in a bonnet, which is the old Victoria, but in her early years there was huge unease about whether this little girl could take on this hugely important role. That’s what I’ve tried to convey in the early part of the series.”
As a historian and Victoria expert, it would be understandable if Goodwin felt pressure to ensure the series’ factual accuracy – but she says she isn’t fazed by the prospect of criticism for any dramatic licence in her scriptwriting.
“Obviously I’ve fiddled a bit with chronology, but dramatically it was necessary,” she says. “I know enough about the history to know what I’m doing. Where I’ve changed things, I’ve done it for dramatic effect. But I have been faithful to the emotional truth of the characters I’m writing about. So all the real people, that’s who they were and, as much as possible, I’ve tried to use their own words. When people see episode one, the things they think I’ve made up are the true bits.”
UK broadcaster ITV was obviously impressed by Goodwin’s pitch, handing out a series order despite only one script being written at the time. Mammoth Films (Poldark) then came on board to produce, with Damien Timmer, Goodwin and Dan McCulloch executive producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment is distributing Victoria worldwide.
Perhaps the biggest piece of the jigsaw, however, was who would play Victoria – the young woman who went on to rule for 63 years and was Britain’s longest-serving monarch until she was overtaken by Elizabeth II on September 9, 2015.
“One of the things we had to get right was Victoria, who was really small and very diminutive – something that hasn’t always been captured in previous translations of her life,” Timmer says. “But it’s one of the things that give her such huge power – she’s this small dynamo. From the beginning we agreed we were looking for a real powerhouse of an actress and, in my mind, Jenna was the obvious person.
“Doctor Who is always shrouded in secrecy and it wasn’t clear whether she would be available. While we had Jenna as our holy grail, we did do some investigating elsewhere – but when we discovered it could work with Jenna, we were utterly thrilled because it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that part now. Victoria’s a real force of nature – when she was happy she made the room laugh, but when she lost her temper it was probably rather scary. Jenna conveys that in a way that always feels truthful. She manages to be both very sympathetic and properly brutal.”
Goodwin, who describes Coleman as “miraculous,” adds: “Our Victoria is a heroine but she gets things wrong as often as she gets them right. We’re lucky to have an actress in Jenna who can do bad things but makes you realise why she’s doing them. You understand where she’s coming from and you feel towards her like you do your teenage daughter.”
While crowning Coleman as Victoria was a major coup, the rest of the production wasn’t without its challenges. In particular, production designer Michael Howells was tasked with recreating Buckingham Palace, with numerous staterooms, ballrooms and a throne room, as well as quarters for Victoria and her family and the downstairs servants.
“It’s boring to go on about how big a set is but the detail and scale are truly impressive,” Timmer says. “That’s one of the distinctive things about this – the central character’s home is also one of the biggest palaces in the world. You can’t cheat with that, you can’t hide. You’ve got to do it properly. It’s a big place to fill and you’ve got to believe the life of the palace. It’s stuffed to the gills with courtiers and when there’s a ball, these are big spaces to fill. But it’s also a home, somewhere intimate scenes can play.
“The exterior of Buckingham Palace now is not at all what it looked like in Victoria’s reign, which is the key to the show. You think you know what the story will be, but think again. The truth is much more interesting than the story we all think we know.”
Timmer also praises Goodwin – a self-confessed super fan of another ITV period drama, Downton Abbey – for the cast of characters she has built around the young monarch, with actors including Rufus Sewell, Alex Jennings, Paul Rhys, Peter Firth and Catherine Flemming among the ensemble.
“One of the challenges Daisy set herself was portraying the world around Queen Victoria,” he explains. “You have her family, the world of the servants below stairs and all manner of important dignitaries. It’s a big cast and Daisy has managed to make sure all the actors are very well served. It’s rare to encounter a cast as jolly as this lot are because although it’s an ensemble, they really feel they’re getting enough attention because the scripts managed to serve them all very well.”
But what is it that sets Victoria – due to air later this year on ITV and in 2017 on US network PBS – apart from other period dramas?
“Unlike most costume dramas where it’s the woman trying to get the attention of a man, in this you’ve got a woman who from the beginning is the boss,” Goodwin says. “And that makes it different to pretty much any other costume drama out there. Plus it’s a story people think they know but they don’t know. There’s also enough real history there for people who are interested in the period, so I hope it will satisfy on those two levels.”
Stephen Arnell casts his eye over the television landscape and finds there are plenty of science-fiction and fantasy series in the works to keep genre fans happy.
At the same time as a tide of comic book and graphic novel TV adaptations have hit the screen, there has been a less trumpeted but increasingly visible trend in series based on ‘hard’ science fiction and ‘serious’ fantasy.
With the recent announcement of Bryan Cranston’s new Philip K Dick anthology series Electric Dreams (produced by Sony Pictures Television for Channel 4), there seems to be an unmistakable head of steam behind adaptations of ‘hard’ sci-fi – coming hot on the heels of Amazon’s critically lauded The Man in the High Castle (also based on a Philip K Dick novel) and Syfy’s miniseries version of Arthur C Clarke’s downbeat Childhood’s End.
This resurgence of more serious-minded sci-fi is demonstrated in the UK, with Channel 4 leading the way with the AMC coproduction Humans and the less viewed, but well-regarded, Utopia.
The alternate-history Axis victory premise of Amazon’s High Castle will be mirrored by BBC1’s upcoming SS-GB, which itself harks back to 1978’s BBC2 production An Englishman’s Castle, which starred Kenneth More as a TV soap writer in Nazi-occupied Britain.
Broadcasters and OTT providers have discovered a new vein to mine, as evidenced by a slew of shows being developed or in production, including HBO’s series version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (pictured top), best known to older readers from the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner, James Brolin and Richard Benjamin.
The successful movie was followed by the sequel Futureworld (1976) and short-lived 1980 series Beyond Westworld (CBS), both unfortunately following the law of diminishing returns.
Despite reported production problems, 2016’s Westworld’s stellar cast (including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton) and strong proposition should guarantee high initial sampling when it debuts this autumn.
Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan (co-writer with his brother Christopher of The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) is also apparently developing a series version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy (also for HBO), which is surely a prospect that will have sci-fi fans salivating.
Back in 2009, Sony reportedly tried to crack the novels with director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down) attached, but when the project stalled, HBO stepped in to acquire the rights.
Along with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Foundation was regarded as ‘unfilmable’ due to its epic scope but, following Game of Thrones’ success, epic is something HBO can confidently handle.
Other sci-fi classics reportedly in development include Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin’s take on dystopian Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, produced by aficionado Bradley Cooper.
Both have been ordered by Syfy, which is also teaming with Battlestar Galactica writer/exec producer David Eick for the series version of Frederik Pohl’s 1977 Hugo and Nebula award-winning Gateway.
On the SVoD front, Hulu has given a straight-to-series order for a 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist story set in a grim US of the future, ruled by a Ted Cruz-style totalitarian Christian theocracy, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake).
A movie of the novel was released in 1990, boasting an all-star cast that included Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern, but the film suffered from script problems and was generally felt to be an interesting failure.
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Noah) is said to be developing a TV series with HBO based on Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel trilogy Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic and the survivors fight to find a reason to continue.
Back in 2011, there was talk of a remake of Ray Bradbury’s 1980 movie The Martian Chronicles (starring Rock Hudson), but this appears to have been abandoned. The revival of interest in the genre may see it resurrected, though.
US cable channel Spike has commissioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi classic Red Mars for a 10-episode series debuting in January 2017. Dealing with the human colonisation of the Red Planet, the series features Vince Geradis (Game of Thrones) as exec producer.
And speaking of Mars, the daddy of all sci-fi stories – HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – is currently being developed by ITV-owned Mammoth Screen for an ostensibly authentic period version of the classic novel, scripted by Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, City of Vice, Doctor Who).
Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers, The Descent) is on board to direct, while reports earlier this year of Poldark star Aidan Turner taking the lead role of the narrator have since been denied.
HG Wells features as the protagonist of ABC’s Time After Time (based on Nicholas Meyers’ 1979 movie), which involves the author travelling from Victorian England to the present day. Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following, Dawson’s Creek) is showrunner for the series.
Although Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was successfully transferred to the cinema screen by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it remains doubtful whether a TV version of his most famous work, the controversial 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land (once promoted as “the most famous sci-fi novel ever written”) will ever see the light of day.
In terms of the serious fantasy genre, the BBC’s upcoming version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy should benefit from having writer Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers, Skins, The Fades) guiding the show, which will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of 2007’s movie adaptation The Golden Compass and maintain more of an adult tone.
Scheduling and advertising will be important for the series, as the excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from misleading promotion, which gave the impression of a Harry Potter-style fantasy – and aired on the wrong channel, BBC1, when BBC2 would have been far more appropriate.
Fantasy legend Neil Gaiman has certainly been a busy lad, with no less than four TV adaptations of his writings in the works, as well as his mooted big-screen version of Gormenghast, which was last seen as a BBC2 series in 2000.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) was due to direct a movie version of Gaiman’s Sandman, but that recently hit the buffers.
First up is American Gods for Starz in the US, which has an impressive cast including Ian McShane, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Tucker and Crispin Glover.
Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jamaica Inn, The Borgias) has since left the production to be replaced by Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, The Wire) in the role of troubled Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) as showrunner.
Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which occupies the same fictional universe as American Gods, was optioned by BBC1 in the UK back in 2014, while his anthology Likely Stories has been commissioned by Sky Arts in the UK, featuring a cast that numbers Johnny Vegas (Benidorm, Ideal) and industry veteran Kenneth Cranham (Rome, War & Peace, Layer Cake), with a score by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker.
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard helmed and co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2,000 Days On Earth, a portrait of Aussie Renaissance Man Nick Cave.
Good Omens, Gaiman’s end-of-the-world collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, is also being considered by the BBC for a miniseries, while Lucifer, the Fox show based on Gaiman’s character from Sandman, has recently been renewed for a second season.
Other fantasy projects with adult themes on the horizon include NBC’s Midnight, Texas (due to be transmitted this autumn), based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (True Blood), and the BBC’s The City and The City – Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Southcliffe) developing China Mieville’s cult novel about the cities Beszel and Ul Quoma, which occupy the same point in space and time.
And last, but by no means least, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, said to be the highest-selling serious fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings, are rumoured to be under consideration by Sony for either AMC, Netflix or Amazon.
As UK networks continue to mine classic stories for new dramas, Stephen Arnell asks whether international coproductions are the key to unlocking creativity.
It’s fair to say last week’s announcement that BBC Studios is planning a six-part series based on John Buchan’s popular adventure The 39 Steps – just eight years after the corporation’s previous Bourne/Bond-style stab at the novel – hardly set industry pulses racing.
In fact, unless the approach to the source material is radically different from previous adaptations, one can’t imagine the atmosphere in the BBC production meeting to discuss the idea when it was broached was exactly electric.
With the recent transformation of BBC Production into BBC Studios, this was perversely exactly the kind of show calculated to reinforce prior negative expectations of what the new entity would be – safe, traditional and rather unimaginative.
The exit of Studios head Peter Salmon after six months to Endemol Shine may see BBC Studios leave its comfort zone – if a non-corporation insider is chosen to replace him.
Coupled with the plethora of Agatha Christie adaptations, younger takes on popular characters such as ITV’s Endeavour (Inspector Morse) and the upcoming Prime Suspect prequel Tennison (incidentally, there’s a Young Marple in development for CBS in the US), as well as reboots of Poldark (pictured top) and Maigret, new versions of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and EM Forster’s Howards End, there is a feeling that mainstream drama in the UK is playing safe and becoming atrophied, although I’m sure production executives at the time felt that reviving a 1970s show such as Poldark was genuinely taking a risk.
The low figures attracted by recent series such as Jericho (ITV) and Dickensian (BBC1), which, despite familiar period drama elements and literary antecedents, at least attempted something a little different, may increase the caution displayed in TV drama commissioning in the UK for the big channels.
If we are going to pillage the past for source material, maybe producers can consider some other authors than the usual roll call of Austen, Dickens, Trollope (ITV’s Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne) and the Brontes.
Will the upcoming BBC1 retread of Homer’s Troy stumble in the same way as ITV’s fantasy actioner Beowulf?
Both shows, and BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, smack of a desire to emulate Game of Thrones, as did the flop BBC1 War of the Roses epic The White Queen back in 2013.
To some critics, BBC1’s choice to adapt 20th century classics last autumn (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, An Inspector Calls, The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) resembled nothing so much as an English literature A-level syllabus circa 1973.
Despite the likelihood of negative comparisons to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the BBC’s upcoming series based on Len Deighton novel SS-GB promises something a little off the beaten track from recent network drama.
With his works coming out of copyright, the oeuvre of HG Wells seems ripe for revival, judging by Sky Arts’ recent anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells and the upcoming Mammoth Screen (Poldark) version of The War of the Worlds, which aims to hue closely to the novel. With Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) adapting the story, we can be fairly certain that we’ll finally see something resembling Wells’ original vision.
There are, of course, some shining exceptions to the general air of caution, not least of which is The Night Manager (BBC1). Although never adapted for TV before, it does come from the pen of John le Carré, responsible for a string of successful movies, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, The Tailor of Panana, the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV series/one-offs (Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality).
The Night Manager is truly something different for BBC1 – the sheer luxury on display in terms of locations and casting, the sumptuous photography and even the Maurice Binder-style title sequence lift the show into another sphere, almost one of decadence, especially considering the ongoing budget cuts at the BBC.
Now perhaps there’s a glimpse of where the money saved from BBC3’s linear demise is heading – and also of the advantages of coproductions.
Co-funded by AMC, which likewise coproduced Channel 4’s Humans, The Night Manager perhaps demonstrates that only international financing can release the creativity for UK drama productions of real scale and ambition.
Former C4 drama commissioning editor Peter Ansorge voiced his frustration last month, commenting on the difference in television drama between here and the US: “You can’t argue against HBO, AMC, Showtime and Scandinavia being the new gold standard in TV drama. Even Germany has got in on the act with Deutschland 83.
“I’d question whether this is the case in the UK. These international shows have one thing in common: they are all original and contemporary works, with challenging things to say about their recent history and their countries’ social and political realities. HBO and AMC dramas challenge US audiences to look at themselves in new, often breathtaking ways.
“In contrast, the UK typically looks back, or towards crime. Downton Abbey tops the ratings on Christmas Day, Agatha Christie is catapulted into the ranks of our greatest novelists, the writing team on EastEnders are suddenly on a par with Dickens, a Tolstoy period adaptation feels like an Austen, writ large.”
If this sounds like a blanket dismissal of UK drama, it’s not – but it’s beginning to look like only international coproduction money and ambition can lift the country’s homegrown drama into binge-worthy series that can play well in the US.
Peaky Blinders has, to an extent, proven that uniquely British subject matter can – given the budget, casting and swagger – translate to overseas markets (admittedly shielded from some of the heat of the ratings war by its presence on BBC2).
BBC1 must surely be hoping this is the case for the upcoming Tom Hardy eight-part miniseries Taboo (from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight) and Steve McQueen’s as-yet untitled drama about the lives of a group of black Britons from 1968 to 2014.
The news that Julie Walters is to star in a TV series based on her role in the surprise BBC Films hit Brooklyn also raises hopes that there will be more ambition for the genre at the corporation than relying on rehashing popular classics.
And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s seminal murder mystery – but just how was this story of 10 strangers stranded on an isolated island brought to the screen?
It was first published in 1939 as the world stood on the brink of war, but Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (ATTWN) remains the celebrated author’s most popular work.
More than 70 years after it was written, the chilling murder mystery is still the best-selling crime story of all time and was recently voted Christie’s most popular novel.
And now it’s been given the television treatment after BBC1 and US cable network Lifetime partnered to bring it to the small screen – but just how did Agatha Christie Ltd (ACL), producer Mammoth Screen and writer Sarah Phelps adapt the story?
And Then There Were None sees 10 strangers brought together on a mysterious island, but as they wait for their hosts, they find themselves cut off from civilisation. The guests then start to die, one by one, according to the rules of Ten Little Soldier Boys, a nursery rhyme that ends with the words: “… and then there were none.”
The ensemble cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor and Aidan Turner.
Best known for her “cosy crime” stories featuring Miss Marple and Poirot, it was time for people to see the other side of Agatha Christie, says Hilary Strong, CEO of ACL. “And Then There Were None is probably Christie’s seminal book,” she says. “Sarah did an amazing adaptation but the book itself is very dark and brutal. We haven’t changed the tone of it. That’s how she wrote it.”
Mammoth’s executive producers Karen Thrussell and Damien Timmer have a long history with Christie, having previously produced Poirot for ITV. Thrussell says that with no detective at the centre of the plot, ATTWN immediately stands out as “amazingly different and inventive.”
She adds: “It’s a dark, dark book – the original slasher thriller – but it’s also very psychological. It was absolutely the one we most wanted to do. So we got in touch with Sarah, who’s one of our favourite writers. I don’t think she’d actually read Agatha Christie before and I think she was knocked over sideways actually reading this book because it’s not what you expect from Christie.”
Phelps describes the story as “remorseless. You thought you knew what this woman (Christie) was about,” she says. “Her mind was absolutely extraordinary. You kind of forget that. Agatha the writer and Agatha the brain get lost in Agatha the brand. I was profoundly shocked by it in a really exciting way. That’s what I really hope comes across. It’s brutal.”
When writing the book, Christie worked backwards, starting at the end when everyone is dead and the police arrive too late, penning it over two years. Phelps similarly approached the adaptation as a puzzle, trying to make sure all the characters’ whereabouts were known when another person died and yet ensuring that each remained a suspect.
“You have to build it inside your head and let the characters walk around it,” she says. “I took the dog on really long walks and stamped around to get the atmosphere of it and then I sat down and threw everything I had at it and hoped for the best. You can find yourself thinking, ‘Well, in the book you know this person’s there because you’re told.’
“When you put it in a three-dimensional setting, you need to make sure that when a murder happens, viewers know where everybody is and yet they could all legitimately be the murderer of the person that’s just died. You can bash your head against the walls a couple of times thinking about how to solve that. But that’s part of the fun. And if you can make those reasons characterful, then it’s dramatic.”
The reveal in the original text was also saved for two epilogues at the end of the story, meaning Phelps also had to find a way for the story to be resolved on screen – one of several changes she made to Christie’s novel.
“The two epilogues tell you everything that happened after the event and how it was all planned, giving insight into the process of doing it. But you don’t want to finish your drama and have a couple of epilogues, so you want to pull that into the structure of the drama itself,” she says.
“There are little things we changed slightly to facilitate bringing that stuff into the body of the drama. I changed one of the crimes just because I wanted the character to have a much closer connection to it; I wanted to actively make him a murder victim rather than somebody who did something and then death just happened. I wanted them to be active agents in the destruction of another life.”
Craig Viveiros was brought in to direct the series, while production designer Sophie Becher was often found trawling antique shops and junk markets to find props that were authentic to its 1939 setting.
“Sophie very much wanted to keep the style as Sarah had written, with the house on the island very white and modern,” Thrussell says. “There’s a theme of deterioration as the show goes on because you start with a slightly more optimistic lighting set-up, the characters get to the house and it’s rather nice and the food’s excellent.
“Then gradually as it descends into chaos, it gets darker and their appearance becomes dishevelled and not so neat. There’s that progression that’s been carefully tracked throughout. We also did that that with the music – it got more experimental as we went through. It was a bit of a journey.”
Having aired in three-parts on BBC1 over Christmas, ATTWN will also appear as two 90-minute instalments on Lifetime in the US in spring.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at Lifetime parent A+E Networks, says joining forces with the BBC for the miniseries was a “no-brainer.”
“For Lifetime, it doesn’t get much better,” he says. “Sarah’s retelling of a book we all think we know but actually don’t quite know is extraordinary. For us, looking at a piece like this as an event and Agatha Christie as a brand, along with the great cast and two great storytellers, it was a no-brainer.
“We’re excited to be able to use the brand, which still means a lot in the States. Rob Sharenow (Lifetime’s executive VP of programming), who bought the show very early on before he’d seen anything from Sarah, knew the book well. He’d read the book as a child, loved it and they just needed some hooks – which are the cast as well as Agatha – to be able to market it to the audience in the US.”
Strong says the show was always conceived as a coproduction in order to bring together the high-profile cast they wanted from the outset.
“It was never going to be a cheap thing to do so we started talking to America very early on in the process, even before Sarah had written the script,” she explains. “Working with Joel at A+E and Lifetime was a revelation because, at the same time as we were trying to ensure the world saw a different side to Agatha Christie’s work, Lifetime was also trying to move away from its very female audience, so it was a real brand match in terms of what we were trying to do.
“This is a BBC show written by Agatha Christie – it’s very inherently British. A+E and Lifetime needed a cast that resonated with their audience so we got them an extraordinary cast. Charles Dance, Aidan Turner looking very different to Poldark, Sam Neil, Burn Gorman – it’s just a fantastic team of people and they worked so well together. They loved it.”
With the story literally coming to a dead end, there’s no chance of a second season – so why was this adapted for television and not made into a movie?
“What I love about TV is you have time to explore things,” Thrussell says. “One of the things Sarah did beautifully was to really get to know these people and I don’t think you could do that in a two-hour film. What’s brilliant about TV is that you can explore the longevity of things. I don’t know how you’d do it justice as a film. TV is great for character development, that’s what makes it interesting.”
With a big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, due in November 2017, ACL is continuing to find ways to bring Christie to new and younger audiences.
“We would love to make more TV in the future but we will do it very carefully and very sparingly,” Strong adds. “We don’t want to have a thousand Christies in production. But I’d love to adapt Witness for the Prosecution next.”
The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.
On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.
Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.
Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.
Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”
There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.
Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”
Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.
“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”
Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.
And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.
Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.
He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.
“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”
Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.
BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.
Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.
Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.
The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.
ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.
And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.
“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”
Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).
Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”
Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.
As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.
There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong explains why adaptations of the celebrated author’s stories, which remain popular across the world, will keep on coming.
The 125th anniversary of the birth of author Agatha Christie this year is being marked with two new television adaptations.
Sleuthing couple Tommy and Tuppence appeared in a new BBC1 series called Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, in July. A six-part drama placing the characters in the 1950s, it re-imagined the events of Christie novels The Secret Adversary and N or M? across two three-part stories produced by Endor Productions.
BBC1 has also partnered with US cable network Lifetime on a new adaptation of And Then There Were None, which was named the world’s favourite Christie novel in a survey published in September.
The classic thriller, which tells of 10 individuals invited to an isolated island where they are killed one by one by an unknown murderer, has been adapted by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations) and produced by Mammoth Screen. The cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens and Aidan Turner, and is due to air on BBC1 this Christmas.
These new adaptations serve as a fitting tribute to the prolific writer, dubbed the Queen of Crime. But they also represent the efforts of Agatha Christie Ltd to introduce her to a new generation of fans by becoming more proactive when exploiting the rights to the author’s vast library.
Hilary Strong (pictured top), CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, says: “The brief from Mathew Pritchard, Christie’s only grandchild and chairman of the company, was that we would work together to exploit the brand ourselves and that’s why he brought me in with my television background,” explains Strong. “We were coming to the end of our Poirot films series on ITV that first aired in 1989. David Suchet’s work as Poirot is iconic and no one else has played a leading drama role for 25 years. It’s an extraordinary thing to have done but we knew they were finishing and we knew then that we had to do something new and fresh.
“It gave us the opportunity to sit back and decide what we wanted to do. Did we want to carry on with Christie being the traditional, much-loved work that it is? People’s perception of it is ‘cosy crime.’ But for a brand to remain alive and resonate for a modern audience, it needs to do something new and give a different message.”
With a background in television and rights management, Strong is perfectly placed for this new challenge. She was previously MD of Acorn Productions, where she had responsibility for developing drama around the works of Christie and other properties, including Foyle’s War. She has also worked for Chorion (Enid Blyton, Paddington Bear) and was group business director at Hat Trick Productions.
With Partners in Crime, the company made its first move away from ‘cosy crime,’ setting the action in a more recent period and casting Walliams and Raine to attract a younger audience. And Then There Were None, while set in 1939, has a more contemporary tone and is, Strong says, “really fucking scary.”
She explains: “Sarah Phelps has done an amazing job and has been absolutely truthful to the story while giving us this deep dark tone. For me, it embodies what we’ve been trying to do – take something and retell it so it appeals to modern audiences. If we can achieve that, then we’ve done our job. I don’t want to shake off the cosy crime image but I want people to understand that Christie can be delivered in a different way.”
The company isn’t just interested in a new way of telling Christie – it is also shaking up the way its television adaptations are built. No longer simply licensing rights away, Agatha Christie Ltd is keeping its hand in the creative process and building direct relationships with broadcasters and suggesting potential projects before selecting the production partners they want to work with to bring the idea to the screen.
“It is quite unusual,” Strong says of the strategy. “It helps that there are relationships before that process. Damien Timmer, who runs Mammoth, was an executive producer at ITV on Poirot and Miss Marple, so he has a long relationship with the family and the company. When we sat down with him, he was extremely open to the benefits of collaboration because you get a different insight when you’ve got people who really know the brand involved. The script process is very collaborative but once production starts, they get on and make the programme. It works really well.
“The thing I was most keen to do was move away from the idea that the estate is there to approve or disapprove, which does happen with estates. So if we get it right and we’ve chosen the right writer and worked on the scripts, then once you get to production, those parts are in place. It would be quite unusual to hit a fundamental problem then.
“We also do a lot of the design stuff together because that’s really important to us. We need to make sure the imagery being used when you get to promotion works cross-platform. We had new book covers for Partners in Crime, with a logo that goes across the TV programmes.”
Christie isn’t just popular in Britain, however. Strong says the novelist’s works have been translated into more languages than those of any other author, while TV adaptations have been sold into more than 180 countries. Japanese network NHK aired a two-part version of Murder on the Orient Express in January this year, produced by Fuji TV. And French broadcaster France 2 is behind Les Petits Meutres d’Agatha Christie, which plants two detectives into Christie plots. Twenty-three episodes have been produced by Escazal Films since 2009.
“What’s been really interesting is just how big Christie is in other countries,” says Strong. “In South America, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, Christie is huge and they have their own indigenous productions in foreign languages.”
She also suggests a big deal for the German-language rights to Christie’s books is near completion, adding that the estate is very open to doing “very radical, avant garde, contemporary new things” with Christie’s stories.
“But we’re unlikely to muck about with the core plot because that’s what works,” she explains. “When people start trying to mess with it, that’s when it goes wrong. You can tell it in a new way, give it a contemporary tone or set it in a contemporary setting. And Then There Was None means there is no one left at the end. It’s not a returning series!”
Strong recognises the drama business is tougher now than at any point in her career: “The fact that budgets have come down and expectations in terms of quality are higher, together with the need to compete on the international market, means your vision and scale has had to go up.
“It’s a very good time for drama. There’s an awful lot out there but that’s because there’s an appetite for it. As people keep on watching it, people want more. And the fact there’s so much, if you’ve got a brand like Christie, you can put your head above the parapet a bit and people can find you in the schedules.
“But one of the things we don’t do is work with people just because they think the brand will help them sell more shows. We will only work with people we know have a genuine love for the stories. We have tried developing a couple of smart ideas and then down the road realised the people we were working with didn’t have the depth of understanding of the brand, and in those circumstances it rarely works. If you work with people who understand Christie, it just works much better.”
Strong would love to see Witness for the Prosecution, a short story about a woman who gives evidence for the prosecution in her husband’s murder trial, made for television and says the global appeal of Christie’s stories is in the pure and simple language she uses.
In the meantime, fans can look forward to a new big-screen version of Murder on the Orient Express, which will be directed by Kenneth Branagh for 20th Century Fox. Branagh will also star as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who must investigate a murder on board the famous train – but there are a number of passengers who could have committed the crime.
Agatha Christie Ltd has also launched its own digital drama based upon Christie’s character Mr Quin, which launched as an app in November 2015.
But what is it about Christie’s work that means it has stood the test of time? “Her plot lines are just ingenious and her characters are lovable,” Strong adds. “People adore them. And the breadth – there are 33 Poirot novels to read. You’re not going to do it in a hurry.
“I don’t see any time when people don’t want to carry on reading her books. Our job is to retell those stories in a way that makes them accessible for people. What I’d love – and would tell me I’d done my job – is if people watched And Then There Were None and then went back and read some of the original books.”
At MipTV, Jeremy Darroch, CEO of European pay TV broadcaster Sky, gave a keynote interview during which he talked about the company’s ambition to increase its investment in scripted content. A key focus of his attention was the UK-based channel Sky Atlantic, which deals primarily in high-end scripted content.
Sky Atlantic launched in 2011 on the back of a wide-ranging content supply arrangement with HBO in the US. This was renewed and expanded last year, with the two companies announcing their intention to coproduce “epic” dramas.
Running in parallel with this partnership, Sky Atlantic has also assiduously built relationships with other key players in the international drama arena. In 2013, it coproduced The Tunnel with Canal+ in France (a detective drama based on acclaimed Swedish/Danish copro The Bridge). Soon after, it partnered with Endemol on arctic thriller Fortitude – a series that, despite a slightly indigestible narrative and the puzzling under-use of actors Christopher Eccleston and Stanley Tucci, did a good job of attracting new viewers to the channel and secured a second run.
In the last couple of weeks, Sky Atlantic has given further insight into its drama ambitions. First came the news that it is to coproduce The Young Pope, starring Jude Law, with HBO and Canal+. And now it has announced that it will partner NBC on 10-part plague drama Patient Zero (w/t). Like Fortitude, Patient Zero will be produced by Fifty Fathoms and will also star Tucci. It will tell the story of a global pandemic that turns those infected into predators, addicted to violence.
Underlining the scale of the channel’s ambition in drama, Patient Zero is being written by Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) and directed by Marc Forster (World War Z). Commenting, Sky head of drama Anne Mensah said: “As we continue to bring our customers more original drama, I am delighted to be partnering with two creatives at the top of their game (Moore and Forster) in a thriller that will grip from the outset. We’re excited to be expanding our relationship with NBC/NBC Universal and it’s great to be working with Fifty Fathoms after the huge success with Fortitude.”
For the last couple of years, there’s been a gradual trend towards Hollywood movies being remade as TV series. There’s a commercial logic to this, because it means the spin-off shows can launch with in-built brand awareness. But creatively this trend has the potential to be quite claustrophobic, with films that only just managed to fill 120 minutes being stretched out across 10 hours.
Whether this movies-as-pilots-for-TV-series trend can work at an industrial scale will become clearer by the end of this year, because there are so many examples coming through at the US networks. CBS, for example, has greenlit Rush Hour and Limitless, while ABC is developing Uncle Buck (based on the 1989 John Candy comedy of the same name). Fox, having already announced plans to adapt Minority Report, has now revealed that it has given a script order to Urban Cowboy, a drama based on the 1980 romantic movie starring John Travolta. Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) will write, direct and executive produce the drama.
Interestingly, this movie-to-TV trend is also beginning to catch on outside the US production system. In the UK, Buccaneer Media has announced plans to make a TV series based on the 2014 indie sci-fi film Robert Overlords (produced by Tempo Productions). The plan is for the spin-off series to target a family audience – along the lines of BBC Worldwide’s international hit Doctor Who. Buccaneer will work with Tempo on the project, which imagines a world in which humanity has been enslaved by robots. Tempo’s Piers Tempest, who produced the film, said: “This series will really expand the canvas of the robot occupation and we are aiming to make an explosive show that the UK will be very proud of.”
Alongside movies, graphic novels/comics have become an increasingly important source of ideas for scripted series (see Michael Pickard’s feature about this trend). The latest idea to get a pick up is The Wicked + The Divine, from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. An award-winning series about a group of people with superhuman powers known as The Pantheon, the property has been picked up by Universal and will be developed by Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick via their company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds. MCM signed a deal with Universal in February to make TV shows based on comics.
Finally, BBC1 has announced plans for a new pre-watershed period drama series, to be written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel, Darling Buds of May). Titled My Mother and Other Strangers, this 5×60’ series follows the fortunes of a rural family, the Coynes, when a huge US Air Force airfield is built in their parish. Set in Northern Ireland during World War Two, it will be made by BBC Northern Ireland with funding from Northern Ireland Screen.
Commenting on the project, Barry Devlin says: “I wanted to write a series that had an exotic love story at its heart but that was set in a place I recognise. So I’m delighted the BBC has commissioned the series. It’s really great to be part of a story about Northern Ireland that is entirely originated and filmed here.”
In other scripted news, UK broadcaster ITV has acquired Poldark producer Mammoth Screen. Check out C21 Media for details.