Tag Archives: Matthew Graham

The royal treatment

Showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham explore the early life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, in historical drama The Spanish Princess. They reveal how the future queen caused a stir in Tudor England and the drama’s parallels with Breaking Bad.

Hot on the heels of The White Queen and The White Princess, US premium cable network Starz is continuing its dynastic saga of Tudor England with eight-part drama The Spanish Princess.

Like both of its predecessors, this new series recalls history from the perspective of its female characters and is based on historical novels by author Philippa Gregory, this time The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. But while the story ostensibly focuses on Catherine of Aragon’s arrival from Spain with dreams of becoming queen – an ambition she achieved by marrying the future Henry VIII – it stands apart from previous instalments through its perspective of an outsider causing a stir in the Royal Court, themes of immigration and its focus on people of colour living in 16th century London.

Under the leadership of co-showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham, the series will reveal how Catherine left a Spain ruled by her fearsome mother, Isabella of Castile, and came to England, where she experienced a huge culture shock in a land that was comparatively old fashioned and male dominated.

Emma Frost

“She really causes gigantic ripples in this old-fashioned, rather fusty male Tudor world,” Frost explains. “As history goes on to tell us, her daughter Mary [with Henry VIII] becomes the first queen in her own right, Mary I.”

But there’s another reason that Frost and Graham believe The Spanish Princess promises to be the most exciting chapter yet. Beginning their research during production of The White Princess, they were keen to understand the place of people of colour in 16th century London. Historical advisers suggested diverse characters would have been an anachronism for the period, which Frost admits “really pissed me off,” as she already knew that wasn’t true.

“What we discovered without breaking too much of a sweat is that Catherine of Aragon came to England with an incredibly diverse entourage of people, notably including an African Iberian lady-in-waiting called Catalina de Cardones, who we call Lina in the show,” reveals Frost, who was also the showrunner of The White Queen and The White Princess.

“This woman exists as a footnote in history but no one has ever bothered to dramatise her or acknowledge she was there. What we know is Lina married another African in London, Oviedo, and it was very unusual in this period for people of colour to marry each other. So this is a really extraordinary story of these two African people in early Tudor England marrying each other and being very much part of the world of the court. So there is a whole new massive piece of this story that is reappropriating history for people of colour as well as for women by telling this story of these two people who really did exist.”

Graham says The Spanish Princess also looks at issues of class and social mobility in a way the previous versions weren’t able to. “The White Queen and The White Princess were both very much about the Yorks and Lancasters and all of it was at that level. Now we can tell stories that take place in the taverns, the streets and the way their love story unfolds,” he says. “The other thing you get a chance to do is tell what could not be a more pertinent story about immigration. There was cultural wariness of people who came from a different country. Frankly, though, in Tudor London you were wary of people who came from Wales. It wasn’t the colour of the skin that was the issue, so that’s quite nice – here we are with two black people in the middle of Tudor England and we don’t tell a story about racism.”

The Spanish Princess comes from the same team as The White Queen (pictured) and The White Princess

Like The White Queen and The White Princess, every scene in The Spanish Princess is from one of the leading female characters’ points of view, with Catherine and Lina joined as the main protagonists by another Iberian lady-in-waiting, Rosa, and Maggie Pole, who also featured in The White Princess. Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, is still very much a key player and antagonist-in-chief, Frost says. “There are various very strong conflicting female points of view that interweave or fall in behind Catherine. She’s the main character but we always have these other incredible strong women in the show.”

Frost argues Catherine is much maligned by history, overshadowed by Henry VIII’s later wives, particularly those who lost their heads in the process. “She’s characterised as this unwanted old bag, but it’s a phenomenal story that’s very pertinent to the 21st century,” she adds.

Catherine’s arrival from Spain is used to great visual effect in the series, contrasting the bright sunshine and rich colours of her homeland against the dark, gloominess of England – a place of shadows and people whispering in corridors.

“She’s a breath of fresh air but she’s also not to be trusted. She brings her own culture,” Graham says of Catherine. Frost notes that the character’s arrival in the country allows the show to observe Tudor England from an outsider’s perspective, something not possible in the previous iterations.

“That’s a really exciting point of view shift because now the Tudor world is the ‘other’ to the world of our heroine,” she says. “That allows for all sorts of other conflicts. There’s also an incredibly exciting theme running through the show about faith, because the Inquisition is beginning in Spain under Isabella, Catherine’s mother, and several of her entourage are Muslim, so they have to deal with their feelings about what’s happening in Spain and what Catherine’s real allegiances are. There is a world where the Catholic faith is no longer the only gig in town for a lot of characters who have always peopled the show. So we’re able to explore lots of thorny issues around conflicting ideas about faith, God, forgiveness and redemption.”

The Duke of Kent tours The Spanish Princess set at The Bottle Yard Studios

Leading the drama as Catherine is Charlotte Hope (pictured top), who was cast following an international search across Europe and North America. Frost and Graham were looking for someone who could embody the strength and vulnerability of the princess. That Hope (Game of Thrones) looks eerily like Catherine was a bonus.

“Charlotte just looks like her,” says Frost. “She has this strength, this fragility, and she’s just grown into the role. It was very hard casting a lead because there are so many factors to consider, but she is the most talented, hard-working, wonderful actress. We just love her.”

Ruairi O’Connor plays Henry, with Stephanie Levi-John as Lina de Cardonnes, Aaron Cobham as Oviedo, Nadia Parkes as Rosa, Harriet Walter as Margaret Beaufort and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) as Maggie Pole.

Graham was watching from the sidelines while his real-life partner Frost ran The White Princess, living and breathing Tudor England through her work. So when she suggested they do the next one together, he jumped at the opportunity to work alongside her and share the endless responsibilities of a showrunner – a role they had both previously performed separately. They say every TV show they both work on in future, they will do together.

Frost also welcomed the introduction of a male viewpoint behind the scenes. “Even though the show is told from the point of view of women, the male characters really matter, and trying to write a young Henry VIII – a complex, mercurial, intelligent, likeable, flawed and dangerous man – it’s been fantastic to have Matthew’s voice coming into that as well.

“Every single TV show we are working on now we do together, so we’re showrunning everything we do in TV. We break the stories together, we write the pilot together and then, moving forward, we write episodes separately and give each other notes. Then Matthew’s brilliant at all the bits in production that I’m hopeless at.”

The White Princess aired on Starz last year

Behind the camera, Birgitte Stærmose (Norskov) directs the first two episodes and Maya Zamodia is the DOP. Graham also got to try his hand at directing, picking up some battle sequences and palace-set scenes in Spain. Production designer Will Hughes-Jones (The Alienist) and costume designer Phoebe de Gaye (Killing Eve) return from The White Princess. Composer Samuel Sim is adding the music to the production, which Graham says won’t feel like “your grandmother’s period drama.”

“It’s got to have a buoyancy and momentum to it that feels fresh and cinematic and youthful,” he adds. “That’s one of the big things in production we’ve gone for.”

Frost picks up: “It’s a tremendously ambitious show. For the budget, what we’ve achieved is extraordinary. We’ve all had to be really inventive about how we cut our cloth and how we make the show.”

Distributed internationally by Lionsgate, the series is produced by New Pictures and Playground and is due to debut early next year. Frost and Graham, however, are already working on a second season of The Spanish Princess, which will continue the story of Catherine of Aragon – one Frost likens to Walter White’s journey from idealism into darkness in Breaking Bad.

“This doesn’t have the same darkness but it does arguably have more tragedy. Ultimately, it’s the story about the lie,” she adds, referring to Catherine’s claim that her marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated before his death, thus leaving her free to wed Henry and become queen.

“Our whole exploration really is an exploration of that decision she makes and whether she’s lying or telling the truth and the consequences of those actions. It’s a really strong female story of a woman trying to define her place in the world. It’s very familiar [to modern audiences] in that regard.”

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The stuff Dreams are made of

Matthew Graham, the writer behind the first episode of Electric Dreams, the 10-part anthology series based on the works of acclaimed author Philip K Dick, tells DQ about his favourite scene from The Hood Maker, which is based on the short story of the same name.

Matthew Graham

The Hood Maker takes place somewhere in the future. There has been a global disaster that has resulted in technology moving backwards – there is clearly no internet, while power and transportation are limited. The world we see is a relatively oppressive one, and the natural disaster that reduced our electrical power and cut off our telecommunications also gave rise to mutation – some are born with telepathic ability, the ‘teeps.’

The Anti-Immunity Bill has just been passed, allowing the police, known as Clearance in the story, to use teeps to read the minds of suspects, even against their will. As a lot of governments and institutions do, they justify it by saying if you’re not guilty of anything, you have nothing to hide. However, a mysterious man known as the Hood Maker begins sending out hoods that block teeps from reading the mind of the person wearing them.

Very early on, I wanted to have a scene where we see the oppressive power of the teeps and how it’s being used. The first person wearing a hood, Rathbone (played by Tom Mothersdale), is arrested, brought into the police station and strapped to a chair. Initially he is interrogated by a Clearance officer called Ross (Richard Madden). Even though Ross comes in and interrogates him quite hard, as you imagine a cop would do, there’s also a reluctance in Ross, the sense that he is saying, ‘It would be easier for you if you just told me what you know, rather than letting me bring a teep in to read your mind.’

L-R: Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden and Tom Mothersdale in the interrogation scene

Then a teep called Honor, played by Holliday Granger, comes in. Because Rathbone has resisted having his mind read, Honor forces his mind open. But I wanted it to be a process like ransacking a house; I didn’t want it to be neat and gentle. I wanted it to be like rummaging through someone’s drawers and throwing things over your shoulder.

She wants him to give up the names of his accomplices but he’s buried them deep in the back of his mind, and what you put in the back of your mind are the things you don’t want people to know. Things start coming out about him being bullied, about having a sexual fixation on his mum – things he feels really ashamed of.

I came up with this idea that Rathbone uses the phrase ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ as a mantra he repeats over and over again, like putting up a wall. Then I thought it would be cool if it became a battle of minds and will. Honor starts repeating her own mantra but she’s perverted it and made it more subservient, repeating ‘The slow black dog bows before the regal fox.’ Gradually she twists him round. At the end, when she does get the names from him, he is left spent, like the victim of an assault. He’s crying and broken.

Grainger plays a ‘teep,’ or telepath

The director, Julian Jarrold, brought two things to the scene that weren’t in the script. One was a suggestion that we have Ross watching this process, with the audience seeing his discomfort. Ross is a non-teep, so to anyone who’s not a mind-reader, this process looks unpleasant and creepy.

The second thing we did on the day they were filming, after talking to Holliday, was putting in that the process of mind-reading makes Honor cry. In a way, it’s a painful process for the teeps as well as the people being read. Holliday actually came in to rehearse that scene before filming and she started crying for real, so we ran with it.

In this scene, it was very much the writer, the director and the actors working together to build up the layers. Everyone had a part to play, which is why I think the scene works really well. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the story.

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Viewers fine with the end of the world

The Leftovers
Despite critical acclaim and a cult following, The Leftovers is far from certain for renewal on HBO

Anyone in the TV drama business will know just how hard it is to keep up with all the new scripted titles coming onto the global market. In my case, it took me until season four to find Breaking Bad and season three to start watching Downton Abbey – and even then I fell asleep during the first episode and didn’t start watching again for a few months.

I was a year late discovering Happy Valley and have yet to get past episode one of True Detective. And I’m a person who only watches drama, movies and Arsenal FC.

At C21 Media’s International Drama Summit last week, I learnt there is another show I have been missing out on – HBO’s The Leftovers.

Browsing through DQ’s pre-event coverage of the summit, I was struck by just how many TV executives singled it out as one of their top scripted series of the year. This echoes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who recently said: “The best surprise of 2015 might be how good, actually, how great, The Leftovers has become.”

For those in the same boat as me, The Leftovers is based on a bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta. The series takes place three years after a global event called the ‘Sudden Departure,’ during which 140 million people (2% of the world’s population) inexplicably disappear. As a result, a number of religious cults spring up, the most prominent of which is called the Guilty Remnant.

Damon Lindelof
Damon Lindelof

Perrotta is also co-creator of the series, though a lot of the writing is done by Damon Lindelof, who is credited as a co-writer on every episode of the first two seasons except one. Prior to The Leftovers, Lindelof’s major TV credit was ABC’s iconic series Lost, which he co-created. Subsequently, he devoted more of his time to movies, writing the screenplays to Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland.

Season two of The Leftovers ended this week, and there has not yet been any word from HBO on whether it will be renewed. This is because, despite all the critical acclaim and a cult following, it hasn’t been rating very well.

Lindelof would like to do another season, but is realistic enough to realise that the show’s viewing figures might not allow that. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said: “Anybody who says to you that they don’t want more viewers is a much more confident individual than I am. I do subscribe to the idea that the more people watching the show, the better the show is. The more critical acclaim, the better the show is. I’m just not the person who’s like, ‘Hey, if I like it then f– all of y’all.’ Television in particular is a medium that is designed to go out to the masses, and I would like a lot of people (to watch my show).”

Another sci-fi writer in the news this week is J Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 and co-creator of Sense8. Straczynski has been handed the exciting role of adapting Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels for US cable network Spike.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is being adapted for Spike
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is being adapted for Spike

Robinson’s award-winning books, which were written between 1993 and 1996, tell the story of humanity’s colonisation of the red planet, starting with the early settlers. Adapted into 21 languages, the books have been acclaimed for their strong scientific foundation, which keeps the story rooted in some kind of reality.

Spike made its ambitions in scripted TV clear earlier this year when it aired Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut. But this is the first time in a decade it has greenlit a full series. With Straczynski at the helm as writer, executive producer and showrunner, it is the kind of project that could develop into an ongoing franchise.

“The heart and soul of Red Mars is about humanity,” said Spike executive VP of original series Sharon Levy. “This group of strangers must find a way to live together and survive under the most daunting conditions mankind has ever faced to become the first living generation of Martians. They will be each other’s greatest source of strength – and, if they can’t coexist, the reason for failure.”

Also on board is Skydance Television, whose president Marcy Ross added: “We are thrilled to join forces with Spike to bring Kim Stanley Robinson’s dynamic world of the Mars trilogy to television audiences for the first time ever, particularly in the brilliant creative voice of science-fiction legend J Michael Straczynski.”

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End hits screens next week

Author Robinson will be a consultant on the new series, which goes into production next summer for a January 2017 debut.

Humanity’s battle for survival is a big theme in TV drama at present, which is probably the result of various background factors such as the unstable geopolitical environment, the fear of pandemics, the rapid rise of AI, the growing refugee crisis and the failure of countries to get to grips with climate change.

As well as the shows named above, we’ve seen Neil Cross secure a commission for Hard Sun while Syfy  is just about to air Matthew Graham’s adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (December 14-16).

Writer Regina Moriarty is also in the process of adapting Jane Rogers novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb as a three-parter. Developed with Carnival Films, Rogers’ novel imagines a near-future world in which a virus is killing pregnant mothers. Scientists fight to save the unborn children by placing the mothers in a chemically induced coma, but a breakthrough in immunising frozen embryos could hold the key to the human race’s survival.

James Patterson
James Patterson

The keen-eyed among you will have noted that three of the above projects are based on novels. Another novel adaptation breaking to the surface this week is Now You See Her, a legal drama based on a book by James Patterson. Ordered by CBS, the TV version will be written by Siobhan Byrne O’Connor, whose writing credits include Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Third Watch and Monk. Blue Bloods, also on CBS, has been running for six seasons.

Patterson is a popular source among TV networks. CBS thriller series Zoo is also based on his work, while there has been talk of USA Network adapting his Women’s Murder Club novels. Like movie-to-TV adaptations and TV series reboots, novel adaptations act as a comfort blanket for broadcasters that are nervous about the high-cost and risk attached in wholly original production.

As a footnote to this, it’s interesting to note that Syfy’s decision to greenlight Red Mars follows the breakout success of feature film The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The two projects are unrelated but there’s clearly some security to be had in backing subject matter than has already won itself an audience.

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