Tag Archives: Mike Bartlett

Hold the front page

Journalists from two competing newspapers go head-to-head in Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett’s latest BBC1 drama, Press. DQ went on set to speak to the writer, executive producer Faith Penhale and the cast about this examination of the fourth estate.

Unusually for a national tabloid newspaper, the floor of The Post is quiet and still. Computer screens are turned off and chairs sit empty beneath large signs displaying the publication’s bright red masthead.

In the next room, however, dozens of extras are lining up, ready to take their places on the set of Mike Bartlett’s new drama, Press. Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, the series aims to explore the personal lives and constant professional dilemmas facing journalists as they attempt to balance work and play amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.

Mike Bartlett

On one side are the employees of The Post, a traditional tabloid newspaper known for entertainment and scandal, while on the other are those working for The Herald, a left-leaning broadsheet. When The Post moves into new offices directly opposite The Herald, these two groups of journalists and the newspapers they represent are thrown into direct conflict.

The six-part series is produced by Lookout Point, BBC Studios and Deep Indigo for BBC1, and coproduced with PBS strand Masterpiece in the US. BBC Studios is handling international distribution.

Bartlett, best known for BBC1 drama Doctor Foster, says he had wanted to write about newspapers and the press for a long time, describing the newsroom as “the ideal place for a drama.” He reveals he first pitched the idea 10 years ago, but since then the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry in the UK have brought the operations of newspapers and journalists into sharper focus. And in the age of Donald Trump and so-called ‘fake news,’ the press is arguably under greater scrutiny than ever.

It was a meeting four years ago with executive producer Faith Penhale, joint CEO and creative director of Lookout Point, that finally put Press into development.

“What is interesting about that is the show was initially about a quite stable industry but, over the course of researching and writing this, it became a story about an industry that is changing rapidly, and no one knows what is going to happen to it,” Bartlett explains, seated one floor above the set built inside a former office block on a north London industrial estate. “As a dramatist, it’s a wonderful world for drama because you have got new people coming in, new ways of doing things, and you have got older people who have been there a long time and are worried about losing a sense of what it used to be.”

Ben Chaplin plays Duncan Allen, editor of The Post

During his research, Bartlett visited the offices of UK publications The Guardian, The Sun, The Independent and the London Evening Standard, which he says both matched and confounded his expectations. He then sat down to write.

“I got a real sense of vocation from most people I spoke to, even if it was buried underneath a load of having a hard day and being really busy,” he says. “People on all different desks in the newsroom had a real belief in what it was doing, whether it was for entertainment or revolution and political change. So the show, on one hand, is a workplace drama where people sleep together and fall out and make friends and do all the things you would expect, but I also said from the start that the stories have to come from the world of journalism. If could you tell the same story in a world set in a hairdressers then it wasn’t the right story.”

Bartlett and Penhale go to great lengths to stress that Press is an entirely fictional drama, despite the echoes of real-life publications – The Post could easily be The Sun, while  The Herald surely doubles for The Guardian – and say the show doesn’t put their own personal views on the screen, despite Bartlett admitting he’s a “leftie, Guardian-reading writer.”

“We’re telling stories in this world and hopefully showing all the highs and lows and everyday dilemmas and huge, life-changing dilemmas. It’s got everything in there but it’s entirely created,” Penhale says. “We certainly don’t shy away from the emotional drama within the stories and within the characters as they face certain challenges. Emotions run high and things can get quite punchy as a result.”

Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard) plays Duncan Allen, the charismatic editor of The Post. “It was a fun role,” Chaplin says when he’s asked what attracted him to the part. “He’s a little bit amoral, which probably helps in that line of work, if tabloid editors will forgive me. He’s very persistent, he never gives up – like he’s an irresistible force.”

Poirot star David Suchet as newspaper owner George Emmerson

That means Duncan isn’t afraid of employing some “pretty shocking” tactics to get the story he wants. “I don’t think he has a lot of qualms about how you get a story, or any at all actually,” Chaplin says, referring to the ‘dark arts’ used by journalists in search of a scoop.

But to the actor, the vibe of a newsroom is rather like being in a theatre company: “There’s this camaraderie but there’s healthy competition as well. It reminded me a little bit of being shipmates, like you’re on the same ship.”

Duncan also comes under pressure to increase readership – and revenue – from The Post’s owner, George Emmerson, played by Poirot star David Suchet.

Having played a real-life newspaper proprietor before in Maxwell, a 2007 biopic about the late media magnate Robert Maxwell, Suchet was keen to avoid any links to real-life figures this time. “When I was offered the role, I said, ‘I don’t want to play [The Sun owner Rupert] Murdoch, I just want to play the character that is in the script,’ and Mike has trodden a very good line. You are not supposed to link him at all. It doesn’t feel thinly veiled and I was very keen to not put on any accents or anything.”

In the wake of recent movies such as Spotlight and The Post, Suchet believes now is a good time for TV to tackle the newspaper world. “It’s like courtroom drama,” he notes. “There have been great films in Hollywood about the press and journalism; it’s great drama and there are great characters.”

Press also stars Charlotte Riley as a journalist for The Herald

In the hands of Bartlett, that meant Press was a series Suchet couldn’t turn down: “He is the only writer, and Doctor Who [2017 episode Knock Knock, written by Bartlett] was the only programme, I have ever said yes to without reading the script. Mike’s scripts are possibly the finest scripts in media today, whether on television or film.

“When I got this script to do, it was just so good, and the relationship between my character and Duncan is really clever. It’s good dialogue. It’s really zingy. There’s nothing cliched about his writing at all. It’s very good. I think it’s going to be a very classy piece of television.”

On another day, DQ is at Three Mills Studios in east London, home to the set of The Herald, where Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, Close to the Enemy) plays the broadsheet’s deputy news editor Holly Evans. Principled and passionate, she’s dedicated to journalism and it’s through her that viewers will see the personal cost of working in the industry.

“Her career has come at the expense of her personal life. She’s pretty lonely,” Riley says. “She has colleagues that she gets on well with. But the loneliness she experiences is outside the office. She lives to work – being in the office brings her to life. It’s her raison d’être. It’s quite sad that as soon as she walks through those doors, she breathes again. Being on her own she has to deal with her demons.

“What attracted me to the role is that she’s fast-thinking but the cogs turn very slowly emotionally. It’s a very detailed emotional arc for her. That was nice to play – it’s not driven by falling in love.”

Riley previously worked with Bartlett on King Charles III, the writer’s BBC2 adaptation of his successful stage play. “Coming from a theatre background, Mike and I have weekly conversations about the things we’re shooting and what’s coming up,” she admits. “It’s wonderful to have access like that to discuss every character and what’s going on and why.

“Shooting TV these days is so quick; you don’t get to be as immersed as you’d like. For most actors, mainly your training is theatre. We had a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of,” Riley adds. “I just really like his work, the way he writes. His characters are great.”

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Head to head

ITV pits Adrian Lester against John Simm in Trauma, a nail-biting three-part thriller from Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett. DQ visits the set to speak to the writer and producer Catherine Oldfield.

Launching in 2015, domestic thriller Doctor Foster quickly became one of the most talked-about shows of the year, with stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel doing battle in a taut thriller about a woman seeking revenge after uncovering her husband’s infidelity. Season two put viewers through the wringer once again when it aired on BBC1 last year.

Mike Bartlett

Before then, however, screenwriter and playwright Mike Bartlett had started working on the idea behind Trauma, a three-part drama airing on consecutive nights on UK broadcaster ITV from Monday. Using a hospital trauma centre as its backdrop, the story is about what happens when you place your trust in another person, only for something to go wrong.

Development was put on hold as Bartlett worked on Doctor Foster and continued his theatre career, but Trauma eventually went into production last year. The show is produced by Tall Story Pictures, directed by Marc Evans and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

It stars Adrian Lester as Jon, a trauma surgeon who is unable to save the life of 15-year-old Alex, the son of John Simm’s character Dan, who holds Jon responsible for Alex’s death. As he strives for justice, Dan begins to unpick the very fabric of Jon’s life as his own unravels in the wake of Alex’s passing.

“I looked at a trauma centre and we looked at the people who worked there and it was really interesting as a context, but then I didn’t really want to write a medical drama,” Bartlett tells DQ on location at Jon’s family home, a luxury four-storey house in Clapham, south-west London. “I wanted to find a story that was a bit different. We live in a world where you get a lot of choice and get to control things, but when you’re thrown into a hospital, you’ve got to place 100% of your trust or the people you love into the hands of someone you’ve never met before. So this story is about what happens when that goes wrong.

Trauma stars Adrian Lester as trauma surgeon Jon

“Once I had that starting point, it quickly became clear this is, hopefully, an unusual story of two protagonists and two points of view. We don’t settle and tell the audience, ‘this person is right.’ We move between the two, and that became an interesting form to explore.”

DQ visits the set on the 33rd day of a 35-day, seven-week shoot that included a two-day rock-climbing sequence. It’s here at Jon’s house that Lester, Rowena King (as Jon’s wife Lisa) and Jade Anouka (their daughter Alana) are filming with director Evans. King is clapped off at the end of the day, having completed her final scene.

Bartlett had been in conversation with Tall Story creative director Catherine Oldfield, who produces Trauma, about working together for several years. “We originally talked about doing The West Wing set in a newspaper room, but now he’s making it without us,” she jokes, referring to Bartlett’s forthcoming BBC drama Press.

Lester’s character goes up again John Simm as bereaved father Dan

That first conversation was almost four years ago, but uniquely, and perhaps owing to the short episode order, Oldfield was able to begin pre-production early last year with three solid scripts in place, ensuring the team behind the show was able to make decisions based on the whole story. “We have that very clear idea at the heart of it, which is these two men, two points of view and we’re not coming down on either side of it,” she says. “That’s been a really big touchstone to come back to. Every time I’ve had a question about it, to go back to that fundamental thing we talked about at the beginning was a way to keep everything on course.”

Bartlett describes feeling “fulfilled” by the more hands-on role afforded by both writing and exec producing the series, with his involvement in conversations throughout production meaning he didn’t have to put everything into the scripts.

Catherine Oldfield

“I thought of this like a chamber piece and what’s great is the production process feels like it’s mirrored that,” the writer explains. “It’s felt like a team that is absolutely on the same page so there haven’t been any surprises. Sometimes you get the rushes back and a scene you wrote in a lift is now set in a meadow. But it hasn’t felt like that – I haven’t been worrying that I’m not on set. Marc’s brilliant, and what’s really worth saying is you’re not writing it and wanting everyone to fulfil that. I love the collaborative process – the designers, the actors and everyone involved. You want it to be more than what you’ve written; you want it to be what you’ve written plus that again in terms of what people bring to it.”

With the opening episode of Trauma, Bartlett succeeds in his attempt to keep viewers guessing in terms of both what will happen next and, more importantly, with whom their sympathies should lie. The writer says psychological thrillers such as this and Doctor Foster are more appealing to him than traditional murder-mysteries or medical dramas.

“Audiences are so genre-literate that it’s nice to have a drama that is just a story, where you have to watch to find out what it is,” he notes. “We’re actually moving [between genres] because it is a medical drama for a moment and then it becomes a thriller and a psychological thing. Audiences love that now – they love finding something unusual that they can’t quite get a handle on.

Simm takes instructions from director Marc Evans

“Television drama can do all sorts of things brilliantly, but what I love to do is write dramas that are quite close to the audience and will get them talking, so that when it happens in their life, they will think of the show. Or if it has happened in their life, this is reflecting some of [their experiences] and maybe they’ll talk about it at work the next day. That’s true with this show. People won’t have been through this exact experience, but there are moments that will reflect what a lot of people have been through.”

Both Bartlett and Oldfield tease that Trauma could return, either as a continuation of the story that plays out across the forthcoming three episodes or as an anthology. Fellow ITV drama Safe House has already laid down a blueprint for single drama that returns with a new cast and story.

What’s certain is theatre playwrights are continuing to find their way to television – note Jez Butterworth’s television debut with Sky Atlantic and Amazon drama Britannia – but producers and broadcasters may soon have to look elsewhere for new writing talent.

“It used to be that writers started in theatre because that’s what you can do at school or in your home,” Bartlett notes. “Then when you got better, you got the resources of TV. Now you can make a film with a phone, so that route of theatre into TV isn’t necessarily where you’re going to find the new talent and new writers anymore.”

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Foster care

Dinner parties will never be the same after BBC drama Doctor Foster became the surprise hit of 2015. DQ hears from stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel and writer Mike Bartlett about what’s in store for season two.

When the BBC first announced Doctor Foster way back in 2014, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the pubcaster’s answer to ITV’s light-hearted hit Doc Martin.

After all, both shows are about local GPs serving close-knit communities in fictional English locales – the town of Parminster in Doctor Foster’s case and Portwenn village in the Martin Clunes-fronted series.

Mike Bartlett

However, any similarities end there, with medicine playing only the smallest of parts in BBC1’s dark, sexually charged and thrilling drama about a woman scorned.

Starring Suranne Jones in the titular role, Doctor Foster was a surprise smash hit for the channel in 2015, thanks to a combination of terrific writing from playwright-turned-TV scribe Mike Bartlett and a stellar performance from Jones.

It became the BBC’s highest-rated drama of the year, attracting an average of nine-and-a-half million viewers and securing top gongs at the National Television Awards (NTAs).

Doctor Foster’s first season saw GP Gemma’s seemingly perfect life begin to unravel after she discovered her husband, Simon (played by Bertie Carvel), was having an affair with a much younger woman and had also secretly jeopardised the family’s finances.

Unfolding across five episodes, the show followed Gemma’s journey from despair to rage and revenge as she uncovered the full extent of Simon’s betrayal, culminating in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene in the finale as everything is laid bare.

Yet despite the show’s success, news of a second five-part season took many by surprise, with the story seemingly having reached a natural conclusion at the end of the first run.

“I didn’t know when we started season one that it would go further,” admits Bartlett. “But when we were shooting it, I started to realise that there could be more, that there could be another story.

Season two sees the return of Simon (Bertie Carvel), now married to former mistress Kate (Jodie Comer)

“The more I looked at the last scene, the more I thought that while it looks like a happy ending, there are lots of threads untied. And then when it went out, people said, ‘Did Gemma really get justice?’ That showed that the audience was feeling what I do – that it doesn’t end there and there’s more to tell.”

Details of exactly how that story advances are scarce, but what we do know is that it picks up two years on from the events of season one. Simon, who had moved away, drops a double bombshell by simultaneously announcing his return to Parminster and his impending marriage to Kate (Jodie Comer), the young woman at the centre of his breakup with Gemma.

As if that weren’t bad enough for Gemma, who has been trying to get on with her life, her now ex-husband appears no worse off despite all his bad behaviour – in fact, he’s better than ever. And then there’s the impact of their acrimonious split on their son, Tom (Tom Taylor), who finds himself caught up in his parents’ animosity as he enters his teenage years.

Jones, who won Best Drama Performance at last year’s NTAs for her portrayal of Gemma, says she couldn’t wait to put on Doctor Foster’s stethoscope once again when she found out about the second season. She describes her character as being “embalmed,” highlighting the decision to have Gemma wear some of the same items of clothing as in season one to illustrate her failure to move on from the turmoil of two years ago.

The new season picks up Gemma (Suranne Jones)’s story two years on

“She’s put up her walls,” the actor continues. “She would have been comfortable, but [Simon] has come back and he’s put a mirror up.

“As well as it being exciting, thrilling, sexy and dark and all those things, I looked at them both and thought, ‘You’re both really hurt,’ and I hadn’t seen that before. Now it makes even more sense where we go [in this season], because you’re looking at vulnerable, damaged people.”

Revealing that the show takes a darker turn this year, Jones believes her character has different motivations in the new episodes. “Gemma doesn’t behave well,” she says with a smirk. “Before, she did that through hurt; now she has channeled her anger. It becomes dark and twisted.”

The actor is full of praise for Bartlett, whose other TV work includes 2012 series The Town for ITV and the upcoming Trauma for the same network. “We’re all very lucky to be working on a Mike Bartlett project – he’s a brilliant writer. When you read one of his scripts, you can’t wait to jump in. Without being rude, there are a lot of scripts that don’t do that to you.

“It feels different and exciting, and at times bizarre, unusual and bonkers – yet you understand it in your gut and you know how you’re going to express that.”

The first season of Doctor Foster was the BBC’s biggest drama hit of 2015

The softly spoken Bertie Carvel, meanwhile, comes across as worlds apart from scheming love rat Simon, a character that saw him become arguably the most hated man on British TV for a few weeks in autumn 2015.

“I hope no one recognises me,” he jokes ahead of tonight’s season two premiere. “Or that maybe they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the character I play!”

Echoing Jones’s praise for Bartlett, Carvel says: “He gives us incredibly three-dimensional characters. What’s really fun as an actor is even though you’re playing a character who is apparently very Machiavellian, whose objective might be dark and quite cruel, there’s enough space and recognisable humanity.”

The actor refers to the show as the “moral equivalent of a hand-held camera,” explaining: “It’s not comfortably tracking along; there’s a sort of wobble to it. We catch things in the frame, in the characters, that aren’t necessarily what the steady shot is tracking towards. Often you find that, half-an-hour later, you’re looking at something from a really different point of view. That’s what’s so exciting about the series as a whole.”

Bartlett is coy over whether the series, produced by Drama Republic and distributed by BBC Worldwide, could continue into a third season. “It depends what happens in this series really – you’ll have to wait and see,” he teases.

But no matter how it ends this time around, don’t be surprised if the writer manages to come up with a fresh set of twists and turns to ensure further appointments with Doctor Foster.

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What’s comes after the ‘golden age’ of drama?

The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?

It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.

Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.

Rebecca Eaton
PBS Masterpiece’s Rebecca Eaton

With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.

Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.

“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?

“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”

In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.

“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”

One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey has already concluded on ITV in the UK and will soon end on PBS

Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.

Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.

“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”

The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.

“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”

The Last Kingdom
Carnival Films’ The Last Kingdom has aired in the US and the UK and will return for a second season

Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.

“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.

“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”

Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made use of technological advances pioneered by The Imaginarium Studios

The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.

“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”

Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.

“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”

Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”

For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.

“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”

Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”

On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”

Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.

“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”

The Imaginarium also played a part in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Imaginarium also played a part in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.

Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.

“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”

Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.

“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.

“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.

“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”

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BBC heads in the write direction

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.

A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.

Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.

Charles Dance in And Then There Were None
Charles Dance in And Then There Were None

The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.

Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”

The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”

Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.

The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett
The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett

Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”

Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”

Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”

Jimmy McGovern's Banished will not return
Jimmy McGovern’s Banished will not return

One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.

“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.

“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”

The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.

Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”

Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White
Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White

Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.

David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”

Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.

The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”

Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”

Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.

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Women in the lead

Supergirl
Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, is flying high on CBS during its debut season

There’s a growing trend in the US towards female-led series and movies. And one interesting aspect of this is the reboot of ideas that previously had male leads.

Supergirl, currently doing very well for CBS network, is a kind of example of this trend, since it takes DC Comics’ ‘Super’ mythology and sidelines the traditional male lead character. But even more to the point are upcoming series where the central character is being given a gender swap.

ABC, for example, is working with Sony Pictures on a reboot of Fantasy Island in which the central character Mr Roarke will be recast as a woman. CBS, meanwhile, is taking a similar route with its reimagination of HG Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau and with a planned resurrection of 1980s series MacGyver. All of this is in addition to movie launches such as the all-female Ghostbusters.

This week came news of another gender-swap drama, with US channel Syfy picking up Nomadic Films’ new take on the Dracula story, in which vampire hunter Van Helsing will be a woman. A 13-part series due to launch in autumn 2016, the show will focus on Vanessa Helsing, who must lead mankind against a world controlled by vampires. Neil LaBute is the writer/showrunner.

There was more good news for female onscreen talent this week with the news that BBC1 has commissioned UK hit drama Doctor Foster (starring Suranne Jones) for a second series. The renewal follows a trend in the UK of bringing back successful serials even if they look to have reached a natural conclusion (Broadchurch, The Missing, Safe House and Prey are other examples).

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The Van Helsing movie starred Hugh Jackman as the vampire hunter

The trick is to leave a loose editorial strand at the end of the first run and then see if the audience is sufficiently interested to justify a follow-up. In the case of Doctor Foster, which is written by Mike Bartlett, an average consolidated audience of 8.2 million across five episodes made renewal a no-brainer, even though the first run seemed to have come to a fairly neat conclusion.

The second season order was announced by Polly Hill, BBC Drama commissioning controller, who said: “Mike has not finished telling the story of Gemma (Dr Foster) and Simon (her husband) and there will be many more surprises in the next chapter of this powerful drama.”

Bartlett added: “I’ve been astounded by the response to Doctor Foster. So I’m thrilled that alongside (production company) Drama Republic and the phenomenal Suranne Jones, we’re going to tell the next chapter in Gemma’s story. Her life in Parminster may look better on the surface, but as she will discover to her cost, every action has its consequences eventually. No one comes through hell unscathed.”

Still in the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV is the latest company to announce a drama revival, with news that it is bringing back Cold Feet. Created and written by Mike Bullen, Cold Feet ran from 1998 to 2003 and was both a ratings and critical success for ITV.

Doctor-Foster-Sura_3450804b
Suranne Jones-starring Doctor Foster has been given a second season on BBC1

Centred on the lives of three couples, it was credited with addressing social issues in a way not previously seen on British TV. Likened to US shows such as Friends and Thirtysomething, it was also adapted for NBC in the US, although the Stateside version was quickly cancelled.

There aren’t too many details on the new Cold Feet as yet, but media reports seem to suggest it will involve most of the original cast. This means it will be looking at the same characters later in life (presumably with kids), as opposed to using a new cast working with similar but updated scripts to the earlier run.

Interesting stories out of Europe this week include the news that German pubcaster ARD is backing a miniseries about the brothers who founded Adidas and Puma – Adi and Rudi Dassler respectively. Called Rivals Forever: The Sneaker Battle, the four-part production will air in 2016.

The series is being distributed internationally by Global Screen, which has already licensed the show to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. “Rivals Forever tells one of the greatest success stories of German industry,” says Global Screen head of TV sales Alexandra Heidrich. “At the same time, it is a gripping and dramatic saga, full of love, friendship, mistrust and intrigue.”

cold-feet
The original Cold Feet cast – who will return for ITV’s revival of the hit series?

Elsewhere, the Turkish drama success story continues with the news that Indonesian channel SCTV is to adapt the Green Yapim drama Elif. The original version of Elif has already been a hit on SCTV, having first aired successfully on Kanal 7 in Turkey. International distribution of the show is handled by Eccho Rights.

Back in the US, cable channel ABC Family is poised to rebrand as Freeform from January. The new name is part of the channel’s attempt to become a “core destination” for people in the 14- to 34-year-old age range (which it calls ‘becomers’ as shorthand).

To support the shift, the channel has given series orders to two new shows. The first is Beyond, a drama about a young man who wakes up from a coma after 12 years and discovers he has developed supernatural abilities that propel him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. The second, Guilt, the pilot of which was much discussed because of its similarity to the Amanda Knox story, is about a young American woman in London who becomes the prime suspect in the savage murder of her roommate.

The pilot of Guilt was shot in London and Budapest – and presumably the series will need to follow a similar line. Perhaps it’s too early to call this a meaningful trend, but it seems like a growing number of US cable networks are taking advantage of European production tax breaks. In addition to Guilt, we’ve seen E!’s drama series The Royals come to London, FX’s The Bastard Executioner shot in Wales and Homeland film in Germany. Starz and History have also produced in Europe.

Following another trend, Syfy has decided to do its bit for the undead by renewing its zombie series Z Nation for a third season. Eight episodes into its current 13-part run, the show is proving rock solid with an average audience of around 0.88 million. The show is currently Syfy’s strongest performer among 18-49s.

Finally, this week saw Amazon launch six new drama pilots. Based on their popularity with subscribers these show will either fade away and die or be given a shot at a series.

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From stage to screen

Mike Bartlett's Doctor Foster
Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster

Despite the funding challenges associated with staging live performance, the UK has always been a nurturing home for playwrights. And that has been a blessing for British television, too. Over the years the likes of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett and Stephen Poliakoff have all proved very adept at moving between stage and small screen.

This traffic between theatre and TV now seems more intense than ever – and there are probably three reasons for this. First, of course, TV pays better. Second, the quality of 21st century TV is such that there is less reason for playwrights to feel like they are demeaning themselves by working for the small screen. And third, there is a well-documented shortage of screenwriters. Playwrights, having proved their ability to engage an audience, are thus an obvious resource for TV producers and broadcasters.

Historically, the risk in migrating playwrights to TV was that the kind of work they did in theatres was over-elaborate compared to the taut dialogue and visual storytelling TV audiences are used to. But the modern generation of playwrights has grown up with TV and, as such, seems able to move seamlessly between the demands of the two media (a similar dynamic has also brought more novelists to TV). It’s no longer necessary to tuck them away in rarified ‘play for today’ style slots, because they can actually deliver huge ratings.

River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air
River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air

A case in point is Mike Bartlett, who has just written the BBC hit Doctor Foster. With an average weekly audience of 8.2 million, the five-part show about a female doctor confronted with her husband’s infidelity is an assured and compelling piece of TV. While it is sometimes guilty of implying there will be a Fatal Attraction-style conclusion, for the most part it is an engaging human drama about the destructive nature of deceit and the way it can poison the entire ecosystem in which we live.

Bartlett moves effortlessly backwards and forwards between theatre and TV. He won an Olivier Award for his play King Charles III and also wrote ITV three-parter The Town in 2012. The latter, which starred Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty), was Bartlett’s first foray into TV and dealt with some similar themes to Doctor Foster – namely the sense of threat that sits just below the surface of normal everyday life, and what it feels like to be an outsider in your own life. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Bartlett’s background, there is just a shade of Harold Pinter in this juxtaposition of menace and the mundane.

(Listen to this really informative interview with Bartlett).

Other TV writers who have shown prowess in the realm of theatre include Sarah Phelps (see our recent profile) and Abi Morgan. Morgan, now widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s top film and TV screenwriters, had her first successes in the theatre in the late 1990s with Skinned (1997), Sleeping Around (1998) and Fast Food (1999). Her transition to TV came in the early part of the last decade, though she really hit her stride at the start of this decade with an Emmy Award for period drama The Hour (2011). At the same time, Morgan’s film writing career took off with The Iron Lady and Shame (2011).

Lucy Prebble
Lucy Prebble

2015 promises to be another banner year for Morgan. Having just penned the movie Suffragette, her six-part TV series River is now airing on BBC1 and will soon be released internationally on Netflix. River tells the story of a London-based policeman who becomes mentally ill while in the midst of a murder investigation.

Interviewed for a BBC blog, Morgan said: “It’s about a man who struggles in all forms of intimacy and relates better to those no longer living, to those voices in his head. (It is) also about living in a city where very few people are actually from. London makes me feel connected and it also makes me feel very isolated and lonely at times. London is the best of the world and the worst of the world, so I wanted to write a character who was navigating their way through that.”

There full interview can be seen here.

Some noted playwrights, such as Jez Butterworth, have largely sidestepped TV in favour of film. But others to have heeded the call include Nick Payne, who is writing a TV adaptation of David Nicholls’ Us for the BBC, and Lucy Prebble, whose most notable foray into TV to date is The Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Tiger Aspect for ITV2). The author of acclaimed plays such as The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome, Prebble is currently developing another TV drama with Tiger Aspect.

Sometimes playwrights get to adapt their own stage work. Debbie Tucker Green, for example, won a Bafta for the TV version of her play Random. But more often they are called on to create originals or work on pre-existing series. Catherine Johnson, whose break into the business came courtesy of Bristol Old Vic, is probably best known for writing the script for the smash-hit movie Mamma Mia!. But a healthy body of TV work includes episodes of Casualty, Band of Gold and Byker Grove. She also created Dappers for the BBC in 2010, a comedy pilot about a couple of single mums living on a Bristol council estate.

Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2
Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2

As a rule, playwrights seem to move backwards and forwards between the two media – rather than viewing theatre as a stepping stone on the way to screen success. Perhaps this explains why most of them appear to favour TV serials or miniseries, since this format interferes less with their stage writing.

While the injection of playwright creativity has undoubtedly been a boon for the British business, it’s worth noting that working with playwrights requires a degree of sensitivity to their way of thinking. It’s important to remember that they probably chose the world of theatre for reasons of artistic integrity that don’t always chime with the commercial demands of TV.

One of the UK’s leading playwrights, Joe Penhall, addressed this point in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Penhall, who wrote Moses Jones for the BBC and adapted his own play Birthday for Sky Arts this year (as well as writing the screenplay for the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), makes it clear he won’t write just any old tripe: “I know people who have made so much money taking every whoring, sluttish fucking rewrite job there is. And I don’t want to be like that. If it gets frustrating, I just walk away. Because I’ve already got a job in theatre.”

Read the full interview here. Also worth a look is this article, which talks about US playwrights working in TV.

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