Tag Archives: Nick Payne

Lust for life

Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh tackle complicated matters of the heart in Wanderlust, a bold, stylistically fresh and funny six-part drama for BBC1 and Netflix. The stars, writer Nick Payne and director Luke Snellin reveal why this series stands apart from anything else on TV.

From the start of episode one, there’s something different about Wanderlust. Whether it’s the naturalistic dialogue, offbeat soundtrack, title design or the extremely unsexy sex scene that plays out in the opening few minutes, it has all the hallmarks of a quirky indie movie – not a six-part series commissioned by BBC1.

“It really is a special thing,” says Piers Wenger, the BBC’s director of drama commissioning, of the funny and extremely honest portrayal of one multi-generational family’s attitude to love, sex and relationships. Wenger adds that he’s “proud – and slightly terrified – to say we’ve never seen anything like it before on BBC1.”

Award-winning playwright Nick Payne’s first television series, Wanderlust follows Joy Richards (Toni Collette), a therapist struggling to keep the spark in her marriage to teacher Alan (Steven Mackintosh). As the story progresses, it looks at how people build and maintain relationships and asks whether lifelong monogamy is possible, or even desirable, with Joy and Alan reassessing their relationship amid stories of love, lust and forbidden desire.

“It’s real people grappling with real stuff,” says Mackintosh, noting the show’s lack of heroes or villains. “There’s no high concept here, it’s not heightened in any way. This is an ordinary household, a loving couple who love each other and are grappling with where to go from here. It’s life. For me, it’s completely real.”

Collette agrees Wanderlust is extremely lifelike and reflective of the situation in which many couples find themselves after several years of happy marriage. “But nobody really talks about it,” she continues. “All of the characters are so real and so complex and so warm and likeable, even when they’re messing things up – maybe even more so.”

Toni Collette plays therapist Joy Richards in Wanderlust

The Australian actor, best known for film roles including Little Miss Sunshine and recent horror hit Hereditary, says she knew she wanted to play Joy after “devouring” the scripts. “This was like, I will die if I don’t do it,” she recalls. “The writing is so beautiful and it has so many layers and says so much in a very subtle manner. There were a lot of lovely things to play with. I knew I wanted to do it straightaway.”

Having starred in her first television series, Showtime’s United States of Tara, in 2009, Collette says she is excited by the characters now being written for the small screen and praises Payne’s scripts and the distinctive voice he lends to the drama. “This is pretty much the best writing I’ve ever worked with and one of the best jobs of my entire career,” she says. “I’m a 45-year-old woman and I’m a pig in shit. Even through the rain in Manchester [the city in the North West of England where Wanderlust was filmed] through the winter, it’s still a highlight.”

Mackintosh was no less enthused by the prospect of starring the series, calling the decision a “no-brainer” and revealing that every pause, ‘um’ and ‘err’ on screen were written into the script, rather than being improvisation.

“The humour is fantastic in it, and with Nick’s writing you instantly feel how a scene should be, you feel a sense of the pace,” he says. “I love the meandering sentences that end up gently funny and awkward. That’s what feels completely real and wonderful about the whole thing. It’s incredibly poignant; it’s moving but the humour is always bubbling right below the surface.”

And despite some initial nervousness, neither Mackintosh nor Collette had any reservations about the sex scenes called for in the script. “I think I got quite used to it,” Collette says. “You can’t half-heartedly act that. You have to make it feel real. So I was nervous at first but the more steeped I was in the story, the easier it became.”

The series will air around the world on Netflix (excluding the UK)

Mackintosh (Kiri, The Halcyon) adds: “Often with sex on television, when I watch something, I’m taken out of the story and feel like I’m suddenly watching two actors in a specific scene, rather than two characters. But with this it’s so intrinsically part of it. And the way Nick writes – the awkwardness, the fumbling and the bits in between – it’s really rooted in these people trying to figure things out, and that just feels completely real to me.”

Produced by the team behind Doctor Foster, Wanderlust comes from Drama Republic and is executive produced by Roanna Benn, Jude Liknaitzky and Lucy Richer. Kate Crowther is the producer. BBC Studios is the international distributor, with coproducer Netflix airing the series worldwide outside of the UK.

The show emerged from a play Payne wrote in 2009, which was performed the following year at the Royal Court. He then met Benn and Liknaitzky, who were on the lookout for a TV drama about sex and relationships and enquired whether he would like to adapt his play.

In the transition from stage to screen, Joy became a therapist, a decision that opened the door for the show’s honest portrayal of sex – something that will certainly become a talking point as the series progresses.

Payne met lots of therapists during his research for the show and says they spoke pretty frankly about the subject. “I just thought, ‘Why don’t I give it a go and see if we can do it like that?’” he says. Romantic dramas don’t often dramatise sex, preferring to focus on the build-up and then skipping to the following morning. “I guess I’ve always wondered what happens if you make the sex the driver of the story, so you explore all these romantic lives through all the shagging,” the writer adds.

Like being in therapy, though, this series doesn’t offer all the answers at the beginning. “Joy says at the start [when meeting a new client for the first time], ‘This is going to take years, there are no quick fixes,’” Payne adds. “I’m trying to say to the audience this isn’t going to be a story-of-the-week, it’s going to traverse the whole six hours. I tried to be truthful to the act of therapy but, at the same time, you have to cheat to make a story.”

Wanderlust also stars Steven Mackinstosh (pictured in Kiri)

Behind the camera is director Luke Snellin (The A Word, Our Girl), who matches Payne’s rhythmic dialogue with his own visual style composed of lingering wide shots and extreme close-ups of the actors.

“We set out to do something that felt very different and not for any other reason than the writing felt so unique and interesting, so we just felt we were trying to service that the whole time,” he says. “We’re so used to TV tropes and ways of being given information or ways of consuming stories that it felt like we should try to make a break from that and explore things from a different point of view visually.”

Echoing Mackintosh, Snellin says the pace of the series was inherent in Payne’s scripts. “I read it on my own in my house and I read both episodes in one sitting without stopping. That’s a good sign,” he says. “In TV there are so often moments where characters stop and think about things that don’t feel very real. It’s a show totally rooted in naturalism.”

If there’s one line that could sum up the series, it’s something Joy says in episode one: “We’re very bad at talking about our private lives in public.” It goes someway to explain the awkward situations and meandering sentences Mackintosh acknowledges, and Payne says the line is a direct quote from someone he spoke to during his research.

“For some reason, we struggle. We have a similar struggle with death and grief, I think, to find a language for it, to feel safe and supported with the people close to us to discuss it,” he says. “It’s a shame we struggle but it’s obviously useful for me dramatically because then we get a whole show out of people being repressed.”

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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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BBC’s novel approach

US is the first of David Nicholls' novels to be adapted for TV, with two previous books having been made into movies
US is the first of David Nicholls’ novels to be adapted for TV, with two previous books having been made into movies

There are reports this week that UK-based indie producer Drama Republic is developing David Nicholls’ hilarious and poignant novel Us for the BBC. The UK pubcaster is yet to confirm the project but it is likely to be a three- or four-part miniseries, with acclaimed British playwright Nick Payne lined up to write the screenplay. It’s the kind of high-profile book-based project that would sit comfortably in the Sunday evening slot that has been occupied in recent times by The Casual Vacancy and Jonathan Norrell & Mr Strange.

Nicholls has written three previous novels, two of which were adapted as movies (Starter for Ten and One Day). So the fact this one is being lined up as a TV project is another indication of the shift in the balance of power towards small-screen drama.

The switch from film to TV will suit Nicholls’ work, which is narratively and emotionally very rich. In the case of Us, the story is told from the point of view of Douglas, a married man whose wife Connie announces that she plans to leave him when their 17-year-old son Albie goes to college. Douglas takes the two of them on holiday to Europe to try to convince Connie to change her mind, while also hoping it will be an opportunity to emotionally reconnect with his son. Inevitably, the trip doesn’t go to plan.

Nicholls recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC
Nicholls recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC

It’s interesting that Payne will handle scriptwriting duties, given that Nicholls has a good TV screenwriting track record himself. Having first come to prominence as a writer on series such as Cold Feet and Rescue Me, he recently wrote 7.39 for the BBC, about a man who starts an affair with a woman he meets on a commuter train. Aired in 2014, that project drew an audience of 5.7 million across two episodes on consecutive nights, which isn’t too bad. Perhaps, though, the decision has been swayed by the poor reviews that the movie version of One Day received, with the LA Times calling it a “heartbreaking disappointment of a film.” There’s no question that One Day the novel is far superior to the film, so maybe Us will benefit from some outside input, with Nicholls presumably on hand in an executive producer role.

Just last night, I was thinking to myself that there aren’t enough dramas about female serial killers. So imagine my surprise when I saw that World Productions (Line of Duty) is making a two-part drama for ITV about Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer who used arsenic to kill three of her husbands so she could claim against their insurance policies. Called Dark Angel, the production is based on David Wilson’s book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer and was commissioned by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea.

Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt (right) will star in ITV's Dark Angel
Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt (right) will star in ITV’s Dark Angel

As far as anything in this life is a dead cert, this is it. Why? Because it will be directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and star Joanne Froggatt (also Downton). Anyone familiar with Downton will recall that Froggatt’s character Anna Bates spent some time under suspicion of murder – so there’s a neat link between the two shows.

Fea said of the show: “The combination of a tautly written script, an outstanding cast and great producers in World Productions make this a really exciting addition to the slate.” Dark Angel will start filming in August in Yorkshire and County Durham. It will be supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Yorkshire Content Fund, while Endemol Shine International is distributing it globally.

Still with ITV, the channel has also just commissioned six more episodes of WW2 drama Home Fires. Inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book Jambusters, it follows a group of women in a rural community during the war. It was created and written for TV by Simon Block (Lewis, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall).

WW2 has inspired a surprising number of drama series in recent years. The UK’s other recent offerings include the BBC’s Land Girls and ITV’s Foyle’s War, while Canada has given us Bomb Girls (set in a munitions factory during WW2) and, more recently, X Company. The latter is a spy thriller that debuted on CBC in February 2015. After the show’s first season generated a good response, CBC quickly took the decision to give the series a second run of 10 episodes.

ITV has renewed WW2 drama Home Fires for a further six episodes
ITV has renewed WW2 drama Home Fires for a further six episodes

WW2 has also inspired some good dramas out of continental Europe. The most high profile is Germany’s Generation War, which is one of the few German dramas to have secured sales to the English-speaking market. Another interesting title is Un Village Français (A French Village), a French show created by Frédéric Krivine, Emmanuel Daucé and Philippe Triboit. Set in a fictional village in German-occupied France, the show first aired on France 3 in 2009 and has slowly but surely picked up a loyal international fanbase. With a seventh and final series planned for 2016, the entire oeuvre was sold by 100% Distribution to MHz Networks in the US (and has also sold to MBC in Korea).

Explaining why Un Village Français has found an audience in such diverse markets, Cecilia Rossignol, director of sales & acquisitions at 100% Distribution, said it is because the show is not primarily a story of war. “It is about people who find themselves in extreme situations and must make choices. In this, it is a universal series.”

Un Village Français will air its seventh and final season next year
Un Village Français will air its seventh and final season next year

In recent weeks, we have discussed the success of Jane the Virgin, a Venezuelan telenovela that was remade for The CW in the US. With a second series recently recommissioned by The CW, there are now reports that Mediaset in Spain is to make a local version of the show. The deal underlines the beauty of having a strong formattable scripted franchise. Not only can buyers choose between licensing the Venezuelan or the US format, they can also acquire either of the completed series. With every new completed series the options increase, turning small local successes into globally successful franchises.

On a separate note, SVoD service Netflix announced this week that it will continue its rapid global roll-out with launches in Italy, Portugal and Spain during October. Echoing the recent launch in France, this may result in a new wave of investment in local productions. It might also provide a way for shows from these countries to break into the English-speaking markets (Netflix could, for example, acquire global rights to a local show and then test it in different territories if it performs well in its originating market). Overall, Netflix now has 62.3 million subscribers and is aiming to have services in around 200 countries within two years.

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