Some of the television industry’s biggest names reveal their choice of the most influential drama of the past 21 years.
Highlighting shows from The Sopranos to The West Wing, Lost to Friends, Seinfeld, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Bridge, Mad Men, Dexter and others, leading writers, showrunners, producers and network execs pick over the titles that have been most transformative for the business. But what is their ultimate choice?
This DQTV special features contributions from: actors Michael C Hall and Jimmy Akingbola; Jack Ryan creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland; Netflix VP of international originals Erik Barmack; Narcos showrunner Eric Newman; AMC Networks programming chief David Madden; Paramount Network senior VP of scripted development Ted Gold; Scrubs and Spin City creator Bill Lawrence; The Mysteries of Laura creator Jeff Rake; Castle creators Terri Edda Miller and Andrew Marlowe; writer Danny Brocklehurst; Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler; and many more.
A host of female characters are rewriting the rules for women on television. DQ explores how they are being brought to the small screen to front series ranging from contemporary crime dramas and thrillers to period and historical series.
There have been some great female characters in scripted TV down the years – the likes of Cagney & Lacey, DI Jane Tennison and Buffy ‘the Vampire Slayer’ Summers all spring to mind. But there’s no question that the last few years have seen the range and quality of roles for women expand dramatically. Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Borgen, Orphan Black, GLOW and UnReal are just a few shows that have rewritten the rules when it comes to gender on TV.
For FremantleMedia director of global drama Sarah Doole, this is a sign the TV industry is finally catching up with audience tastes. “Research shows women are in charge of the remote control until 21.30, but most of the iconic dramas you can think of focus on middle-aged white men,” she says. “So what we are seeing is a new world order that reflects audience demands.”
Doole says FremantleMedia’s production slate is addressing this in various ways: “You can see it in Hard Sun, where Agyness Deyn [playing DI Elaine Renko] is not your normal heroine. She is capable of motherly tenderness but also incredible violence. She’s an androgynous, modern character that reaches a new, younger audience. And in Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Friend, we focus on the intricacies of female friendship – issues that women don’t usually see on television.”
Red Production Company founder Nicola Shindler says the improved gender balance is also linked to greater representation of women behind the camera. While there have always been a few female role models like Lynda La Plante, “a lot of women of my generation who started out as script editors have now reached positions where they are running companies or making commissioning decisions,” Shindler says. “The result has been more shows with complex and interesting women.”
Red shows with memorable female leads include Happy Valley (starring Sarah Lancashire), Trust Me (starring new Doctor Who lead Jodie Whittaker, pictured above) and Scott & Bailey (Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp). The idea for the latter came from Jones and Sally Lindsay, with Jones keen for more female roles “that weren’t wife-of, sidekick-to, mother-of, mistress-to et cetera.” The series was then scripted by Sally Wainwright, with a directorial team skewed towards women. “It was a ground-breaking show,” says Shindler, “because so much of it was based around the camera pointing at women characters and them talking to each other.”
Inevitably, a lot of recent female-centric shows revolve around cops (Happy Valley, The Fall, Vera). But there are a growing number of shows that explore women in atypical social roles and contexts. After The Night Manager, for example, The Ink Factory is working on another John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl. In this thriller, says The Ink Factory’s Simon Cornwell, Florence Pugh portrays female spy Charlie, “an engaging, nuanced and rewarding character, with strong agency and purpose.” Cornwell, who is le Carré’s son, adds: “For me, creating roles for women that do not conform to male-defined stereotypes is more interesting.”
The mythology of the spy genre has historically been male-dominated, but Cornwell believes The Little Drummer Girl highlights the fact that women have always played a key role in espionage: “Charlie is, I hope, completely authentic as a character. She’s also not ‘atypical’ because there have been and continue to be real women involved in espionage. I think the show highlights the presence of women who were involved but possibly overlooked or not acknowledged.”
Of course, there are some shows where women play roles not at all intended to be grounded in realism. But the prevailing view is this is fine as long as the characters behave authentically within their version of reality world. A compelling example of this is Wynnona Earp, Syfy’s popular series about the granddaughter of legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp, whose mission in life is to dispatch demonic cowboys who have returned from the dead.
Wynonna started life as a comic book character in 1993, at which point she was a textbook example of comic-geek male erotic fantasy. But for the TV series, says IDW Entertainment CEO David Ozer, “we’ve pivoted completely, as we have also done in the modern versions of the comic books. This is a show led by empowered female characters that also has a strong LGBT component, centred around Wynonna’s sister Waverley.”
The success of this pivot is largely down to the show’s female showrunner Emily Andras and star Melanie Scrofano, says Ozer. “Between them, they’ve created a really relatable character who is more than just a female gunslinger. You can see the female voice of the show running through all the storylines – including the relationship between Wynonna and her sister. In fact, when Melanie got pregnant just before the start of shooting season two, Emily managed to take that and weave it into the existing storylines without missing a beat.”
This isn’t to suggest men can’t write empowered female characters. Neil Cross has done it in Hard Sun and Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley likewise in Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, whose female characters include a working mother (a lawyer), a rebellious teenager, an AI expert and a bunch of highly advanced androids, known as synths. Mia and Niska, synths played by Gemma Chan and Emily Berrington respectively, go on journeys that deal starkly with issues around female sexual exploitation, empowerment and awakening.
Interestingly, season three of the show also has a strong female contingent behind the camera, in terms of writers, directors, producer (Vicki Delow) and exec producer (Emma Kingsman-Lloyd). Delow calls it “good female representation, which maybe you wouldn’t have seen five years ago. And that certainly leads to some interesting debates about the female characters and the way they might be expected to behave.”
Kingsman-Lloyd says “there is probably a bit more of a female voice in this season.” Particularly influential, she adds, has been the input of director Jill Robertson, whose recent credits include Harlots. “There’s still a real shortage of female directors in action-based series,” she says, “but Jill is an extraordinary talent who directed the first two episodes of the new season.”
The idea of authenticity within a heightened reality scenario also underpins the Nordic success story Black Widows, made in Finland but sold around the world. In this show, three women in abusive relationships decide to take change of their lives by murdering their husbands. A big challenge with the show, says producer Roope Lehtinen, was “making it so that people rooted for the women even after they’d killed their husbands. I think we achieved that by not dwelling too long on the murder scene, making the guys really disgusting and also giving the show a tone that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
The ensemble nature of the show (something that is still more typical of female-led than male-led drama) meant it was possible to explore the shifting dynamics of the relationships between the women, but also how they reacted individually to what they had done. “They each have their own distinct voice,” says Lehtinen, “including one of them who is not quite as moral as her two friends. It’s important that female characters can have the same anti-hero flavour as we are used to with men.”
Most producers and showrunners agree that female characters need to be messy and complicated, not sanitised or sanctified. “Complicated, messed-up women are the only kind of women I know,” says Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of Lifetime’s hit series UnReal, which tells the story of two manipulative ratings-seeking female producers running a salacious dating show. “Real, relatable women have a strong appeal to TV audiences.”
Rukeyser says the show also stands out “because it’s still rare to see women at work outside of detective series. And I think it’s taken on a new significance during the last year. There may have been a sense that some of the issues around gender equality weren’t that relevant anymore, but now the whole debate about equal pay for men and women has exploded.”
Ellie Beaumont, co-creator (with Drew Proffitt) of Australian crime drama Dead Lucky, also favours shows that depict flawed women: “Our central character in Dead Lucky [a detective played by Rachel Griffiths] has a strong sense of social justice but she also has a temper and speaks before thinking. The best characters – of either gender – are always flawed.”
One interesting way of addressing the gender imbalance in TV drama has been to portray early-to-mid-20th century female characters challenging social stereotypes, such as in Bomb Girls, Ku’damm 56 and Call the Midwife. Susann Billberg, a producer at Sweden’s Jarowskij, identifies similar themes in Vår tid är nu (The Restaurant), a period family saga that her company produces in collaboration with SVT, Viaplay and Film i Väst.
“The series explores the Swedish class system from the late 1940s and how these barriers began to break down,” she says. “It shines a light on the different female perspectives and their involvement in helping society progress. Nina is headstrong and determined to break class norms by building a nightclub. Then there is waitress and single mother Maggan who champions women’s rights in the workplace.” Another female powerhouse, adds Billberg, is Helga, the family matriarch played by Suzanne Reuter.
From Canada, Frankie Drake Mysteries is another period show, set in the 1920s, that depicts a woman defying stereotypes, this time as a private eye. Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury and executive producer of the show, says: “At its heart, Frankie Drake Mysteries is about female empowerment. Frankie is a woman living life on her own terms, building a career of her own design and empowering other women along the way. We wanted to explore this era and its challenges through the lives of a group of women working together to solve crimes.”
Canada “is in a good place right now in terms of producing series with women in lead roles,” says Jennings, whose company also produced vampire web series Carmilla. “There is a focused effort to ensure women are taking their place behind the camera, and this helps inform the stories.”
But how do producers approach gender in earlier period drama, where the assumption might be that women were treated as second-class citizens? Take a show like Versailles, for example. “It is true that Versailles was an arena created by Louis XIV to impose his absolute power,” says Aude Albano, an executive producer from Versailles prodco CAPA Drama, “and 17th century France was generally ruled by men. But women also used to play an essential role in that environment and it was important to us to depict and highlight it in the show. It was not our intention to make a feminist show, but it was our intention to use what we found fascinating in history and bring a modern look.”
One way into this subject was the fact that Louis was raised by a very strong woman, Anne of Austria. “The relationship Louis had with his mother had a clear impact on his attraction to strong and smart women, such as Madame de Montespan or Madame de Maintenon,” says Albano. “This gave us the scope to create strong, complex and singular female characters, each one of them coming with their drives, their flaws, their ambitions.”
Another option with period drama is to go so far back in history that there is little guidance on the gender roles. In Sky series Britannia, the creative team constructed a vision of a gender-balanced Britain fighting against a tyrannical Rome. “The little we know of those times was mostly written by the Romans,” says James Richardson, co-founder of producer Vertigo Films, “and they were a patriarchal, quasi-fascistic state. But there is evidence that ancient Britain was a more egalitarian society with female queens and warriors. That gave us something to play with.”
This opened up powerful roles for the likes of Zoe Wanamaker, who plays the ferocious Queen of the Regnis tribe Antedia, and Kelly Reilly, the rebellious daughter of the King of the Cantii tribe. There’s also a key role for Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays Cait, a teenage girl whose family are murdered by the Romans just as she is coming of age. “I don’t like the notion of ‘strong’ female characters, but what [writers] Jez and Tom Butterworth gave Britannia was interesting women – funny, fierce, complicated, messed up – front and centre of the story,” Richardson adds.
Worthington Cox’s role is a reminder that teenagers and young women are rarely portrayed in a meaningful way in mainstream TV drama. Shows that tackle this gap include Clique, The Girlfriend Experience and upcoming series Hanna, written by David Farr and based on the movie of the same name.
Hanna is an NBCUniversal International Studios (NBCUIS) and Working Title Television production for Amazon. A high-concept thriller that differs in tone from the Joe Wright-directed movie of the same name, it follows the journey of an extraordinary young girl, accompanied by her battle-hardened father, as she evades the relentless pursuit of a female CIA agent. “What makes it especially interesting,” says NBCUIS executive VP of scripted programming JoAnn Alfano, “is that it is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who, for the past 15 years, has been raised in isolation in the remote forests of northern Poland. She’s extraordinary, but what she wants most of all is to be normal. Pitching the character at this age is important to the show because she’s finding out what it is to be a woman. And, at the same time, she’s learning how to have a mind of her own.”
Of course, the debate about gender has intensified in the last year as a result of the numerous sexual abuse and harassment scandals that have gripped the media sector. The Ink Factory’s Cornwell says: “Initiatives like #MeToo, and the questions raised by our sudden recognition of behaviours in our industry that have been endemic and profoundly inappropriate, are forcing us to examine not just our actions but the social norms that have led to those behaviours or created an environment in which they could flourish. We need to address the way we have been perpetuating or internalising problematic gender constructs and behaviours through the worlds we create.”
Shindler raises a salient point, which is that the new gender balance on TV isn’t just about what women do on screen, but what they don’t do: “In Red shows, rape is never a story – and we don’t depict dead female bodies. We made a decision in our TV dramas not to portray women in our dramas as victims.”
Angela Griffin and Shenae Grimes-Beech team up to star in Canadian detective drama The Detail. They tell DQ about playing cops and the chance to join a female-led production.
The Detail could not be more timely. As the fallout from Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandal continues, alongside the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns and the row over gender pay inequality, this Canadian crime series stands apart as a female-led production.
Starring Angela Griffin, Shenae Grimes-Beech and Wendy Crewson, the story details the messy realities of cop life – both on and off the job – for detectives who work tirelessly to solve cases while navigating the complicated demands of their personal lives.
Behind the camera, female writers, directors, producers and consultants drive the series, which is described as depicting topical stories through a distinctly and unapologetically female lens. Key personnel include executive producer and co-showrunner Ley Lukins, who also developed the series; executive producers Ilana Frank, Linda Pope, Sally Wainwright, Nicola Shindler and Jocelyn Hamilton; co-executive producer Sonia Hosko; consulting producer Kathy Avrich Johnson; and writers Naledi Jackson, Sandra Chwialkowska, Katrina Saville and Sarah Goodman. Directors on the series, produced by ICF Films and distributed by Entertainment One, include Jordan Canning and Sara St Onge.
Other creative talent includes co-showrunner Adam Pettle and co-executive producer director Gregory Smith, writers Graeme Stewart, Joe Bernice and Matt Doyle, and directors Kelly Makin, Grant Harvey, John Fawcett and James Genn.
When DQ sits down with Griffin and Grimes-Beech, it is seven months since filming wrapped on the eight-part series, which launches on Canada’s CTV on March 25 and will air on ION TV in the US. But Griffin explicitly remembers her excitement at the first read-through for the show.
“It felt like the start of something really special,” she says. “There was such a good vibe about the whole job, which stayed for the entire job. There was such a good energy about it. It’s exciting being in a room full of women, I’ve got to say. Being sat around a table where I’m not the girlfriend or the wife was super cool. And then you’ve got all these great female directors and producers.
“I think it’s amazing but I also think, ‘Yes, it should be.’ I almost don’t want to big it up too much because that should just be the norm, but I’m really proud to be part of the show and part of something that is getting it right.”
Grimes-Beech picks up: “That’s one of the things I think we all loved about the show so much. It’s never, like, the female boss. It’s never something that is punctuated. It just ‘is,’ because why the fuck wouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t women be treated as complete equals? It’s a laughable concept to think that’s not a reality for a lot of people.”
Griffin, best known for her long-running role on UK soap Coronation Street, plays Detective Stevie Hall, an experienced interrogator dealing with a thorny family life. Grimes-Beech, meanwhile, is Detective Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Cooper, a street-smart rookie with a personal life that threatens to eclipse her day job.
That work-life balance is a key element of the series, which sees procedural crime-of-the-week storylines play out against the backdrop of the detectives’ individual family lives and examines how the cases they face impact their home life.
It’s what makes The Detail stand out for Griffin, who says she wants to see characters on screen juggle the daily demands she faces in her own life. “And I actually really like it when people don’t handle it, because it is impossible,” she admits. “I thoroughly enjoy watching imperfect lives because it makes me feel better about my own. It makes me feel like I’m not a complete failure. Certainly for Stevie, she doesn’t get it right all the time when it comes to that balance. Going forward, I’d like to see her struggle more with it, because sometimes she does manage to pull it out of the bag. I’d like to up that ante a bit more.”
Grimes-Beech, meanwhile, prefers the crime element of the series, which she says she finds fascinating. “I don’t often watch dramas that are strictly about people’s personal lives but when I watched our preview back, I enjoyed the personal stuff because it really gives you something to fall in love with your character for. People are going to fall in love with the characters as well and that will keep them hooked.”
That’s not to say that the police element wasn’t important too. “I loved it,” Grimes-Beech says about the opportunity to play a cop. “One of my favourite moments was where we were busting into a trailer and we had our army dude on set with us and he was walking us through how to do it properly. It was so cool, it makes you feel so official.”
For Griffin, the opportunity was amped up by the chance to have a gun, something British crime dramas notably lack in comparison to their North American counterparts.
“I have wanted to be a cop with a gun for ever,” the actor says, noting that the only props she was allowed as DS Lizzy Mannox in ITV drama Lewis were a notepad and pencil. “As an actor, it doesn’t get much better for me. I’ve got personal stuff, I get to cry in a corner, I get to shoot people, I get to shout at people, I get to be a mum. Some people don’t want to do that; for me as an actor, it’s everything I have ever wanted.”
That wasn’t the only difference on set for Griffin, who is used to a vastly different production schedule on British shows such as Brief Encounters and Ordinary Lies. “It’s bizarre that two countries that speak the same language, that have similar-sized industries, could work in such different ways,” she muses. “The unionisation of the industry in North America as a whole makes it massively different. So certain people can’t do other jobs or double up on things – even the drivers have to be from the drivers’ union. You can’t just nip in a car with an AD [assistant director]. And they have hair and make-up – two people. In the UK, the make-up does the hair and that’s just really normal. It differs on so many different levels but I like both ways of working.”
In contrast, it was a much shorter shoot than usual for Grimes-Beech, who is more used to the year-long effort needed to produce a 22-episode season of a US network drama, such as The CW’s 90210. After five years on that show, and a five-year stint before that on DeGrassi, she’s since mixed things up with a range of feature and TV films. But with the small screen stronger than ever, the actor is happy to return to a potentially long-running series that affords her some security and the chance to pick up other projects on the side.
“While there’s no stability for an actor, I feel like a TV show is as close as it gets and I have so much appreciation and gratitude for a job like this that I didn’t have when I was young,” she says. “When you fall in love with a character and a show as much as I have with this one, you wish it will run forever. That’s not often the case.
“Back in the day, like five years ago, we all wanted to break out and do movies so badly that an Oscar was the ultimate dream. Now you’ve got Oscar winners on TV shows all the time – look at the cast of Big Little Lies. Are you kidding me! It’s mind-boggling and that’s not something anybody in the industry would have said would happen five years ago. With film, unless it’s a Marvel movie or whatever, no one’s making any money. Those are passion projects and TV allows you to fulfil those passions on the side without having to worry. It’s a different climate in the industry.”
For Griffin, it’s not lost on her that she has had to cross the Atlantic to find a leading role, following in the footsteps of other black British talent such as Damson Idris, Idris Elba and Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. “There’s some great stuff being made [in North America] and a lot of our British, particularly black British, talent is scoring really well out there,” she says, adding that there’s a simple way to ensure more black and ethnic minority talent can pick up leading roles. “Just see people for the parts,” the actor concludes. “It doesn’t have to have the word ‘black’ before it to have someone audition for it. You just open up your casting for everybody and you let everybody come.
“I love the fact I’m doing this show, I absolutely love it and it’s so exciting to be in Canada and I feel really lucky to have it. It would be quite nice to do a series in the UK where I can be one of the leads and see my children every single night and have the same depth, and I’m slightly sad I’ve had to go across the pond to do it.”
With credits including Happy Valley, Cucumber and The Five, Red Production Company has built a reputation for being a writers’ producer. DQ speaks to executive producer Nicola Shindler – and some of the A-list scribes lining up to work with her.
Among the numerous writers to have walked through the doors of Red Production Company, it’s notable how many of them have returned.
Russell T Davies first linked up with the Manchester-based outfit on Queer as Folk and returned for 2015’s Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. Danny Brocklehurst got his first break on the writing team of Clocking Off, before reuniting with Red for two seasons of Ordinary Lies plus Exile, The Driver and The Five.
Meanwhile, the peerless Sally Wainwright created detective series Scott & Bailey, family drama Last Tango in Halifax and award-winning crime series Happy Valley all under the Red banner. Bill Gallagher also created Blood and Blackout before returning with Paranoid.
“We aim to make the writers’ work as good as it can be, rather than change what they want to write,” Red executive producer Nicola Shindler says of her relationship with writers at the label she founded in 1998. “It’s really an exposing thing that writers do. They have to draw ideas from themselves, they have to go to some dark or deep places and have to feel their work won’t be judged for the wrong reasons.
“It’s always about what they want to get out of it, and we have to work our arses off to get there, rather than us imposing ideas on them, which I don’t think is right.”
The development process of BBC1 medical thriller Trust Me (pictured top) is a case in point. In-demand writer Dan Sefton (Delicious, The Good Karma Hospital) had taken a spec script to Red years ago that was so extraordinary “I don’t think it will ever get made,” Shindler admits. “But we knew he was a great talent.”
Then discussions over Trust Me – about a nurse who loses her job and moves to Edinburgh where she pretends to be a doctor – began. “First of all, we tried to make it a long-running, weekly medical story-of-the-week. But with such an exceptional story, you really can’t do that,” she says of the show, which was subsequently turned into a four-part miniseries. “It’s great when you find a solution. It became a shorter-form, potentially returning format, but you could really be honest about the story Dan wanted to tell.”
Ideas come to Red in all shapes and sizes, be it in the form of a script, something scribbled onto a scrap of paper, or even the result of a casual chat.
“We’ve definitely started with the tiniest of ideas,” Shindler says, highlighting Prey, the 2014 ITV crime drama from then newcomer Chris Lunt. “The first season started when our now head of development, Richard Fee, drove past an overturned police van. He was having a meeting with Chris that morning and just started talking about it, and that was the very beginning of the first season of Prey. They used that image of an overturned police van as the beginning of a story about a man on the run. That was a tiny idea and it went to two seasons.”
But across a range of genres and writers, what makes a Red drama? Shindler describes a recipe comprising one compelling story, a dash of pace, a spoonful of reality and a pinch of humour.
“Everything we do, however dark we go, has humour,” she explains. “To me, Happy Valley was funny at times, because that’s what life is like. I really need realistic dialogue and characters I can engage with, and a really strong sense of storytelling.”
As an executive producer, Shindler is on hand throughout development of every project on Red’s books to ensure they all meet her approval. She admits she will be “all over everything,” from reading scripts, following story development and working with the producer and director to watching rushes every day and being in every edit.
“I will read every draft of every project we’re making, without doubt,” she admits. “I can’t not. We’ve now got another executive producer, which we haven’t had before. Some of my development team are exec-ing as well, so people are gradually getting their own little slates, but I will never not read everything. I actually really enjoy doing it. I don’t read books anymore, I just read my work!”
Alongside Trust Me, Red is also behind new dramas including Brocklehurst-penned duo Come Home and Safe. Of the former, a three-parter for the BBC, Shindler says: “It’s about a woman who walks out on her family and it’s a brilliant emotional exploration of a relationship, which you kind of don’t see a lot of on TV anymore. It’s really warm in the way Danny is, and has humour in it, but it puts you through the wringer in terms of this big relationship.”
Safe, meanwhile, is a spiritual sequel to The Five that again pairs Brocklehurst with author Harlan Coben, who created the story. An eight-part mystery thriller, it centres on buried secrets that come to the surface of a small community after a murder and a disappearance. The show is coproduced by Netflix and French pay TV broadcaster Canal+, and marks the first time series lead Michael C Hall (Dexter) has worked on a British show.
“It’s totally the opposite of the other Danny project,” adds Shindler, a self-confessed devotee of US musical drama My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show as far removed from Safe as one could possibly conceive. “With Harlan, it’s just such a great process. He’s brilliant on character and he’s got amazing ideas.”
Shindler and Red are also taking advantage of new opportunities in television, a result of broadcasters’ continuing focus on scripted series. But the exec adds that she’s not swayed by the amount of competition or the rising budgets on offer.
“It doesn’t really make a difference,” she says. “Everyone can tell you they want different things, but all they actually want is a really good idea, a really good script and a really good writer, and there are only so many of them. It doesn’t change my world; I’m just happy to keep on making drama.”
After landing his big break in television with 2000’s Clocking Off, Danny Brocklehurst has a long working relationship with Red – one he describes in terms of trust and honesty. “It’s just every single aspect of the relationship. From development and being in the edit to talking about casting and Nicola being brutally honest about my scripts, it’s one of total trust. There’s no game playing. Those kinds of relationships are invaluable in television.” The writer describes his latest project, Come Home, as an emotional family drama about a mother (played by Paula Malcomson) who leaves her kids. “The BBC wanted a show about a family that’s about emotions – there’s no dead bodies, no police,” he says. “It’s very much about getting to the heart of these characters and making it as complex as possible. What you want is to play around with the viewers’ emotions a bit so at different times, they’re feeling different things about the characters and perhaps blaming different people. At first, you’re very sympathetic to Greg (Christopher Eccleston), the father, but by the end of episode one, we’ve done something where you maybe change that a little bit and you’re thinking differently about him.”
Following 2016’s Sky1 drama The Five, acclaimed novelist Harlan Coben has reunited with Red and Danny Brocklehurst for Safe, a mystery set in a small community where a murder and a disappearance bring buried secrets back to the surface. “It wasn’t an idea I had for a novel,” Coben explains. “I came up with this as a TV series after we did The Five and I liked the idea of somebody missing and somebody dead, so I combined them. It will be very different, and really suspenseful and intriguing to follow two different storylines and see how they match up.” As per The Five, the story was created by Coben, with Brocklehurst as lead writer, but the US author says he’s involved in every level of production, despite being based in New York, thousands of miles from the Manchester set. “They’re showing me set designs, costuming, locations, talking about tone, how we want to shoot it. We even had a long discussion over camera lenses with the director of photography when I was there. So every aspect I try to be involved with in some way.” On working with Red, Coben says Shindler, “more than most producers I know, really does appreciate the writer,” adding: “She’s a wonderful conduit for writers, she’s a wonderful partner to have.”
With his medical background – he still walks the wards as a doctor of emergency medicine – it’s natural that Dan Sefton (pictured alongside Jodie Whittaker) finds compelling drama within hospitals. ITV drama The Good Karma Hospital, which aired earlier this year, gave the genre an Indian flavour, while Sefton’s latest series is Trust Me, a four-part thriller for the BBC. Jodie Whittaker – recently revealed as Doctor Who’s first female lead – stars as Cath, a nurse who loses her job for whistleblowing and starts a new life by stealing her best friend’s identity as a doctor. “It’s a combination of writing what you know about and people wanting to commission the stuff they feel I’ve got an additional angle on because of my work,” Sefton says, admitting he’d love to write a British version of ER. “A medical show about a doctor who’s not really a doctor is something I always found interesting, so it’s just a matter of how you find a fresh angle on something.” Sefton has also enjoyed working with Red: “They speak to you like you’re a grown-up, which is really important as a writer. I find sometimes people infantilise you a bit, but it was very much a relationship of mutual respect, which I really appreciated. There’s a lot of loyalty from writers who have worked with Red and it’s a two-way street.”
Number 9 Films is teaming up with Red Production Company on a TV adaptation of Henry James’ seminal 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. This is the third time the novel will have been adapted for the screen, following a 1968 BBC miniseries and a 1996 feature film directed by Jane Campion and starring Nicole Kidman.
The story focuses on Isabel Archer, a vivacious New World ingénue who leaves America for Old World Europe, keen to experience all that life has to offer. She rejects a series of marriage proposals from eager but safe lovers for a life of independence, but when she inherits an unexpected fortune that will grant her desires, she falls prey to two American ex-pat schemers, the elegant Madame Merle and the charming but cruel and calculating Gilbert Osmond. She is then lured into a marriage with unfortunate consequences.
Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films will executive produce alongside Red’s Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley). StudioCanal will handle worldwide distribution.
Karlsen said: “We have long been admirers of Nicola’s groundbreaking work in television. She has built an extraordinary company and creative team that we feel privileged to be collaborating with on our first outing into TV. We believe we share a sensibility with Nicola of being drawn towards material with complex and compelling female lead characters, which is one of the defining elements of Portrait of a Lady.”
Shindler added: “Elizabeth and Stephen have produced some of the most acclaimed and engaging feature films of recent years and I am delighted to be working with them on their first television project. Having been originally published as a monthly serial, and addressing themes of personal freedom, betrayal and modernisation, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady lends itself perfectly to the longform storytelling that only TV can offer.”
No broadcast partners have been named yet, but with the story set against the backdrop of New York, Boston, London, Florence and Rome, it lends itself to international coproduction.
James’ works have a track record of being adapted for TV and film – with The Bostonians, The Europeans, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw having also been reimagined for the screen. However, Turn of the Screw is the only one of his novels to have been adapted in recent times.
Also this week, UK broadcaster ITV commissioned two further Maigret films with Rowan Atkinson again in the title role.
ITV said: “Following huge audience appreciation and critical acclaim for Maigret Sets a Trap, which aired on ITV earlier this year and achieved a consolidated rating of 7.2 million viewers and a 28% share of the audience, writer Stewart Harcourt will adapt Night at the Crossroads from Georges Simenon’s novel. Simenon’s son, John, returns as an executive producer of the new films. The second of the new films will be Maigret in Montmartre – set, once again, against the backdrop of 1950s Paris.”
The 120-minute films will go into production in November 2016 until February 2017, and will be produced by Thompson & Thompson Productions and Georges Simenon Limited.
The films have been commissioned by controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “It’s an absolute privilege to commission two further Maigret films for ITV. We were thrilled to welcome Rowan Atkinson to the channel as Maigret. His superb performance, and the filmic execution from the production team ensured the audience greatly appreciated the first Maigret film which aired earlier this year.”
The two new films are actually the third and fourth in ITV’s Maigret series. Maigret’s Dead Man, based on Maigret et son mort, has already been filmed and will air on ITV later this year.
The recommission is also good news for BBC Worldwide, the show’s international distributor. Broadcasters including France 3, ARD Germany and TV4 Sweden have picked up the first two films.
In other news, Sonar Entertainment has entered into a first-look deal with Smokehouse Pictures, the independent production company founded by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
The first project under the new arrangement is America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, based on a serialised Huffington Post article by Steven Brill. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Making a Murderer) will adapt alongside Nicki Paluga, with Ricciardi and Demos directing.
America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker is the true story of a venerable pharmaceutical company that created a powerful drug and marketed it aggressively to children and the elderly while allegedly manipulating and hiding data about its terrible side effects. The drug company was investigated and agreed to pay more than US$2bn in penalties and settlements, but made a reported US$30bn from sales of the drug worldwide.
“We couldn’t be more excited to be in business with George and Grant and their talented team at Smokehouse,” said Sonar Entertainment CEO Thomas Lesinski. “Smokehouse has a stellar track record of delivering commercial and critically acclaimed content. It will be a great partner for Sonar Entertainment, as the two companies align perfectly in our approaches to premium TV programming.”
The deal is another significant step into the TV business for Smokehouse Pictures, which is better-known for its movie output (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Monuments Men, Argo, Money Monster). Other television titles coming out of Smokehouse include Ms, a miniseries about Gloria Steinem and the founding of Ms Magazine, set up at HBO, and The Studio, an ongoing series about a movie studio in the 1990s, set up at Showtime.
The deal is also a coup for Sonar, which already has a number of hotly anticipated series coming through. Current series on air, in production or slated to commence production include season two of The Shannara Chronicles, for MTV; Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, for FX and BBC One; The Son, for AMC; and Mr Mercedes with AT&T’s Audience Network for DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.
Meanwhile, Seven Network in Australia has begun production on a sequel to Blue Murder, a miniseries that aired way back in 1995 on public broadcaster ABC.
The original miniseries starred Richard Roxburgh as real-life disgraced policeman Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson. Roxburgh will again play Rogerson, who was convicted of killing university student Jamie Gao just last week. That ruling is reported to have triggered production of the sequel, which had been sitting in development for two years.
In further interesting news this week, the BBC is poised to debut its supernatural drama The Living and the Dead on its on-demand platform iPlayer. All six episodes of the show, created by Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), have been available to watch since Friday (June 17). The episodes will then receive a weekly airing starting from Tuesday, June 28 at 21.00. The BBC has rolled out a similar release for Anthony Horowitz’s new drama New Blood, which became the first BBC primetime drama to debut episodes online.
Crime novelist Harlan Coben was at MipTV in Cannes this week to promote his new series The Five, created in partnership with Red Production Company for UK pay TV channel Sky1.
While in town he also took 30 minutes out of his schedule to take part in a keynote interview. Articulate and witty, he provided plenty of food for thought for would-be novelists and screenwriters in the audience.
He is, for example, refreshingly honest about his status as a writer. Asked about his influences, he expressed irritation at writers who talk as though they haven’t lived through the modern era: “Ask a lot of writers about their influences and they’ll say Milton, Shakespeare, the great philosophers, but that’s all nonsense. I was influenced as much by the old Batman series as anything, the TV shows I grew up with.”
This may explain why Coben has found it relatively easy to convert himself from a novelist (28 novels, 60 million book sales worldwide) into a TV writer: “I’ve always seen my books as quite visual – though I didn’t realise how visual you could be with TV until I started working on The Five.”
His books are also packed with dialogue, another symptom common among novelists who have grown up in the TV era. His emphasis on dialogue that works hard is another factor that has made the jump to TV achievable: “I’ve always believed dialogue has to serve more than one purpose in a book, and it’s the same for a TV show. It’s advancing the plot, but it has also got to tell you something about the character and create mood. If your dialogue isn’t doing at least two of these things, you should get rid of it.”
A lot is written about the difference between the internalised world of the novel and the way TV plot and character development are moved forward through action. But Coben focused more on the way novel-writing is a solitary occupation whereas TV is collaborative.
He enjoyed the fact that, with The Five, his original idea was refracted through the prisms of other people’s perspectives: “I planted the seed and someone else is taking care of the tree. For me, that’s exciting. It’s cool that I had this idea in Jersey where I live and now this wonderful cast, crew and production team have turned it into this glorious thing. I’m not just seeing my interpretation but a lot of people’s work.”
That said, it’s not an accident that Coben’s TV work to date has involved European partners – before The Five, he adapted one of his novels, No Second Chance, for TF1 in France
Obsessive about his work, he told delegates that Sky and TF1 were more willing to allow him to present his vision than the Hollywood system would have been: “That’s important to me. We might succeed or fail with The Five, but a least I know the end result is based on my vision.”
Cohen is unabashedly commercial and expresses annoyance with writers who say they only write for themselves: “That’s like one hand clapping, or saying I only talk to myself. What we do, books or TV, is all about communication. I chase readers/viewers because I want my stories to move them, to keep them up at night. No one wants to make a TV series that isn’t watched by anyone.”
Although he has good dialogue with his fans, he says he tries not to be too influenced by their opinions: “If a consistent message was coming back from them, I’d probably listen – but there never is. I appreciate my fans, but it’s a mistake to write by committee. We’re not as good when we try to do what people want. My job is to take fans where they don’t necessarily know they want to go. I don’t look at the data and try to respond. If I see that my books are popular in Bulgaria, I don’t add a Bulgarian character in the next one. I write about what I know. The more specific you are with your creative vision, the more universal the appeal.”
Coben focused more on the similarities between books and TV than the differences, comparing The Five to a novel on TV – with “10 chapters, and a real end, no cliffhangers – because that’s unfair on the audience. I want them to like the show enough they come back for the next one. At the end of the day, both forms come down to storytelling and that’s how it’s been since the caveman era. You tell a story; if you’re boring, someone picks up a club and kills you.”
Despite his sales success, Coben talked about the anxiety and constant self-doubt that comes with being a writer: “I’m still learning how to write novels. Part of being a writer is you’re immensely insecure and always think you suck. And every day, that brings me back… when you lose that doubt, that’s when you call it a day. Only bad writers think they’re good. You need that angst to make your stuff better.”
Continuing this theme, he advised fellow creators to avoid reading reviews on platforms like Amazon: “It’s like reading the comments section below a news story. Don’t do it!”
Aside from The Five, Coben has now launched a TV company with Red’s Nicola Shindler called Final Twist, which will make scripted shows based on his books. The first one in development is Six Years.
On working in TV, he added: “This really is the golden age. It’s never been better, there’s never been more variety and there have never been more ways of seeing it. And how lucky are we to work in this business? We get to make TV for a living! We’re not making cardboard boxes for a living. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that’s just so frigging cool!”
US networks are notorious for cancelling scripted series early. So there was a pleasant surprise for producers this week when CBS/Warner Bros joint venture The CW announced it is renewing all 11 of its current series. Talk about happy customers.
Launched in 2006, The CW is a bit different from the four major US networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) in that it focuses on a younger audience (18- to 34-year-olds). This is reflected in its programming line-up, which places a strong emphasis on DC Comics-originated superheroes, zombies, vampires, Armageddon and the like.
As we’ve discussed before, the top three shows on The CW are all DC Comics-based. The Flash is currently in the middle of season two and a third has now been ordered. Arrow, meanwhile, has been awarded a fifth run and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, only eight episodes into its first outing, has been granted a renewal.
The next best-rating show on The CW (in the key 18-49 demographic) is Supernatural, which is about a pair of brothers (the Winchesters) who hunt down demons, monsters and ghosts. An incredibly durable series, the new greenlight means it will be up to 12 seasons – in excess of 250 episodes. Hardly anything apart from hit procedural crime dramas go on that long, so it has proven a real stalwart of the network. Indeed, there are reports that the key cast has also signed up for season 13.
Coming in behind Supernatural is iZombie, which has been given a third season (the clue to its subject matter is in the title). After this comes The 100, which follows a group of young survivors who return to Earth from space stations approximately 100 years after a nuclear Armageddon. This one is currently drawing about 1.2 million viewers per episode and has been granted a fourth season.
The Vampire Diaries, meanwhile, has just been given an eighth season. Even more impressive is that the show spawned a spin-off called The Originals (more vampires), which has been granted a fourth season.
From here we come to the three lowest ratings performers (in terms of 18-49s). Interestingly, all three break with The CW’s successful formula of supernatural and mythology.
Jane the Virgin, for example, is an adaptation of a comic telenovela that has been gifted a third season. Reign, which has been greenlit for a fourth run, is The CW’s take on the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, bottom of the charts by some margin, is a romantic musical comedy drama that has been given the greenlight for a second outing.
Commenting on the mass renewal, The CW president Mark Pedowitz said: “The CW has become home to some of the most critically acclaimed shows on broadcast TV, with a wide array of fantastic scripted series across the week, ranging from musical comedy, to superhero action, to gritty sci-fi dramas. As we continue our strategy of more year-round original programming, picking up these 11 series for the 2016-2017 season puts us in a great position of having proven, high-quality shows to launch in the autumn as well as midseason and summer of 2017.”
A couple of obvious questions spring to mind as a result of this renewal frenzy, however. The first is why has The CW renewed the last three series when it clearly does better with supernatural/superhero shows? Well, the answer seems to be that they are the only ones in the portfolio to be produced by CBS TV Studios – and CBS has a minimum expectation that it will get to deliver three shows to the network. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has won a Golden Globe. But it must still be a concern that the CBS shows are outperformed by all the other programmes (which are, incidentally, all produced by the CW’s other partner, Warner Bros.)
Secondly, does it mean The CW is now closed to new shows for a year? Not necessarily. The network has the flexibility to commission some new shows for the summer, or maybe introduce some on shorter-runs.
Still in the US, cable network FX has ordered 10 episodes of a new drama from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle. Entitled Trust, the series focuses on the story of Getty oil heir John Paul Getty III, who was kidnapped by an Italian gang in 1973. Described as a combination of dynastic saga and an examination of the corrosive power of money, it is the first Boyle project to have been greenlit since he signed a first-look deal with FX in 2014. Executive producers are Boyle, Simon Beaufoy and Christian Colson (who also signed a first-look deal with FX).
The other big story coming out of the US cable market is that AMC has ordered a 10-episode second season of its martial arts drama Into the Badlands. The renewal is no real surprise given that the six-episode first run achieved the third highest-rated first season in US cable TV history (averaging 5.6 million viewers per episode in the Live+7 ratings).
“With its deep dive into authentic martial arts, the visually stunning Into the Badlands proved to be unlike anything else on television,” said Charlie Collier, president of AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios. “Co-creators and showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar, along with a talented team of producers, cast and crew, brought us an artfully crafted series. We’re eager to return to the world of barons and blades and spend even more time with these compelling and evolving characters across an expanded second season.”
High-concept scripted shows like Into the Badlands are playing an important role in helping US cable networks establish themselves in the international market as well. “Simultaneous to its US launch, AMC Global will premiere season two of Into the Badlands within minutes of the US broadcast,” AMC said. “AMC Global premiered season one in 125 countries simultaneous to the US premiere, and it achieved a record-breaking performance.”
In another example of the way scripted shows are used to distinguish platforms, Virgin Media UK has secured exclusive UK rights to DirecTV series Kingdom from Endemol Shine International for its on-demand service. Episodes from the first two seasons will be available to its customers from April 1. This echoes a similar deal last year when Virgin Media took exclusive UK rights to Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead for on-demand.
Finally, ITV UK has commissioned an eight-part thriller called Paranoid from Red Production Company. Indira Varma, Robert Glenister, Neil Stuke, Lesley Sharp and Kevin Doyle star in the series, which is being billed as a conspiracy thriller.
According to ITV, Paranoid (written by Bill Gallagher) “tells the story of a female GP who is murdered in a children’s playground with an abundance of eyewitnesses. A group of detectives embark on what seems to be a straightforward murder investigation, but as they delve deeper into the case they are drawn into the ever-darkening mystery, which takes them unexpectedly across Europe.”
Commenting on the show, Red’s Nicola Shindler said: “We’re really excited to be working with Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Conviction, Love Life and Lark Rise to Candleford) again. He’s created a conspiracy thriller the audience won’t be able to look away from. It’s edgy, suspenseful and hugely ambitious as filming takes place in Cheshire and Germany.”
Red’s parent company StudioCanal will distribute Paranoid internationally.
As we’ve discussed previously, there’s a growing trend in the TV business for producers to go in search of talent and ideas from theatre, film and the book world. A good example was Red Production Company’s decision to link up with author Harlan Coben on The Five, an original series for European pay TV broadcaster Sky.
The primary rationale for this is to get access to good ideas. But there is also a commercial advantage in being able to add a name like Harlan Coben to your package. Producers regularly bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough top rank writers to go round, so this is one way of sprinkling sufficient fairy dust on a project to help it pass muster with the commissioning broadcaster.
As it happens, Coben didn’t write The Five. He provided the idea, which was then turned into TV by Danny Brocklehurst (with Coben an active participant in the creative process). Potentially there’s a double benefit here. If The Five does well, Coben-backed projects have greater appeal. At the same time, Danny Brocklehurst also becomes an increasingly in-demand writer.
Anyway, the point of all this speculation is that Coben has just announced that he is launching his own independent production company in partnership with Red. Coben will be joint CEO of the new company, Final Twist Productions, alongside Red founder Nicola Shindler, with StudioCanal handling international distribution of any original content that emerges from the firm.
The new company is already in development on a series called Six Years, adapted from Coben’s bestselling novel. It tells the story of Jake, a college professor who six years earlier watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man. But when Natalie’s husband is murdered and Jake goes to find her, he discovers the grieving widow is not Natalie at all, but a woman he’s never seen before. As Jake seeks to uncover the truth, his search takes him on a dark journey that puts his life at risk.
Significantly, the new firm will be based in the US and will develop “contemporary, thrilling drama for American broadcast networks.” This is a significant step both for Red and StudioCanal, both of which take pride in their European DNA.
Coben said: “Nicola and I had such a terrific experience creating The Five for Sky1. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve made. Final Twist Productions will take our American-British teamwork to the next level by bringing Nicola’s daring new outlook and producing style to the USA.”
Shindler was equally enthusiastic: “I am excited about our upcoming projects for US audiences, which will have Harlan’s characteristic blend of suspense, humour and hope.”
The race to lock in great writing talent has also seen Zodiak Rights, part of the newly enlarged Banijay Group, sign a first-look finance and distribution deal with Arise Pictures this week. Key to this deal is access to an original slate of programming created and written by Arise’s co-founder, LA-based British writer/director David Raymond (The Other Man, Sins, Absence of War).
Tim Mutimer, head of distribution at Banijay Group, said: “David is brilliant at creating original, returnable series with global appeal, and Arise comes equipped with a slate of content that perfectly aligns with the Banijay Group scripted strategy. We are delighted to be working together to utilise the international distribution channels of the newly merged group to help bring these projects to the market.”
Raymond added: “For me, the great thing here is the creative support. By collaborating with a global partner, we have been able to create a flexible commercial framework that puts the creatives first and moulds the finance plan around the project’s individual requirements. It’s liberating and gives us a platform to focus on narrative and hopefully create content that audiences are going to want to return to.”
The first series under the deal is expected to go into production later this year – details to follow.
Other interesting announcements this week include Sonar Entertainment’s decision to option the rights to bestselling graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, written by Vivek J Tiwary. The critically acclaimed novel will be developed as a multi-part event series, with Tiwary adapting his work for TV and serving as executive producer.
The Fifth Beatle recounts the story of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and his effort to drive the unknown band from playing in a cellar in Liverpool to international superstardom. Epstein overcame great obstacles, being a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.
Tiwary says: “Brian Epstein’s story is rich in inspiration and is set amid a backdrop of great cultural change and the legendary history of The Beatles, so an event series feels like the only way to do Brian justice. We’re going to do wonderful things with the extra creative room afforded to us and I’m thrilled to be working with Sonar to take advantage of all the exciting elements this format has to offer.”
News of the adaptation comes as another man often referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – legendary producer George Martin – passed away aged 90.
Another interesting project in the works is a series about Grand Duchess Anastasia, which is being prepared for Freeform (formerly ABC Family) in the US. Anastasia was probably executed with the rest of the Russian royal family during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But there were rumours in the following years that she had actually escaped with her life. This project supposes she did survive and went to live in Paris, where she became a spy.
The idea is from Daniel Mackey and Seth Fisher. We’ve talked about Fisher in this column previously. Having made his name as the writer, director, star and editor of Blumenthal, he moved on to co-write National Geographic Channel’s four-hour Mayflower pilgrims miniseries Saints and Strangers. In January he was also named as co-writer of Discovery Channel’s Harley & The Davidsons, a limited series about the origins of the iconic motorcycle brand. Clearly he is seen as being good at spicing up history. His partner on the new project – Mackey – is less well established. His major credit to date is web series Aim High.
Prolific author Harlan Coben says he’s ‘shooting for greatness’ with The Five, his first original TV series. DQ talks to the novelist and others behind the production and finds out why they’re convinced they’ve got their hands on a five-star hit.
A group of friends are haunted by the disappearance of a young child years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
If you thought this sounded like the gripping plot to the next story by author Harlan Coben, you would be right. Only this isn’t a book that’s heading straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.
Instead, it’s the chilling set-up to The Five (pictured above), the novelist’s first original story for television.
The 10-part series stars Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as four friends who are forced to confront their past when a terrible childhood tragedy comes back to haunt them.
Produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal, it is due to air on Sky1 in the UK in early 2016.
Mystery writer Coben has penned more than 25 novels, with more than 60 million copies in print worldwide. His books have been translated into 43 languages.
But 25 years since his first book, Play Dead, was published in 1990, he has now written for television for the first time.
Coben says he was first approached about working in TV by Red founder Nicola Shindler, an exec producer on The Five, and he happened to have an idea for the perfect show.
He explains: “I had this idea that I was thinking of writing as a novel but for some reason I always thought that instead of writing a novel and adapting it, it would be better to go straight into making it into a TV series. I had a big idea that I always saw more visually, more spread out, on a different canvas than a novel. So I gave her the story in three or four sentences and Nicola jumped on it, and that’s how it all started.”
But what was it about this one story that made it a better fit for television? “It was mostly because there are more lead characters,” Coben says, “but partly because I always saw it visually. The idea of these five kids playing in the park, four of them supposed to be watching the younger one. They kind of make fun of him. And I could almost see in my mind the kid crying and running down the path, never to be seen again.
“These four kids have to spend 20 years growing up, not knowing what happened. I could see him walking down that path. I could see the mother of that child years later looking out at that same path where her son disappeared. It always came to me very visually and that’s why I thought it would work best this way.
“I do see my novels cinematically, but not quite as much as this one. I wanted to see the lives of all four characters, but it wouldn’t make a movie. With the four characters, it would be better to have it spread out in something like this where we have 10 episodes to tell the story.”
Red’s previous productions include Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, while it is also known for working with such notable writers as Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Bill Gallagher.
Shindler says: “We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky, with a story at the centre of it that meant you couldn’t switch off and you had to watch the next episode. That’s Harlan’s novels. You get really compulsive – I have to stay up late, I have to keep reading, I have to know what happens. And it felt like to try to translate that on screen would be brilliant.”
Coben adds: “Once we started doing it, I became completely obsessed. I think about this show night and day, about how we can do this and that. When I write a novel I become completely obsessed in that world too.
“I’m boring company because I’m always looking off and thinking about my story. And that’s how it is with this thing. I’m completely obsessed with everything about it; we all are, frankly. Once we got into it and saw the potential for it, we just wanted to keep going.”
For The Five, Shindler paired Coben with Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Shameless), who is the lead writer on the project. But that doesn’t mean Coben stepped back from proceedings, despite never having previously worked alongside another writer.
“I’ve been working with Danny a lot and I know he can tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “Danny has written the script by himself but what Harlan brings is the story and the idea – the plot. Danny said it was something he was interested to try.”
Brocklehurst says he was excited to collaborate with Coben but, like the author, had only previously worked on stories he had devised himself.
“To work like this with this brilliant idea that Harlan has created but also to collaborate together, it was a great opportunity,” he says. “I would read one of Harlan’s books just before I wrote each script so I was very much in that Harlan world. Trying to write with those twists and characters in mind was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.”
Coben adds: “Nicola was the one who came up with the idea, telling both Danny and I separately that we would work well together.
“I don’t collaborate, I write my own novels. I don’t work well with others, but I’ve actually been shocked at how in sync Danny and I are, how our sensibilities are so similar, and how we’re brothers under the skin in terms of this. There will be times when he’s writing and it’s like I wrote it – but better. When we were meeting, we realised we really have the exact same vision for what this show should be. That really helps.”
To demonstrate their working relationship, Brocklehurst recalls a moment on set where he was required to rewrite a scene: “Harlan sent me an email making some very amusing suggestions, which I very quickly typed up. So sometimes there’s been this very close collaboration where you get to a point where you don’t know where an idea came from. There are just so many ideas swirling around. But it’s been great. It’s been a really healthy collaboration.”
Shindler adds: “We told the crew all the way through that they’ve all got a mental bumper sticker that says, ‘What would Harlan do?’ and it’s really helped. Reading his books before you make any decisions also helps because it’s kept it different and ensured the show feels like it’s one of his stories. Our fear and Sky’s fear was that it would just fall back into that British way of storytelling, which we didn’t want.”
As well as forging a writing partnership, The Five also goes against the grain by having one director – Mark Tonderai – take charge of all 10 episodes. This, says Shindler, has removed any differences in style that can occur if new directors are brought in at different stages of production.
“It’s really unusual, but we have longer prep weeks between each filming block and the actors have loved it because they’ve had one person giving notes,” Shindler continues. “We’ve loved it because we understand what Mark’s trying to do and what to push him on. It’s hard when a director comes in halfway through and tries to pick up the style, so we’ve not had any of that. That’s really what’s set it apart on the set. Mark described it as making a film each week, and that’s what it looks like. He’s so cinematic in his approach.”
Though The Five is Coben’s first original story for television, it is not his first television series. He has also been working on No Second Chance, an adaptation of his own novel that has been made for French broadcaster TF1.
The six-part action thriller, produced by VAB Production and distributed by TF1 International, tells the story of a woman (played by Alexandra Lamy) who wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has been murdered and her baby is missing. Suspected by the police and on the run from hitmen, she turns to a former criminal investigator – who is also her first love – to help find her daughter.
So why has it taken Coben so long to turn his attention to television? “If I’d tried making a series 10 years ago, you may have wanted a procedural with a weekly crime, that sort of thing,” he says. “That would hold no interest to me. But this is a new canvas I can tell the story on. No one has to push here, there’s an ambition we all share.
“I don’t need to have a TV series, I can continue to write my novels. We’re shooting for greatness or there’s no point. We’re not shooting just another TV show. I don’t need it, the rest of the team doesn’t need it. So that’s something we’re all sharing on The Five. We all want to do something a bit different.”
The author also compares his experience writing for television to that of writing a novel as he immerses himself in the world he is creating: “It’s how I work when I’m obsessed with something. I don’t know how to take my foot off the accelerator. I’ve probably made some of the crew a little crazy by this stage of the game. If they thought I was just going to be a name on the credits, they were sadly mistaken. So that obsession is just how I work.
“It has been more fun than I thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy collaborating as much as I have, but I have loved it. I’ve loved working with the actors and trying to talk to them. Mark was a wonderful director, and Danny, Nicola and I have also had a great deal of fun trying to make this happen.”
Coben’s move into TV wasn’t just about finding the right story, however. It also had something to do with the creative partners he was able to link up with and the freedom he would be given to bring his story to life. That, says the American author, is why he chose to work in the UK and France, rather than within the US studio system.
“The opportunities presented themselves at a time when I was open to the idea,” he explains. “I’ve probably been given more freedom than I would have been given in America. There’s notes and all that stuff but they’re minimal. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh the network made me do it this way and that’s why it didn’t work out.’ I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that’s more important to me than what country I’m working in.”
On a similar note, Shindler says the UK drama business in particular is enjoying something of a high at the moment as broadcasters open their doors to new ideas. “Sometimes you get really annoyed, but on the whole it’s really healthy,” she says of the industry. “There’s no prescriptive notes about what people need anymore. We’re not told at 21.00 on a Wednesday night people will only watch dramas that do this or that. Now all the broadcasters constantly give us ideas, so it’s brilliant for us.”
Brocklehurst adds: “There’s a lot of competition out there now and that’s driving ambition. All the channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing, and that can only be a good thing.”
If The Five turns out to be as gripping as one of Coben’s bestselling novels, the chances are that viewers won’t have to wait another 25 years for his next original TV series.