Tag Archives: PBS Masterpiece

Little time

Executive producer Sophie Gardiner and director Vanessa Caswill tell DQ about taking a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women from page to screen in just 12 months.

Drama series can often be years in the making, trudging through development hell before finding a route to air. Not so for Little Women, the three-part miniseries that proved a popular addition to the BBC’s Christmas 2017 schedule and is now set to air in the US on PBS Masterpiece, beginning this Sunday.

“We got the greenlight just before Christmas 2016 but there were no scripts,” recalls executive producer Sophie Gardner, the former head of drama at producer Playground Entertainment. That meant Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) faced a tight deadline to turn around the scripts, based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, while the production team also faced a battle to put the cast in place.

“You need a script to be able to attract your Angela Lansburys as well, so it was quite a tight one,” Gardiner continues. “But because Heidi wrote them really well, her first drafts in each instance were great. Heidi knows the book inside out. There was also a very clear sense in her mind of what had stuck with her and what perspective she was writing it from.

“The actual production, in terms of the shoot, wasn’t curtailed. It was just getting the scripts done much quicker and then at the end, in post-production, it was quicker than it normally would be, so we were editing two [episodes] at the same time. It’s funny, though, because you work so intensely for a year whole and then it goes out and it’s gone.”

The March sisters at the centre of the story are played by (L-R) Annes Elwy, Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton and Willa Fitzgerald

Set against the backdrop of a country divided, Little Women follows the four March sisters: Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) on their journey from childhood to adulthood while their father (Dylan Baker) is away at war.

Under the guidance of their mother Marmee (Emily Watson), the girls navigate issues such as gender roles, sibling rivalry, first loves, loss and marriage, accompanied by the charming boy next door Laurie Laurence (Jonah Hauer-King), their cantankerous and wealthy aunt March (Lansbury) and benevolent neighbour Mr Laurence (Michael Gambon). The story is described a coming-of-age tale that is as relevant and engaging today as it was upon the book’s original publication in 1868. The three-part show is distributed by Lionsgate.

After pitching an adaptation of Little Women to the BBC, Gardiner sought out Thomas to pen the scripts without knowing it was one of the writer’s favourite novels. “She writes with such a lot of warmth and depth around the domestic, and that is what Little Women is,” Gardiner says. “She does that so brilliantly and gets right into the heart of characters and how they interact with each other in a very domestic context. Once she delivered those great scripts, it was our job to deliver on the high expectations, and that was beautifully collaborative all the way through.”

Thomas’s fondness for the book meant she had already considered how she could adapt it, with a focus on keeping it modern and fresh. “One of the things I loved about what Heidi did is the scene where they’re getting ready for a party and Jo ruins Meg’s hair,” Gardiner reveals. “It could have been my daughters getting ready to go out. It has a very modern feeling, even though it’s absolutely set in the period. Things like when Jo moves to New York and she’s on her own for the first time without sisters – there’s a really tiny beat in it of Jo struggling to put on her own corset because she’s never done it by herself. Those sorts of things, they’re so small and they don’t change anything but, accumulatively, they make it feel very truthful, and maybe that’s what made it feel fresh and modern. It was looking at the reality of that life, and I think Heidi came to that pretty early on.”

Director Vanessa Caswill grabs a selfie with actor Michael Gambon

Shooting took place across a summer in Ireland, which doubled for Concord, Massachusetts. But with Alcott’s story set across all four seasons, the crew were tasked with recreating numerous conditions.

“The seasons are very relevant so that was our biggest challenge,” Gardiner says. “But I like to think we did pretty well. We were really lucky. On the days you’re shooting snow, if it’s raining, that’s a real problem. But we were really lucky because it never rained. There was a lot of hard work, obviously, by the production designer and the VFX people, but overall it was a very blessed production.”

Behind the camera was director Vanessa Caswill, whose previous credits include BBC psychological drama Thirteen. She joined the production in April 2017 and began work a week later, scouting locations in and around Dublin before heading to the US to visit Orchard House, the building in which Alcott wrote Little Women and which is also the story’s setting.

“It’s extremely honest and respectful [of the original book],” the director says of the adaptation. “It’s probably got more of the story than any other adaptation has because we’ve had three hours to do it rather than an hour-and-a-half. Heidi is really masterful at distilling drama and finding dramatic moments in it. She’s captured all the depth and beauty and sensitivity in it, and it’s all about the characters and telling their story and their emotional journey, which she’s done very honestly and delicately.”

Gardiner describes Caswill as a “very lyrical director, very emotional and very physical.” And before shooting began, Caswill spent a week with the cast in rehearsals – the main aim of which was to turn the cast into the family they would play on screen.

Little Women also stars Angela Lansbury

“By the end of that week, those four girls and Emily Watson had an intimacy and a comfort with each other that was really second nature,” the director says. “It was wonderful. We actually ended up doing a lot of physical exercises and space and relational exercises rather than too much intellectualising. It was very important for me also to spend time with each of the relationship dynamics so every sister got a chance to rehearse with each sister and with each parent. I just wanted a sense of intimacy between them and that they really felt comfortable and vulnerable in front of each other.”

On set, Caswill used handheld cameras to achieve the level of intimacy she desired, describing these as being like a “fifth sister.” She also shelved traditional blocking techniques, instead looking to feature all four sisters in shot at once to create the idea that at the start, they are a “four-headed monster” but by the end, they have all splintered and are following their own lives.

“We don’t see enough female protagonists that aren’t being abused or aren’t mad,” the director adds. “This is about really wholehearted women who have integrity and who are becoming women, understanding the world and finding their voice in it and expressing it and doing it through being good. That’s extremely current and important because we don’t see that enough. We see all the darkness and very rarely the light.

“The story really matters to me because it’s a humanist story and it’s aspirational and about trying to be the better version of ourselves. It’s really interesting to see a story that’s about trying to master ourselves.”

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Must-see TV

Witnesses
Witnesses has averaged 4.3 million viewers across its run

Those of you who attended Channel 21’s International Drama Summit in London last autumn may have seen the trailer for a new French crime drama called Witnesses (Les Témoins). Created by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, the eerie six-part series begins with a series of corpses being placed in various homes.

Roll forward a few months and Witnesses has emerged as a huge hit for French public channel France 2. Having debuted on March 18 to an excellent 5.3 million viewers (Mediametrie), it went on to average 4.3 million (17.4% share) across its run. This makes it the natural successor to other breakout French hits such as Spiral, Braquo and much-discussed supernatural thriller The Returned.

Witnesses’ strong ratings (and the reward of a second series) will be welcome news to all those international broadcasters that acquired the series from Newen Distribution ahead of its launch on France 2. Presumably inspired by the international success of The Returned, Channel 4 (UK), RTL Crime (Germany), NRK2 (Norway) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to act. With Norway due to show the series in primetime, it looks as though the French are doing a good job of reclaiming the word ‘noir.’

The next obvious question is whether the Witnesses format will appeal to US broadcasters. There is undoubtedly strong demand in the US for good scripted ideas, but a poor showing for Gracepoint (based on UK series Broadchurch but regarded as similar in tone to Witnesses) and a modest outing for A&E Network’s version of The Returned may lead to caution. One factor that may influence a decision on Witnesses is how the original fares on Netflix, which began streaming it on May 1.

WolfHall
Risks taken with Wolf Hall are paying off

One of the surprise hits of recent months is Wolf Hall, the BBC2 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novel about the life of British King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. Starring the formidable Mark Rylance and superbly scripted by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall opted against resorting to the sugar-rush scripted devices that are often used to hook in and hold on to TV viewers. Indeed, with its sombre lighting, stately pace and intricate plotting, it was exactly the kind of series that could have erred on the side of being worthy but dull.

Instead, it has proved the point that audiences often have more intellectual stamina than broadcasters give them credit for. After a strong showing on BBC2, Wolf Hall’s premiere episode on PBS Masterpiece secured 4.4 million viewers (Live+7). Masterpiece executive producer and drama industry veteran Rebecca Eaton called it “yet another high-water mark in Masterpiece’s history”.

Anyone familiar with TV ratings will know that most dramas tend to shed viewers after their first episode as a percentage of the audience decides a show is not for them. So the acid test is really whether it can then sustain its performance from then on. Judged in this way, ITV four-part thriller Safe House is a solid hit. Starring Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Fortitude, Doctor Who), the series started with 5.3 million viewers and then dropped to 4.8 million in week two. However, it has just concluded with 4.75 million (live+1), making it the top-performing drama in the UK outside soaps. The show’s distributor is All3Media International, which has not provided any news yet on international sales. But with strong UK ratings and Eccleston attached, it should do brisk business abroad.

janethevirgin
Jane the Virgin was adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela

At MipTV last month, Electus CEO Ben Silverman spent a lot of time talking up the prospects of Jane the Virgin, the US adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela that has been airing for the past eight months on CW Network. Silverman, who has an uncanny knack of delivering international hits, believes Jane the Virgin can have the same kind of success as Ugly Betty (which he brought to ABC in 2006). With the current show, Silverman’s role is to sell the international format rights to the US version, while the completed series is being sold by CBS Studios International. It’s also worth noting that the original telenovela is being sold on the international by RCTV.

It’s too early to tell if Silverman is right to put Jane in a similar category to Betty, but there are positive signs for the show. For a start, the ratings across the first run of 22 episodes (1-1.3 million) were pretty good (especially among the 18-49 demo). There’s also the fact that CW has recommissioned the show, which means it is getting up to the kind of volume international broadcasters like. E4 in the UK has already started airing the series and an unnamed German broadcaster is close to picking up the format.

On top of all this, the show – created for the US by Jennie Snyder Urman – has received a healthy level of critical praise, both from the US and UK. To top it all, lead actress Gina Rodriguez recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane, something that won’t do the show’s sales prospects any harm.

stalker
Stalker has been canned after only one season

Still in the US, the spring shakeout at US networks is now virtually complete, with shows renewed, cancelled or picked up from pilot. One casualty is Fox’s The Following (starring Kevin Bacon), which is being shut down at the end of its current run (May 18). The Kevin Williamson-created series started strongly in series one with ratings in the 6-10 million range. But by the middle of season three the show was muddling along with 3-3.5 million viewers.

Williamson’s direct involvement in the series diminished some time ago, presumably so he could devote his energy to Stalker, a 20-part programme he created for CBS. Unfortunately, that show has also been cancelled after just one season, with ratings dipping to around the six million mark at the end. Williamson (whose earlier credits include Dawson’s Creek, the Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer) still has a success in the shape of The Vampire Diaries on CW, but it will be interesting to see what he will now turn his hand to if he decides he has spare capacity.

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