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Timeless tale

Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald star in a feature-length adaptation of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel The Child in Time that very nearly didn’t get made. DQ chats to the stars and screenwriter Stephen Butchard about the film’s journey to the screen.

When Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch describes a script as “brilliant,” the chances are it’s in production somewhere. But until recently, that wasn’t the case for The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s award-winning novel.

Butchard had written it “some time ago” as a one-off TV film but the clamour for serials and returning series meant his script couldn’t find the backing it needed to enter production. However, once Cumberbatch signed on to star and executive produce through his fledgling SunnyMarch TV label, doors unsurprisingly opened to the project.

The Child in Time, directed by Julian Farino (Marvellous, Entourage), was subsequently picked up by UK pubcaster BBC1 and Masterpiece for US network PBS and is distributed worldwide by StudioCanal. Pinewood Television is a coproducer.

Benedict Cumberbatch is both star and executive producer of The Child in Time

Cumberbatch plays Stephen, a children’s author who is still grieving the loss of his daughter two years after she disappeared while they were on a shopping trip together. His wife, Julie (Kelly Macdonald), has left him and best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside to battle demons of their own.

“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says of the first McEwan novel to be adapted for television. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts, encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”

The actor notes that Stephen is a million miles from his previous television roles – “particularly the more famous one” – and admits that was part of the attraction. “That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned,” he says, adding that it was a coincidence he took on the role just as he became a father for the second time. “The extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it.”

Cumberbatch describes Stephen as “an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” which also presented him with the challenge of playing a ‘normal’ person. “There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude, mindset, skill set or cultural background or all of those things. I brought more of myself – as I sound and as I move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times, but it was also great because of that.”

Kelly Macdonald was cast after her performance in Trainspotting 2

The dystopian novel, which has bold political themes running through it, has largely been stripped back in Butchard’s adaptation, which instead focuses on the characters at the centre of the story.

“It’s the type of book that stays with you,” says the writer, who is also in charge of BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, itself adapted from historical novels by Bernard Cornwell. “It doesn’t stay with you because of plot or anything like that; it stays with you because of its atmosphere and tone, and that was the thing I wanted to concentrate on.

“I also knew I didn’t want to start with the abduction of the child because for me, although that’s at the core of it, that’s not what the film’s about. It’s about people dealing with that and finding their own way forward in life, having to carry that burden.”

Part of the challenge of bringing McEwan’s story to the small screen was broadening the scope of the novel, which is read entirely from Stephen’s perspective. “So you have to build them as individual characters in their own right, not wholly through the prism of Stephen,” Butchard notes. “That’s a departure [from the novel], but that always happens in any adaptation. As far as the plot goes, it follows the same stepping stones in terms of how the relationships go, but then it’s about how you visualise what is internalised in the book. What scenes can you bring into it or what dilemmas can you bring into it? People will easily recognise the book and its themes, but there are things that you kind of invent and bring in to help you move forward and put it on the screen.”

Macdonald was cast after Butchard watched the Scottish actor in Trainspotting 2, in which she reprised her role as Diane from the original 1996 film. “We thought she would be great and together [with Cumberbatch] it works really well,” he says.

The Child in Time premiered on BBC1 at the end of September

Macdonald picks up: “What appealed to me when I read the script was it felt honest in its portrayal of love and loss. It’s a very emotional story but it’s not depressing. It hasn’t gone down that route. Julian’s got such a gentle touch and the way he directed it was he very much wanted an almost positive tale of love coming from loss, and I think he has managed to do that.”

The actor also praises Farino for creating a protective atmosphere on set, as the cast were often required to play out intensely emotional scenes.

“You have to do them or there’s no point in telling this story,” she says, “but it was a very safe environment with Julian at the helm. Everybody was so enthusiastic and wanted to do a great job, so it wasn’t draining. It was enjoyable, strangely, despite the subject matter. Everyone was at the top of their game so it was just a great creative place to be.”

Since her screen debut in Trainspotting, Macdonald has enjoyed a varied career across film and television, notably preferring single films to long-running series. The exception to the rule is her five-season stint on HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, which she admits was too good to refuse.

“Boardwalk ran for the perfect amount of time for that show and I’m enjoying getting different work now,” she adds. “TV series are great and it’s as close to a nine-to-five job as you can get for an actor, but not knowing what I’m going to do next does appeal and you get to have some variation there.”

In his role as an executive producer on The Child in Time, Cumberbatch talked over the script with Butchard and was also involved in hiring director Farino. “I’ve never been involved at that stage of things before so it’s intriguing,” he admits of his off-screen role. “But it’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, when it’s in a very raw state and you give feedback as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance.”

But with the book now 30 years old, is the story still relevant? “I think it’s absolutely timeless, I really do,” Butchard concludes. “It’s a story of the strength of the ordinary man and woman and how we actually deal and cope with events in our lives. We still find strength from somewhere, be it the love of another person or faith. For me it is a story of love and courage, and that’s why it’s timeless and why it’s still relevant.”

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Time for a change

Benedict Cumberbatch takes centre stage in The Child in Time, Stephen Butchard’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s haunting novel about loss and grief. The star tells DQ about shaking off his more famous alter-ego and stepping into a producer role.

As the eponymous detective in Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is used to playing an extraordinary character in ordinary situations. So his latest role, starring in an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Child in Time, is something of a reversal.

“He’s an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance,” the actor says of Stephen Lewis, the character at the heart of the BBC1 film, which airs this Sunday. “It was a challenge. There were moments when I thought, ‘Am I doing enough?’ The engagement with the material is there but it feels very strange.

“I’ve done a lot of roles where there’s a lot of other stuff going on, whether it’s a very particular attitude or mindset, skill set or cultural background, or all of those things. So the transformative aspect of what I’ve done in a lot of those roles is very far from me and I was bringing a lot more of myself – as I sound, move and dress, even – to this one than I have before. So I felt quite naked at times but it was also great because of that.”

The Child in Time is the first TV adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel

The Child in Time follows Stephen, a children’s author, two years after the disappearance of his daughter as he struggles find a new purpose to his life without her. His wife Julie (played by Kelly Macdonald) has left him and his best friends Charles (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Thelma (Saskia Reeves) have retired to the countryside, battling demons of their own.

In a slight departure from the dystopian source material, which also has a strong political strand, The Last Kingdom writer Stephen Butchard’s adaptation focuses on the characters at the heart of the story, producing a film about the loss of childhood and themes of grief, hope and acceptance.

“It’s ultimately a story, despite the depths it plunges, of the emotional reality of the trauma at the centre of it,” Cumberbatch says. “It’s a story about salvation and hope and trying to build a future that just accepts and encompasses and owns that loss, the absence of that child. It’s also an examination of childhood and time, and what happens in trauma with time and how the conscious and subconscious can slide. It’s got quite a lot going for it other than just that horrific central axis of the drama.”

The actor, who is as comfortable on screen as on the stage, admits the role is “a million miles” from some of his best-known work – “particularly the more famous one” — but says that was part of what drew him to the drama.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who also exec produces, stars alongside Kelly Macdonald

“That’s an appeal for me, to always be shaking things up a little bit as far as expectations are concerned; not doing the usual or the unusually usual. And the extreme nature of the situation is very unusual and horrifically relatable. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand it. [I didn’t think] I could get my teeth into something emotionally raw just because I’m a new dad for the second time, it just happened that way.”

The Child in Time marks the first television commission from Cumberbatch’s SunnyMarch TV label, which coproduces with Pinewood Television and Masterpiece for PBS. StudioCanal is the distributor. As such, the actor is also an executive producer on the film.

“It’s different when you’re there with a producer’s hat on because you’re there thinking about who would be right to direct it. I’ve never been at that stage of things before,” he explains. “So it’s intriguing. It’s the first time; we’ll see how it worked, but everyone had a great experience making it, which is a great testament to us doing something right as a production team.

“I really enjoyed it. It’s not without its challenges, especially watching the work sooner than you should as an actor, in a raw very state, to then give feedback about what you feel as a producer. That was tricky. I’m excited about the moment when I’m not in something and I can look at that with much more distance. It’s very peculiar. It’s always horrible, it’s never nice. The way you look, the way you do things, it’s horrible and, trust me, the internet is full of hate but it’s nothing compared with the self-critic in your head for brutality. I’ve said it all before they have.”

L-R: Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock

SunnyMarch is already building up a slate of projects, which began with documentaries and is now expanding further into high-end drama on the back of The Child in Time. Cumberbatch will also star in Melrose, an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“It’s one thing with me at the front of it,” he says of Melrose. “There are lots of things we have on our slate that do fulfil the promise of diversity and giving a bolder place for women both behind and in front of the camera. What I’m doing in the immediate future doesn’t reflect that because we’re trying to get it off the ground and do things that are probably a bit more expected in the tundra and with me involved.”

Until those projects evolve, The Child in Time is “a big deal for us,” Cumberbatch admits. “It’s the first McEwan adaptation for television so that was a huge boon for us. We were very excited about that.” Looking toward the future, SunnyMarch is seeking “diversity in every sense,” the actor adds, “not just to do with opportunities for all but also the range of material with those opportunities, so genre-wise, large screen, small screen, live events, found material as well as published or unpublished fiction or biographical work. We’re trying to create as diverse a slate as possible in every way.”

But after three seasons and 13 episodes as Sherlock – and a somewhat series-ending epilogue to the most recent instalment – is there more to come? “Maybe,” he teases.

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US continues love affair with La Plante

Lynda La Plante
Lynda La Plante

Masterpiece, the prestigious drama strand that airs on PBS in the US, has come on board Prime Suspect prequel Tennison as a coproducer alongside ITV Studios and NoHo Film & Television.

The six-part series has been created and written by Lynda La Plante, who also wrote the first episodes of the original Prime Suspect franchise way back in 1991. La Plante’s three-decade association with the ground-breaking Prime Suspect franchise also saw her co-create a US version of the show for NBC in 2011.

La Plante, successful as both a novelist and a screenwriter, has always been known for her ability to create gritty female voices. Until now, most of her hit dramas have been centred on women in contemporary settings. But Tennison sees her most famous creation, Detective Jane Tennison, starting out her career as an ambitious 22-year-old in the 1970s. As such, it’s an opportunity for La Plante to explore what it would have been like for a female officer in an era of chauvinism and rule-bending.

The story begins when Jane is confronted with a brutal murder. Not only does she have to contend with the impact of violent crime, she also has to establish herself in a male-dominated workplace.

Aside from Prime Suspect and Tennison, La Plante’s best-known franchise is probably Widows, which first saw the light of day in 1983, introducing the world to the ferocious Dolly Rawlins. The first series of this story saw four women executing a heist that had been set up by their gangster husbands, presumed dead in a fire. The story continued with a follow-up series in 1985 and a spin-off in 1995 entitled She’s Out – again centring on Rawlins.

Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect
Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect

Like Prime Suspect, Widows was also transformed into a US TV series, in 2002. And, again like Prime Suspect, it continues to be evolved for new audiences. The latest incarnation of Widows is a movie version that is to be directed by Steve McQueen. La Plante is involved in the character development for the film, with the screenplay being written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) is reported to be in the cast. There’s no confirmation yet that she will play the part of Rawlins, but assuming she does it would be an inspired choice.

Another female writer in the news is novelist Rose Tremain, who is developing two of her novels for TV with indie producer Buccaneer Media (Marcella). One of the novels is The Road Home, about a widower who travels from his Eastern European village to London in search of work to support his family back home.

The other is The Gustav Sonata, about a young boy growing up in a Swiss town and his friendship with a talented Jewish pianist.

Tremain is the award-winning author of 14 novels but has never written a TV script. However, she will be writing the teleplay for The Road Home. Despite the clear stylistic differences between novels and screenplays, this is a growing trend as producers look for ways to introduce new voices to the TV ecosystem. It’s one that’s likely to continue following the success novelist Daisy Goodwin has had bringing Victoria to the screen for ITV.

Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain

Production companies tend to control the risk of parachuting novelists into TV by supporting them with executives that are well-versed in the nuances of TV writing. In this case, Buccaneer has brought in Bafta winner Lynn Horsford as an executive producer. Horsford’s glittering film and TV career includes dramas like Any Human Heart, Birdsong, The 7.39 and Boy A.

There was another UK book adaptation story this week, with Big Talk Productions announcing that it’s developing a drama series based on Gordon Stevens’ 2006 book The Originals: The Secret History of the Birth of the SAS. The new series, to be called SAS: The Originals, will be written by James Woods (co-creator of comedy series Rev) and Rupert Walters (Spooks).

Stevens’ book is based on 120 hours of video and audio tape about the formation of the Special Air Service (similar to Delta Force or the Navy SEALs in the US) during the Second World War. It will be supplemented by Wood and Walters’ own research to create a drama about the origins of the world-famous fighting force.

Post-Rev, Woods has also been working on an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Decline and Fall for BBC2. He previously worked with Walters on Ambassadors, a three-part miniseries starring comedian David Mitchell. That show was a Big Talk production for BBC2. It didn’t rate especially well but it did get some fairly positive feedback from TV critics.

Tony Briggs
Tony Briggs

In Australia, meanwhile, ABC has commissioned a comedy-drama series from an all-indigenous team of directors and writers. Warriors is set in the world of Australian Rules Football and tells the story of an 18-year-old indigenous footballer who is drafted to play in the elite Australian Rules Football league.

The series is from Robert Connolly’s production company Arenamedia and will be distributed internationally by Entertainment One. Screen Australia and Film Victoria also helped finance the show.

The series was created by Connolly and Tony Briggs, who is one of the writers. Briggs is well known in Australia as an actor but turned his hand to writing with 2012 movie The Sapphires. That told the story of a talented young Australian aboriginal girl group called up to entertain US troops during the Vietnam war.

The other writers on the show are Jon Bell and Tracey Rigney. Bell’s credits include international hit series Cleverman and The Gods of Wheat Street. Rigney, meanwhile, is a newcomer to TV but not to writing. Having studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne, her first play – Belonging – was staged in Melbourne when she was just 21. She has since written and directed films including Man Real, Abalone and Endangered.

Commenting on why Warriors attracted finance, Penny Smallacombe, head of indigenous at Screen Australia, said: “What attracted us to this project was both the concept of following four mischievous footballers experiencing the highs, lows and often funny situations of life as an elite athlete, and the opportunity for indigenous creatives to partner with highly regarded practitioners and accelerate their career trajectory.”

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BBC1 drama dominates UK viewing

Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)
Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)

Amid all the controversy about the future of the BBC’s licence fee, it’s interesting to note that the UK public broadcaster’s flagship channel BBC1 has had a storming start to the year in terms of its scripted content. Whether it’s crime, espionage, period or soaps, it’s been delivering on every front.

Go back to the very start of January, for example, and BBC1 achieved an audience in excess of 11 million for its much-publicised Sherlock special. This was ably supported by the launch of War & Peace, which debuted to 8.4 million.

War & Peace continued to perform well throughout January and was joined by schedule stalwarts such as Death in Paradise, EastEnders and Silent Witness – all of which racked up audiences in excess of eight million. The latter show topped the ratings in the second week of January with 8.72 million – impressive when you consider it has been running since 1996.

In the week commencing January 11, BBC1 turned the screw on its rivals further still by launching the latest season of Call the Midwife, which immediately went to the top of the charts with 9.88 million.

Supporting it with eight million-plus viewers were Silent Witness, Death in Paradise and EastEnders, with the complex period drama War & Peace holding up well at 6.6 million. Not quite as strong, but still respectable, was the third season of crime series Shetland, which debuted with more than six million.

Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace
Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace

Late January and early February offered more of the same, but then the week commencing February 8 saw the return of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley to a massive 8.63 million viewers. Only Call the Midwife scored higher, bringing in 9.6 million.

For the week commencing February 15, BBC1 upped its game again, with the launch of The Night Manager on Sunday evening. While it wasn’t able to outscore the much-loved midwives, it did debut with 8.25 million, neck and neck with episode two of Happy Valley. This meant the channel’s top five broadcasts were all dramas attracting in excess of 7.5 million viewers (with Shetland still bobbing along nicely at around six million).

The following week, all of the above were rock solid – with The Night Manager actually posting a slight increase to 8.42 million. That in itself is a very impressive achievement, because most dramas shed a million or so after their first episode. By this token, Happy Valley also deserves some credit for managing to keep its second and third episodes well above the eight million mark.

All of the above figures are BARB seven-day data. So we’ve now moved into territory where the latest figures have not yet been released. Instead, we need to look at BARB overnights (which are subject to change once time-shifted viewing is included).

With this proviso, The Night Manager continues to perform strongly. On Sunday, March 6, for example, it faced tough competition from the launch of Julian Fellowes’ new project on ITV, Doctor Thorne, but won convincingly. Around 6.2 million tuned into The Night Manager (overnight score) while 3.8 million opted for Fellowes’ Anthony Trollope adaptation.

ITV's Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes
ITV’s Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes

ITV is BBC1’s main commercial rival. So how has it been doing across the same period? On the whole, the picture isn’t quite as healthy.

Coming into the new year, its ratings were led by its soaps, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, with audiences in the 5.5-7 million range. Behind this came crime dramas Endeavour, Vera and Midsomer Murders which, with audiences of around 5-5.5 million, lag behind Silent Witness.

It’s likely to be a similar story for the next few weeks, with Happy Valley’s final episode coming up and The Night Manager still good for a few more episodes. It will be interesting to see if BBC1 can sustain its performance through the spring and summer.

In the US, meanwhile, CBS CEO Les Moonves used the Deutsche Bank 2016 Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in Florida to say: “We have five new shows on this year. I believe all five will be renewed, and we own four of them.”

This comment has been interpreted to refer to Supergirl, Limitless, Code Black, Life in Pieces and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. However, there is some uncertainty because CBS also has a TV reboot of Rush Hour coming up. So either Moonves overlooked that show, or it’s already being lined up for the chop – which seems a bit harsh ahead of its actual launch.

In terms of the other five, Supergirl and Limitless were widely expected to get picked up again, as was sitcom Life in Pieces.

Code Black
Code Black has been picked up by UKTV

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders doesn’t debut until March 16 but, as a spin-off of the popular Criminal Minds franchise, it stands a decent chance of doing well. The show that has, perhaps, dodged a bullet is medical drama Code Black.

With its 18-episode first season now complete, Code Black attracted an average audience of 7.1 million. This isn’t terrible but it is undermined by the fact that the show’s appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds is at the lower end of the CBS spectrum.

The fact it has survived is probably explained by CBS’s need for some classic procedural-style dramas to sit alongside hit series NCIS. If CBS can manage to make Code Black a hit then it will also have a useful asset for its international sales catalogue. The show has already been picked up in the UK by UKTV.

Still in the US, public broadcaster PBS has just given the greenlight to a second season of Mercy Street, its first original drama in more than a decade. A medical series set during the US Civil War, Mercy Street’s first season was executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Lisa Q Wolfinger and David Zabel.

The show debuted with an impressive 5.7 million viewers and its six-episode run was streamed two million times. It trended strongly on Twitter on numerous occasions and its website – filled with factual supporting material – has had more than 600,000 unique visitors since its launch.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street, which is heading into season two

“We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response to Mercy Street and the return of high-quality American drama on PBS stations,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “We’re looking forward to a second season offering more fascinating stories inspired by historical events. The effort from everyone involved, including producers, directors, historical consultants, actors and PBS stations, resulted in an extraordinary series.”

Mercy Street’s first season took place in the spring of 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia, a border town between north and south and the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free black people, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The show follows the lives of these characters, who collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel, which has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital. Season two picks up directly from the events at the end of the first run’s finale.

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Eaton
PBS Masterpiece’s Rebecca Eaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Billions attracts millions, Midwife delivers

Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening
Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening

Pan-European pay TV broadcaster Sky has just announced that its Sky Atlantic channel will now be the exclusive home to programming from CBS’s premium US cable network Showtime in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.

Previously, Sky licensed select Showtime content on a case-by-case basis – one example being the excellent scripted series The Affair.

The deal is an important one for Sky, which is facing increased competition for content rights (and not just for drama) from the likes of BT, Netflix, Amazon and Viacom (owner of Channel 5). It’s also significant for Showtime, which is keen to see its brand better known around the world. This deal gives it access to 21 million European pay TV households at a single stroke.

One of the titles included in the new deal is Billions, an ambitious drama set in the world of New York high finance. The show, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, has just debuted to strong audiences in the US.

David Nevins
David Nevins

According to Showtime, Billions is its best-ever launch, attracting 2.99 million viewers to its premiere. This is marginally more than Showtime’s previous best, which was Ray Donovan in 2013 with 2.91 million viewers.

Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “It’s a testament to the timeliness of the subject matter, the power of its stars and the brilliance of the show creators that Billions has had such a big start.”

The way Showtime derives its 2.99 million figure is an interesting snapshot of how viewing in the digital era is measured. Around 1.6 million of the viewing total was generated by a preview of the show that was offered to Showtime subscribers in advance. The other 1.4 million was the cumulative total for multiple broadcasts of the show on its premiere night (last Sunday). The first of these contributed around 900,000 to the evening’s 1.4 million total.

Notwithstanding this fragmented viewing pattern, the 2.99 million total is a very impressive launch for Billions. The show also got an 8.4 rating on IMDb, which suggests it is in good shape on the audience appreciation front. If it continues in the same vein across its first season of 12 episodes, it will fit in well among other strong Showtime series such as Shameless, Homeland, Ray Donovan, The Affair and Penny Dreadful.

That would also be good news for Sky, which generally does well with Showtime titles – in fact, the two are coproducers on Penny Dreadful.

Call the Midwife's new season pulled in eight million viewers
Call the Midwife’s new season pulled in eight million viewers, two million more than its slot’s average

In recent weeks, we’ve flagged up a number of BBC UK dramas that have done well in the post-Christmas period. Today we can add another one following the successful return of Call the Midwife on Sunday evenings at 20.00.

Now in its fifth season, the show attracted an impressive eight million viewers. Although this is down a bit on the last couple of seasons, it is still well ahead of the slot average of six million. The show also does extremely well internationally, with BBC Worldwide having sold it to around 100 territories including the US, France and Australia.

The show is a classic example of how hyper-local subjects (midwives London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s) can appeal to global audiences if they contain strong stories and universal characters. It’s interesting to note as an aside that both Penny Dreadful and Call the Midwife are made by the same production company, Neal Street (now part of All3Media, which itself is owned by Discovery and Liberty Global).

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

Still with the BBC, we took the view last week that anything above 4.5 million viewers for episode three of War & Peace would be a solid result. So the 5.1 million that tuned in represents a strong endorsement for the show.

The Andrew Davies adaptation also won numerous plaudits from the British press, with the Daily Telegraph giving it five stars and calling it “utterly captivating.” There’s no question that Davies’ writing is also benefiting from some terrific performances by the likes of Paul Dano, James Norton, Tuppence Middleton and everyone’s favourite fairytale princess Lily James. Being able to call on the likes of Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Ade Edmondson as supporting cast reinforces the credentials of the show yet further.

ITV, by contrast, has been having a more mixed time with its drama recently. After Jekyll & Hyde’s cancellation, the broadcaster’s latest fantasy epic, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, is also struggling to find its footing. The latest episode attracted two million viewers, which isn’t really enough for a mid-evening slot. The performance of the two shows raises questions about whether there is really room for fantasy drama in the heartland of free-to-air commercial primetime. Maybe fantasy works better when it is tucked away slightly out of sight on pay TV (the way it is in most mainstream bookshops).

Beowulf has started disappointingly
Beowulf has started disappointingly

ITV is, however, on much firmer ground with Victoria, its upcoming eight-part period drama written by novelist and erstwhile TV executive Daisy Goodwin. This week, PBS in the US announced it has acquired the show, which it will schedule in the slot formerly occupied by fellow ITV acquisition Downton Abbey.

The eight-part series, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Colema, follows Victoria from when she first becomes Queen in 1837 at the age of 18 through to her marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes).

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece strand, said: “Downton Abbey has proved that millions of viewers will turn up year after year for a beautifully crafted period drama. Victoria has it all: a riveting script, brilliant cast and spectacular locations. And it’s a true story. This is exactly the programming Masterpiece fans will love.”

Finally, an interesting story in the US regarding Netflix and Amazon ratings. The SVoD platforms are notorious for not releasing data on the performance of their shows. But Alan Wurtzel, head of research at rival NBCUniversal, provided some insight at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.

Krysten Ritter as the titular character in Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter plays the titular character in Netflix hit Jessica Jones

Using data from a company called Symphony Advanced Media, Wurtzel said that Netflix series Jessica Jones averaged 4.8 million 18-49 viewers per episode in the 35 days after its November launch. By a similar count, Narcos attracted 3.2 million and Master of None attracted three million. Amazon’s critically acclaimed series The Man in the High Castle drew 2.1 million 18-49 viewers.

If these numbers are accurate, then all of the above shows would compare favourably with most US cable shows. No real surprise, then, that Jessica Jones has been given a second season.

That said, NBCU’s analysis must be handled carefully. In response to Wurtzel’s findings, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he hoped NBC didn’t “spend any money” on the Symphony research since it was “really remarkably inaccurate data.” However, people will keep speculating until Netflix finally decides to reveals some numbers itself.

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Playing to win: What next for Playground Entertainment?

Playground Entertainment UK’s Louise Pedersen and Sophie Gardiner reveal what’s next for the prodco following the runaway success of Wolf Hall.

How do you follow one of the biggest critical hits of the past 12 months?

That’s the challenge facing Louise Pedersen and Sophie Gardiner, who are leading Playground Entertainment’s new London office, as they attempt to replicate the success of Wolf Hall, the BBC2/PBS drama based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novels.

Pedersen:
Pedersen: ‘The challenge is building the business and getting commissions and making sure we keep the quality threshold up there. It feels like an exciting time’

Playground was founded by former HBO Films president Colin Callender in 2012 and its early credits also include The White Queen and The Missing, which both aired on BBC1 and Starz. Playground has a first-look deal with the US premium cable channel.

The company expanded across the Atlantic earlier this year when Gardiner, a former commissioning editor for drama at Channel 4, and Pedersen, previously MD of All3Media International, joined as creative director and MD respectively.

And with their team now in place, they’re firmly focused on developing a slate of indigenous British drama.

“The focus so far has been on development. The New York team had an existing slate and out of that came Wolf Hall and The Dresser (pictured top, an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play for Starz and BBC2 starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen),” says Pedersen. “The challenge for us is to get the UK slate up and running.”

Gardiner adds: “We’re mindful of a privileged relationship in the US. Some of our projects will work well in America with our relationship with Starz. But we’re also aware some of the biggest hits in the US historically have been British ideas for British broadcasters for British audiences.”

Playground UK has been busy buying up rights to novels and speaking to writers, with 10 projects currently in active development, including four adaptations. Gardiner explains: “We are developing some more historical pieces, some classic pieces, but we’re putting them with some exciting and unusual ideas to get something quite modern.

Wolf Hall
Can Playground replicate the success achieved by its critically acclaimed period drama Wolf Hall?

“The other thing that feels exciting is that we have Colin with his track record of established, quality contacts in front of and behind the camera, Louise’s strong commercial acumen and my experience at Channel 4, which was in working with newer, edgier and riskier ideas. In time I hope that exciting combination is visible on screen. You can see the DNA of the company in our slate – those three strong, different backgrounds united by a sense of quality and purpose in what we do.”

In particular, Pedersen says her background working for a distributor means the creative aspect of a potential series comes first and the commercial elements now come second. “When you’re sitting at a distributor, it’s all about what shows you’re going to invest in and whether they are going to travel,” she says. “At a production company, it’s about the creative integrity of the show and if the commercial follows, that’s great. We’re market-aware but not market-led. It’s been a bit of a journey.”

As for Gardiner, she’s relishing the prospect of being involved in the day-to-day production of a show following her stint as a commissioner. “I’m absolutely loving stepping back and seeing the breadth and discovering new writers and commissioners. But I also cannot wait to be on the frontline of production again. What’s wonderful about my position here is to be across all the development and eventually the production.”

The Missing
The Missing aired on BBC1 and Starz

But what kind of industry are they setting up in? The increasing number of channels and platforms now commissioning original drama is “good for everybody,” says Gardiner, who points to the number of film and theatre writers now looking at television as a place to tell their stories. “I know the phrase ‘golden age’ is overused but I’m really noticing that these young people are desperately passionate to write in longer form,” she says. “Maybe they used to think they’d make a movie one day. People from theatre and film all want to work in television and that’s where we’re well positioned because of Colin’s history at HBO Films and in theatre.

“People want things they’ve never seen before and that inevitably means we have to find new voices and new approaches. British broadcasters are all articulating that desire for fresh things, and that inevitably means a bit of risk-taking. But it’s all risk-taking – even with a top-name talent, a big idea is a risk. That’s where having a reputation as producers of quality matters to broadcasters so you can steer those ships.”

Playground UK hopes to be in production on at least two series in 2016, with shows already in development with the BBC and Channel 4.

Pedersen adds: “For us the challenge is building the business and getting commissions and making sure we keep the quality threshold up there. It feels like an exciting time and we both feel really lucky to be here.”

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Time to play the game of Emmys

Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is in the running for a drama Emmy
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is in the running for a drama Emmy

After a year of amazing ratings success in the US and internationally, HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones has now emerged as the frontrunner at the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards.

Nominations were revealed yesterday (July 16) and the show racked up 24, including one for outstanding drama series. The next strongest showing came from FX’s American Horror Story: Freak Show, with 19 nominations. HBO’s Olive Kitteridge also did well.

Ranked by network, HBO secured the most nominations, a total of 124. Next highest was ABC with 42, just ahead of NBC and CBS (41 apiece). One of the most interesting stats was Netflix’s 34 nominations, which put it ahead of PBS and AMC. This, combined with numerous nods for Amazon’s Transparent, underlines the growing importance of SVoD platforms in the scripted space.

Games of Thrones’ huge nominations haul is, of course, no guarantee it will win any of the key categories. In the drama series section, it faces tough competition from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, AMC’s Mad Men and Better Call Saul, Showtime’s Homeland and PBS’s Downton Abbey. Meanwhile, in the outstanding limited series category, the competitors are
 American Crime, American Horror Story: Freak Show, The Honourable Woman, Olive Kitteridge and Wolf Hall.

Olive_Kitteridge_Still
Frances McDormand has an Emmy nomination for her part in Olive Kitteridge

Among the many categories up for grabs, a particularly interesting one is best lead actress in a drama series, which includes two African-Americans, Taraji Henson for Empire and Viola Davis for How To Get Away With Murder. No black actress has ever won the category, so this is a moment when history could be made. Queen Latifah was also nominated for best lead actress in a limited series of movie (Bessie). However, she’ll have to see off tough competition such as Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honourable Woman) and Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge).

There were, of course, scripted series that didn’t feature as much as might have been expected. Initial reaction suggests that shows to have been snubbed include Empire (notwithstanding Henson’s nomination for best actress), Outlander (one nomination in a music category), The Americans, Justified and Jane The Virgin. Interestingly, The Affair received no nominations despite winning Best Television Series Drama at the 2014 Golden Globes.

Still in the US, it’s getting to that point when Fox will have to decide whether to cancel or renew M Night Shyamalan’s thriller series Wayward Pines. With eight episodes down, there are only two left in the first season. It’s hard to second guess what Fox will do, because the ratings picture is complicated by high levels of time-shifted viewing. Currently, for example, the show is getting a live-plus-same-day rating of 3.3-3.4 million. But time-shifted viewing is virtually doubling that number every week. Latest reports suggest that Fox is considering a second season, set in the same world but with a new cast and characters.

Extant
CBS’s Extant, starring Halle Berry, has continued to shed viewers in its second season

 

Another US network summer series that looks less likely to survive is Extant, a sci-fi show that stars Halle Berry as an astronaut who returns from a 13-month solo space mission to find she is inexplicably pregnant. The first season of the show in 2014 rated worse than expected but was saved by the fact that CBS had secured a good streaming rights deal with Amazon. Now in its second season, the show’s ratings have slid still further – despite significant efforts to revitalise it. Even after time-shifted viewing is factored in it still looks like a prime candidate for cancellation. As Deadline says: “It was the lowest premiere live-plus-same-day rating for any scripted series – new or returning – so far this summer. It was also tied with a couple of ABC comedy repeats for the lowest rating for a show on the Big Four networks – original or repeat.”

The main reason for dwelling on Extant is that it is a good indication of how factors beyond ratings performance increasingly play into commissioning decisions. In this case, the involvement of Halle Berry and a secondary rights deal with Amazon were enough to save a show that would otherwise have been axed after its first run. The downside for CBS now is that it is stuck with an underperforming show for another 10 episodes. It is attempting to address Extant’s issues by moving it to a new timeslot, bringing it forward from 22.00 to 21.00 on Wednesdays.

Channel 5 in the UK has picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue
Channel 5 in the UK has picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue

UK broadcaster Channel 5, owned by Viacom, has just picked up seasons one and two of Rookie Blue from distributor Entertainment One for use on its digital channel 5USA. Due to launch on July 28, this could prove to be a neat piece of business, given the fact that Rookie Blue is still going strong in North America after six seasons. The show is produced in Canada and airs on Global there and on ABC in the US. For ABC, the show works well because it delivers solid ratings at acquisition rather than production prices. Season six started this month, bringing the total episode count to 72. So if 5USA does well with the earlier episodes it can look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with the show.

The show will also fit the profile of 5USA very well. Currently, the channel’s top-rated shows are Chicago PD, Longmire, Law & Order, NCIS and Body of Proof, all US crime procedurals, delivering audiences of 260,000-420,000 in 21.00 and 22.00 slots.

In terms of industry-wide trends affecting scripted, this week’s big story is that Netflix has increased its global subscriber count to 65 million, up 3.3 million on the last quarter. The US subscriber base, now 42 million, was up by 900,000 while international grew by 2.4 million to 23 million. CEO Reed Hastings called the growth “higher-than-expected” and said it was “fuelled by the strength of our original programming slate.” Dramas to have featured on the platform during the past quarter include Marvel’s Daredevil, Sense8 and the third season of Orange is the New Black.

For all its success, Netflix is moving into a challenging phase, characterised by high costs and increased competition. The company expects to spend US$5bn on content in 2016 while expenses for marketing will be nearly US$1bn. With rising costs, Hastings also said the price of subscription may increase soon.

AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands attracted interest at Comic-Con
AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands attracted interest at Comic-Con

Finally, AMC has reason to be optimistic about the prospects for its upcoming shows. According to the channel, three trailers unveiled at Comic-Con had managed to attract 24 million views on digital platforms within four days. The season six trailer for The Walking Dead drew 13.8 million, while the trailer for Fear the Walking Dead took 8.2 million.

There was also pretty strong interest in AMC’s upcoming martial arts drama Into the Badlands, which will premiere in November. This attracted 1.95 million views within three days of its release. The Walking Dead was by far the biggest winner at Comic-Con in terms of social media, securing 53% of the Share of Voice on Facebook last weekend, more than double the next highest show.

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