After nearly two years off screen, gangster drama Peaky Blinders has returned for a fifth season, once again following the notorious Shelby family on the lawless streets of Birmingham.
In this new season, set against the financial crash of 1929, gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has risen from backstreet crime lord to member of parliament. When he is approached by a charismatic politician with a bold vision for Britain, he realises his response will impact not only his family but the entire nation.
The cast also includes Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Finn Cole, Kate Phillips, Natasha O’Keeffe and Aidan Gillen, with new cast members such as Sam Claflin, Anya Taylor-Joy and Brian Gleeson.
In this DQTV interview, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight reflects on the success of the series and the opportunities that presents to a writer.
He also talks about why season five is the best yet, reveals details about his writing process and explains why he enjoys working in television.
Peaky Blinders is produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC1 and distributed by Endemol Shine International.
Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight looks back on his career and discusses how he became a screenwriter, working in Hollywood and why television is the place to be.
From author to one of the most in-demand film and television screenwriters, Steven Knight has been behind hits such as Peaky Blinders, Taboo, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises.
With season five of the BBC’s Birmingham-set period gangster series Peaky due to air this year, Knight is also working on Apple TV sci-fi drama See and a new series of Charles Dickens adaptations for the BBC, with his take of A Christmas Carol currently in production and set to air later in 2019.
As part of this year’s Canneseries event, Knight took part in a masterclass session where he discussed his entry into screenwriting, creating Peaky Blinders, his partnerships with actors including Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and how he sees the differences between film and television.
Knight was a novelist and one of the co-creators of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? when he decided to turn his fourth book, Dirty Pretty Things, into a screenplay… Knight: I think I got about 60 pages in and, because I was writing scripts anyway, I thought, ‘This would be better as a film script.’ I submitted it to the BBC film unit and it found its way to [Dangerous Liaisons director] Stephen Frears. We had the first script meeting where I was lulled into a false sense of what the film industry would be like. I met Stephen in a bar and he said, ‘I really like this. Can you make the ending better?’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’
Dirty Pretty Things was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 for best original screenplay, which helped Knight break into Hollywood…
You hear stories about Hollywood. I’ve had bad experiences but mostly good experiences where people, even when they’re making something that’s mass market, they want to win the approval of their peers and try to do something good.
[When you have your own idea] like Eastern Promises, you want to make it and that’s your film and you feel really protective of it. You also get commissions from Hollywood where they’ll give you a book, a franchise or a magazine article and say adapt this as a film, like The Hundred-Foot Journey. That experience was fantastic because it went straight through.
Equally, you can do work that is sometimes credited, sometimes not, such as Wrath of the Titans, where you get brought on to a big Hollywood franchise, you do your bit and then the script is passed on to someone else who does their bit.
So it’s a bit of a factory but, in my opinion, that’s the two different sides of writing scripts in Hollywood. You do the commissioned stuff, usually for really good money, and you do the stuff you really love, and that’s when you want to try to keep control of the script and the content.
Peaky Blinders is based on a real gang and the stories Knight’s parents told him about Small Heath, Birmingham in the 1920s and 30s…
At the age of eight, my mum was a bookie’s runner. It was illegal then to bet on horses, so bookmakers would use children to walk down the street with a basket of washing, and people walking in the other direction would drop a coin in with the name of the horse and their codename. She’d take it to the bookie and he would take the bet.
My dad’s uncles were bookmakers and they were called the Sheridans. I changed the name to Shelby, but the stories he and my mum told me about these people made me want to tell a story for years.
Knight initially pitched Peaky Blinders many years ago, but it wasn’t picked up…
I first went to Channel 4 25 years ago and they were really interested, but it didn’t happen – and I’m so glad it didn’t happen then. In those days, people watched on little screens and there would be no point making it look beautiful. The CGI wouldn’t have been available, so you wouldn’t have been able to do some of the effects we do and we wouldn’t have had the actors.
The series stands out as a period drama rooted in the working class, rather than being another series about the British aristocracy…
Especially in Britain, there is a thing where any period drama is about aristocracy or wealthy people. It’s very popular, it sells well all over the world and there’s a certain ‘buttoned-up-ness’ about it; everything’s very pronounced. I just felt there was a more interesting story to be told about the same period involving people I’d heard stories about.
The tradition in Britain is, if you do anything about working-class people, either they’re scary or funny or we must feel sorry for them. The experiences I had of working-class life was of people enjoying it, having a laugh, having fun. I wanted to reflect that so you had a working-class environment where these people had an aristocracy in a way within their own community.
The seven seasons that will be written – and I’m writing season six at the moment – will tell a different story where Tommy Shelby [Cillian Murphy], who begins as this nihilistic person, looking out only for his family, will be redeemed and he will become good. I want to take him on that journey from the person we’ve seen to the person he will become in 1939.
PJ Harvey, The White Stripes and Nick Cave have all provided music for the show’s soundtrack, with artists now approaching Knight for the privilege of appearing in the series…
The most astonishing one for me was in season three. Cillian had been in New York and had met David Bowie. He’d said what a big fan he was of Peaky, so Cillian gave him the cap he wore in season one, and Bowie sent back a picture of himself with razor blades sewn into this cap.
We got contacted asking if we wanted to use some of his new album – of course we did. But there seemed to be quite an urgency about it, which I didn’t understand. In the week between Christmas and New Year, his European manager came to my house because it was the new song, Lazarus, and they couldn’t send it electronically because of security, so they came to my house and played it to me on the laptop. It was fantastic. I foolishly said if he wants to come to the set, it’s fine. Then on the Tuesday following, I heard on the radio he’d died. It was unbelievable. But obviously we used the music.
Knight first met Murphy during casting for his movie Hummingbird, whose lead role eventually went to Jason Statham. But the Inception star was the only actor considered for Peaky Blinders lead Tommy Shelby…
He’s just got that thing. The character is closed down emotionally, especially at the beginning. When he comes back from the war, it’s got to be someone who’s seen so many dreadful things and seen so many people blown up into their component parts. The way I imagined it, is after the war, Tommy Shelby put a gun to his head and thought, ‘Shall I or shan’t I?’ But he thought he would carry on. Cillian’s got that face where you think you can get in there, get behind the eyes, but you never quite can, and that’s exactly what’s required of that actor.
During a meeting with Tom Hardy about Taboo, his series about an adventurer who returns from Africa to 1814 London, Knight did a deal where he agreed to write the show if the actor would star in his movie Locke… Originally, the idea was about someone returning to London in the 1890s, a Jack the Ripper thing. Then when I was talking about it, I said I was interested in the era around 1812/13 in London, which is a really interesting time historically and socially, and suggested moving it to there.
The way I normally do it is to have the basic idea and then write two episodes and see what happens with them, because normally things change radically in the process of writing and stuff comes along as you’re at the keyboard, which I always think is better than anything you could plan for. So the first two episodes I wrote and then we used that to take it on.
Hardy then joined the cast of Peaky Blinders in season two…
Two things happened at the same time. I was writing Alfie Solomons [Hardy’s character] just as we had the first meeting and, as you’re writing, you start to think, ‘Who could play this?’ I thought, well, since we’re having a conversation anyway, maybe Tom could play this. As soon as you think it might be him, you can relax in that you can go quite far with a character and I knew he would throw everything into it. He loves Alfie.
Knight also has high hopes for his Apple TV drama See, set in a world where humans have lost the sense of sight, until a set of twins with sight are born…
It’s set in the future and is quite odd. Jason Momoa [who stars] is amazing; we’ve got a fantastic cast. Francis Lawrence [The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Constantine] is directing. I’ve seen the first six and, in my opinion, it’s completely astonishing. I’ve got high hopes for it.
The boom in television is great for writers, who can have much more control over the final product than they can in film…
The real difference is, when you’re making television, you haven’t got to make the money back on the opening weekend. You’ve got years to make that happen. People are still finding Peaky now, saying they’ve just started watching it.
If Peaky had been a film, perhaps on that first weekend, because the reviews at first were mixed, people would maybe not have gone to see it. But because it’s out there, people can still go and see it. In that sense, it’s great for writers to experiment and do stuff audiences are able to find and come across.
When Apple launched their new platform, it was a statement that things have changed. Television now, money’s in it and it’s a more stable a business because you know it’s going to go out there. There’s a sea change in storytelling and television, if you’re a writer, it’s the way to go.
There is one basic rule about writing…
If you have a project, finish it. Then you’ve got a thing, an object. The thing is to write something that is well engineered, but is different and quite shocking, coming at something from a different angle. If I were a French writer, I would write the story of the Apache gangsters of Paris in the 1880/90s. It’s an amazing story. They were like Peaky Blinders in Paris – they dressed in a particular way and they had their own dance that they used to fight. It’s a really great story – somebody should write it.
London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.
Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.
Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.
BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.
After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.
Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2) This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2. Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.” Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”
International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4) After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4. O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”
Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV) O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. “Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.
Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1) The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month. Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.” Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.” Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.” Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”
Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound.
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”
Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3) This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths. Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”
Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month. Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.” Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”
Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4) The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season. “I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”
Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1) The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department. George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.” Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding… I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.” Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”
Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1) Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern. “It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”
Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”
Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.
For one night a year, the cream of the behind-the-scenes talent working in the British television industry is recognised at a star-studded celebration. DQ hears from the winners at the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018.
The courtyard of central London’s The Brewery is abuzz with guests donned in black ties and ballgowns. Episodes and Green Wing star Stephen Mangan stands at the entrance, greeting new arrivals as guests pose for photos beside a giant golden mask.
The mask, of course, is the instantly recognisable symbol of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – better known as Bafta – and Mangan, soon to appear in BBC1 drama The Split, is working the door in his role as the host of the 2018 Television Craft Awards, where 20 golden mask trophies will be given out to those who work behind the scenes on scripted and factual productions.
Prizes are handed out for costume design, directing, editing, make-up and hair design, sound, writing, photography and music, with nominees in the fiction categories coming from series such as Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Taboo, Game of Thrones, Three Girls (pictured above), Line of Duty, The Miniaturist, Black Mirror and more.
After a champagne reception, the nominees, award presenters and other guests file into the ceremony room to take their seats at the dozens of tables set out in front of the grand stage.
Then, as the awards get underway – after a VT introduction introducing Mangan in Handmaid’s Tale cloak and bonnet – DQ speaks to the winners in the scripted categories about their work and the shows that earned them a prized Bafta award.
Breakthrough Talent: Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, writers, This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Charlie Cooper: It’s been six years since we first started writing something and it’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs. We did a pilot a few years ago for ITV, which went disastrously wrong. Shane [Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning] had seen our stuff a few years ago and just commissioned a series straightaway, which is unbelievable. Daisy May Cooper: I ended up emailing Shane and said, ‘I didn’t know who to go to. I will literally stand outside your office dressed as the Karate Kid, because you’re my Mr Miyagi, until you come down and talk to me.’ He said don’t do that, just come in for a meeting. We went in and he just said everything was going to be alright. He is absolutely the most amazing man to young fresh talent. He’s like God to us. When you’ve got people like Shane backing you, you just feel so looked-after. The BBC, I have to say, have been absolutely amazing and there are so many amazing comedies coming through the BBC and they’re discovering fresh young writers. The BBC is the place to be and they’re the ones to watch when it comes to breakthrough talent.
Editing: Fiction: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was actually very lucky because I have historically done feature documentaries and Phillipa [Lowthorpe, director] wanted to shoot this show in that type of manner with the roving camera, not using the normal establishing shots. So I embraced it and she shot it so beautifully that it was a joy to edit. We had challenges in trying to keep the veracity and integrity of the girls’ story [with the show being based on a true case of widespread sexual abuse in the UK town of Rochdale] and we couldn’t manipulate the truth, but that was a good challenge because it makes sure you do the right thing. These people live and exist in the world today and they were going to watch it and make sure they were happy with it, so it was a good challenge.
Whenever they were shooting the series, I was editing and assembling from home so I didn’t see anyone during that period, which is a grace period for editors because then we can get to know the material and try things out. Once the final cut began, I was with Philippa in Film@59 in Bristol and after about three weeks, Nicole [Taylor, writer] started to come in, so it was very collaborative. All of us wanted to tell this story in the best way we could for an audience at home to understand on-street grooming and how those girls found themselves in that situation. That was our guide. The real people came to meet us, so that also helped us keep our finger on the pulse of the truth.
Titles & Graphic Identity: William Bartlett, SS-GB (Sid Gentle Films, BBC1)
I’d read the book before and then I read the scripts, and I liked the idea of the main character, Archer, not knowing who was on his side and the shadowy nature of it. The visual aesthetic, I’d had ages ago. I’ve got a number of ideas for title sequences in the back of my mind, and I thought I had a seed of a visual idea that was right for this. So I did a few tests and it fit with the narrative of the book and the ideas within the programme. It evolved out of the story.
I love title sequences for a couple of reasons. From a creative point of view, it’s an area that has really limitless possibility. You can come up with something that’s unique and interesting and you’ve got real scope to do what you want. I think of them like an overture from an opera where you’re trying to set the scene and plant little ideas and visual references of what’s going to come later. Because of that, it’s interesting how it’s constrained by the narrative, the story and the drama, but it’s really free as well. It’s unique in terms of what you have to do visually. Title sequences, generally, are going through a real heyday at the moment. There are tonnes of really great title sequences being done all over the world. With more TV being done, title sequences have come into their own as well. People are prepared to invest in them a little bit.
Special Visual & Graphic Effects: DNEG TV, Jean-Clement Soret, Russell McLean, Joel Collins for Black Mirror episode Metalhead (House of Tomorrow, Netflix) Michael Bell, visual effects supervisor: Filming the episode in black and white was the idea of David Slade, the director. It was strange for us because you don’t see much VFX in black and white. Ultimately, it made it unique, made it really stand out and we’re really proud of the finished thing.
It took months and months just for the modelling of the creature itself [a relentless robotic killing machine], the inner workings and all the details. There were basically two characters in this episode – Maxine Peake’s character and this creature – so you had to see how it was thinking; it had to be believable and it was quite a difficult challenge. Sometimes it could be comical but it had to be scary and I think we pulled it off.
Costume Design: Michelle Clapton, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic)
My ideas are always informed by the story. We get the outlines two months before we get the scripts, and they usually give me two weeks to think and draw. I speak to David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, showrunners] so it’s all story-led, which is why it’s so exciting. I work quite closely with them and I’ll develop something to a stage where I think they’ll understand it. Sometimes they don’t like it and say, ‘What we’re trying to say about this character is this…’ So then we’ll have a discussion. Most of the time it’s fine but it’s interesting when it’s not, because you learn something.
It was nice to step out of Game of Thrones and do something like The Crown [in 2016] because in some ways it gave me a break from the show and I could return and feel enthused again about it. Period shows are really interesting but you have a period you’re looking at, so you design within that period but there’s still references. On something like Game of Thrones, you have no references, which is what I find so exciting. It’s been one of a kind and I doubt we’ll see a show like that again to such an extent. It’s been such a huge show and I’ve grown with it.
Photography & Lighting: Fiction: Adriano Goldman, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
I was invited to come on board the first season by [lead director] Stephen Daldry, but the first two episodes we shot, three and five, were not directed by Stephen. So I had a very practical challenge just to get to know this director who I was just being introduced to, Philip Martin. Of course, we got along really well but you have to build the whole thing from scratch with a director who is not a person you can read right away. Prepping was super intense and long. [We spent a lot of time] just reading scripts and going back to locations and trying to envision something that especially the British audience knows so well, the story of the Queen, and wondering what could be fresh about our approach.
The main discussion was the ‘less is more’ philosophy. The classic but also fresh approach was a challenge in itself. How do we deliver a story that everybody more or less knows but with a fresh visual style or rhythm?
Writer: Comedy: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No 9 (BBC Studios Comedy, BBC2) Reece Shearsmith: Comedy’s such a funny thing because it’s all about taste – what you find funny, I might not and vice versa. But comedy drama is a difficult one because there is comedy in the most bleak situations. I’ve had a career mining very dark themes and I think the release of something that’s quite dark is cathartic. With the No 9s, we enjoy telling stories. They’re little black jokes and it’s been lovely to resurrect the anthology series because that’s a great lost genre that you don’t really do anymore. People like the longform, big, strong boxsets but these are one-off little hits that you can watch in any order. There’s appeal for that these days.
Steve and I have a little office and we write there. We talk a lot before we even begin thinking about the writing of a story. We try to get the mechanics of where it’s going. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of where it will go and, during our conversation, we’ll think it’s too obvious and we need to change the ending if we’re thinking of a twist where we want to surprise people. Then we try to tell the story in the most judicious number of scenes possible. Sometimes the story itself never even leaves a room, so it’s even harder to tell the story without ever leaving and time passing. We think about taking the very mundane and taking it to an extraordinary conclusion. It gets harder and harder for us because we’ve done so many different stories and different worlds, and each week you start again. It’s like a pilot each week. That’s the challenge, but that’s the fun thing because you can do extremes, because they’re disposable. Next week you have a completely clean slate. You can kill them all off. You can reach heights you might not be able to if you had to go back to a default position if it was a sitcom. They’re thrilling to write and, as long as we can keep coming up with the ideas, we’ll go on forever.
Writer: Drama: Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
Factual drama is always what I’ve loved watching, and Britain has an amazing tradition of that type of social-realist drama going back to Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. If people are watching it now, it must be because of the fractured moment we’re in, Brexit… we’re strangers to each other. No wonder we’re trying to watch things about ourselves to understand the state we’re in.
Three Girls was brought to me by Sue Hogg, the executive producer who I worked with on The C Word. I was initially very afraid to take it on and I said no a fair few times. I just think I didn’t have the bottle. Like everyone else, this was a story I didn’t want to be true and it’s a story that everyone wants to look away from. I came up with my own reasons why I was going to turn it down and then I discussed it with my partner, who’s a journalist, who called me out on it and said I was doing what everyone did, turning away. I thought, ‘That’s right. Let’s go.’ It took me years and years to dissolve into it because it was so complex Once I got started, it felt like something was going that spoke to the state we’re in more broadly, and [I wanted] to do the best job I could of getting people who want to turn away to be glued to the story.
Philippa [Lowthorpe, director] did a lot more than just direct this magnificently. First off, she has a documentary background so she did a lot of the research with me. She gave me so much confidence in how you go into people’s homes and have them feel comfortable with you. She’s brilliant on scripts, she’s amazing with writers so I feel so stretched just in pure nerdy craft terms. She was just a joy, such a collaborator and, uniquely, she wanted me on set whenever I wanted to go. I was in rehearsals. That collaboration was so tight and I can’t wait to work with her again. She’s a phenomenal talent and such an inspiration for me as a woman working in this industry.
Sounds: Fiction: Sound Team, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Chris Ashworth, production sound mixer: My biggest challenge is managing the scale of the show. It’s an enormous shoot. It goes on for 30 weeks, so it’s a huge management thing from my point of view on the floor, managing three crews and making sure everyone’s working together. Then on the huge set pieces we do, we have to keep a variety of directors happy. Lee Walpole, supervising sound editor: In post production, we’re trying to take Chris’s clean recordings on location and add a complexity, scale and richness, bringing it to life and pinning it to the period it comes from. Sound recording is only becoming more complex, and that brings its own challenges. We have five days to final-mix an episode and you’re expected to produce a film soundtrack in that time. Andy Kennedy, sound designer: The line between cinema and television is very blurred. We’re not dealing with stereo, we’re dealing with multi-channel formats and it also has a different presentation because The Crown is shown as a streaming piece, so sound is evolving and it’s very close to what a cinema produces, but it’s slightly smaller scale.
Make Up & Hair Design: Jan Archibald, Erika Ökvist and Audrey Doyle, Taboo (Scott Free London, Hardy Son & Baker, BBC1) Audrey Doyle: Tom Hardy and his dad, Chips, developed the whole storyline seven years ago, he said, in his kitchen. They approached Steven Knight to write the scripts and it developed from there. We all did research of the period and the looks and started there. Tom is covered in his own tattoos so we had to develop a whole new tribal make-up for him. We had ‘Naked Mondays’ – every Monday, for some reason, we always seemed to film his tribal scenes, so we had to do his full tattoo cover, full tribal make-up and scars and everything. But he did wear a loin cloth. It took two-and-a-half hours each time.
Production Design: Deborah Riley and Rob Cameron, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic) Deborah Riley: My process begins right at the start in LA with the writers when they issue an outline, which tells us exactly what is going to be in every episode of the whole season. The scripts don’t come until a bit later. Then we’ll start the approval process. We have concept artists that draw everything for us, and everything gets approved before it gets made. It’s an amazing team of people. We’ve got great producers. David and Dan know exactly what they want, they’re very clear with their vision. Time is the challenge, because there’s just too much to do in too short an amount of time, as we’re trying to produce film finishes on a television schedule. We just really work hard, and David and Dan’s biggest talent is they collected a whole lot of workaholic perfectionists in one place.
Visual effects are always led through production design. We create the worlds and then we need visual effects to help us when we can’t build it all or see it all, but it’s very much a collaboration; we don’t work in isolation. The whole show is very cohesive in its vision and what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a very special thing. I’m most proud of just surviving.
Original Music: Jocelyn Pook, King Charles III (Drama Republic, BBC2)
In a lot of films, less is more. Music is so overdone quite often and it’s nice when people use it more carefully and more thoughtfully. On this particular project, it was really inspiring because of all the settings. It had been a theatre play, but hardly any of the music I had written for the theatre worked for film so I had to do a whole new score.
Because of the history of the monarchy, there’s a sense of the ancient and modern combined, and definitely elements of the contemporary because it’s set in the present day. That was lovely, musically, to mine, particularly English choral music that I’m naturally inspired by. There’s also an Englishness, whatever that is.
Director: Fiction: Philippa Lowthorpe, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was really lucky because I was involved in the research right from the beginning of Three Girls and that, to me as a director, is very valuable. I got to meet all the real people very early on and, with our wonderful writer Nicole Taylor, I was able to be part of the research along with our producer Simon Hughes. That really informed how I saw it and how to direct the actors, because I’d met the real people. I don’t think I could have done it without having met them and spending a a lot of time with them.
I went for a real feel, but it wasn’t pure documentary either. I used lots of very long takes because I wanted the actors to feel absolutely free to move where they wanted to move. Sometimes in drama you put the light somewhere and they have to hit a mark. I banned marks and we did very long takes where we would capture a bit of the scene and then do back and do it again. It was a challenge for some of the younger actors at first because they’d never done it like that before, but it was brilliant and it gave the actors so much freedom to absolutely inhabit their parts.
We had a lot of rehearsal and a lot of discussion with the actors, and that was so valuable. Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp were the leaders of the cast. The British Pakistani actors who were so brave to play the perpetrators in the piece were also very involved in the rehearsal, so their voices became part of the fabric of the rehearsal and we learned a lot from them.
The most important thing in the filming was to capture the truthfulness of the story and help the actors achieve that real authenticity in their performances, which they did. I’m very proud of the young people who played the girls. All three of them – Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill – are amazing.
There have been some amazing factual dramas recently and that’s hats off to Charlotte Moore at the BBC, who has really given a platform to real stories.
Special Award: Game of Thrones John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly: When I did my first day’s work on Game of Thrones, I knew nothing of how TV production worked. I remember getting my first call sheet the day before I shot my very first scene and not knowing what I was looking at. I read the scene, which was two pages long, and I thought, ‘Well, how long can that possibly take?’ I was always under the impression they just had the set and 20 or 30 hidden cameras in little nooks and crannies around the set, they kicked the actors into the set, we did it a couple of times and then we went home. In fact, what I thought when I first saw that it was going to be two pages long was, ‘What on Earth am I going to do with my afternoon?’ After all these years, I look back on that first day and I’m struck by how lucky I am that I was given such an incredible learning experience – the best learning experience in the world, working alongside some of the very best craftspeople at work anywhere. We as actors will forever owe a huge debt of gratitude for inspiring us every single time we walk onto the set and every single time we see the finished product on the screen, every day learning something new from them and learning new things to admire them for. Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly: When you see so many phenomenally talented people in so many departments working at the very top of their game and getting breathtaking results time after time, it really forces you to bring your very best efforts to the table, if only to make sure you don’t look inadequate by comparison. Every year, they’re given scripts that on paper seem totally unfilmable, and every time they put it on the screen to mind-blowing effect. We as actors are so lucky to get to step into the world they create and we are as in awe of their work as the fans of the show all over the world. The show is a global phenomenon and what makes us proudest is that the work of so many British and Irish talents are being recognised on such a grand scale. We know our showrunners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are grateful to be working with this incredible team of people.
British gangster drama Peaky Blinders is back for a fourth season, with some new faces and enough action and tension to leave even the most placid viewer a nervous wreck. DQ hears from the cast and creative team about what to expect next from the BBC2 series.
Like a fine wine, Peaky Blinders is getting better with age. But that’s not just my view – it’s one shared by its creator, Steven Knight.
Confident, self-assured and with its own unique swagger, Peaky returns to BBC2 in the UK this week running at full throttle, bypassing any gentle reintroduction to 1920s Birmingham and instead opening as the fates of the series’ heroes (or should that be villains?) are hanging in the balance, the executioner standing close by.
What follows is a spell-binding, bloody and savage hour of drama that sees Tommy, Aunt Polly, Arthur and the rest of the Shelby family estranged, apparently split with no sign of repair, until a new threat – one more determined and sophisticated than they have ever faced – looms large on the horizon. If they are to survive, they must put their differences aside and reunite.
It’s the start of what promises to be another mind-blowing season of an award-wining series that has only grown in critical and popular acclaim since its terrestrial debut in 2013. New fans are arriving every day by catching up with previous seasons on Netflix, with seven million reportedly watching the trailer for season four online.
“As it progresses, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be running out of steam,” Knight says. “It seems to be getting faster and better and bigger in terms of audience and all that stuff. With the confidence of knowing the actors, the characters and the environment, it makes it a lot easier to be quite bold and confident. Each season gets better and I think this is by far the best.”
Part of that success is down to Knight’s writing, the production design, the music and the star-filled cast it is able to attract. This season sees ever-present Cillian Murphy (Tommy), Helen McCrory (Polly) and Paul Anderson (Arthur) joined by new faces including Adrien Brody (Luca Changretta) and Aidan Gillen (Aberama Gold), while Charlotte Riley (May Carleton) and Tom Hardy (Alfie Solomans) will return.
“It’s odd because we get incoming from the most amazing actors who want to be in it,” Knight reveals about the show, produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect and distributed by Endemol Shine International. “It’s very tempting [to cast them all] but what we don’t want to do is turn it into this celebrity show. Most of them are American so it’s difficult to get them in, but with Adrien, he’s a brilliant actor and he was right for that role so it was good to get him in.”
Charlie Murphy (Happy Valley) also joins the cast as Jessie Eden, based on the real-life women’s rights campaigner of the same name.
“She has an amazing line to introduce the character,” Charlie Murphy says of Jessie’s first appearance, which takes place in the men’s toilet at Tommy’s factory. “It sums her up completely, being in that man’s world, being in the gents’ toilets, having to push forward and make a difference. She is an extraordinary woman.
“It’s strange there is not a lot online to investigate [about her], but the stuff I found… you can imagine what her life was like back then. She brought 10,000 people out on strike for equal pay in her late 20s. That alone today is extraordinary, to have that voice and strength, but back then it would have been phenomenal. She’s a very brave and powerful person to play. That’s so much fun.”
Those sentiments are shared by fellow cast members Cillian Murphy and Anderson. “This part is a gift,” says the former of playing Tommy Shelby. “For any actor to be given a part like this with the excellent calibre of writing and then to be told you can play a character like that for five years, it’s an absolute total privilege. He is quite exhausting, he’s quite demanding. He is really not like me – the furthest away from my personality. But I love him and it’s a privilege.”
Anderson picks up: “Steven writes these interesting, great characters and I have a lot of fun playing Arthur even at his worst, his lowest. It is a lot of joy. It’s really good to do it for such a long time. It’s my first experience of playing a character with this much depth.”
Helming every episode of season four is Irish director David Caffrey, who is finally getting the chance to join Peaky Blinders after missing out on season two due to conflicting schedules. He describes the show as one that “punches above its weight,” owing to its big set pieces, thriller elements and the fact it’s a costume drama despite having a relatively modest budget compared with similar US series.
“Because of the size of the show, you’re standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before you, all the creative time, directors and production designers,” he explains, adding that the brief coming into a returning series is “always to be bigger, badder, bolder but with the same amount of money.”
“So it’s a question of getting myself, the cameraman, the designers, everybody to just look at what’s in the script and try to build on what’s come before us,” he continues. “I feel quietly confident we’ve done that this season.”
With an established series now fully in its stride, one of the challenges facing a new director can be to lead a team that knows more about the show than they do. But Caffrey (Love/Hate) says he enjoyed learning from the cast and helping them to push their characters forward.
“When you’ve got stars like Paul, Helen and Cillian, they still come to you and are very open about what you want but, in a way, they’re custodians of their characters and how they behave and what situations they find themselves in,” he says. “I learn from them and then I try to give them notes on where we think characters are going. Like anything, when you have a short amount of time, they’ve got to bring their own gift to the party, which they do in abundance.”
According to executive producer Jamie Glazebrook, every season of Peaky Blinders leans on a different genre. So while season one was a western, season two was a gangster movie and the third run drew parallels to a Hitchcockian drama. Back on the streets of the Small Heath slums in season four, which begins tomorrow, viewers can look forward to an action drama that also draws influences from 1952 feature film High Noon, in which an embattled sheriff must face a gang of killers alone.
“They’re under siege so they have to man up and actually get back into the driving seat and away from the country house world and back onto the streets to physically contend with quite a dangerous enemy,” says Glazebrook of the dilemma facing the Shelby family.
Filming took place in Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford, though the return to Small Heath meant the production team faced a dilemma of their own, as many of the locations used in season one have since been developed, forcing them to find alternatives for the location-based shoot.
“The scale of Steve’s writing against our budget and schedule has also been a challenge everyone’s risen to,” Glazebook notes. “We’ve also had to keep it fresh. We’ve seen a lot of shows set in the 1920s so, for example, costume designer Alison McCosh really went out there looking for 1920s dresses that hadn’t been seen before. She went to Rome and found dresses that almost needed to be put back together again because they were rotting away somewhere. Everyone’s really dedicated to making sure the show isn’t like anything else set in the 20s – it’s seen through a particular filter and it’s got that certain magic.”
“The world has changed,” he responds. “I got lucky to get in early with Peaky. Priorities in Hollywood now, everything is changing by the day. The television phenomenon is now of equal importance to writers more than anyone, because writers have the power in TV, whereas they don’t in film. I’ve just finished a film – that’s great, and I love the 90-minute or two-hour length as a piece of work – but there are certain ideas you want 24 hours for, and that’s what television is great for. At the moment, there is an equal weight to both. Part of it is screens. Twenty years ago when people were watching television on those little things, what was the point? Now everybody’s got their big screens, there’s something about the whole thing that’s better.”
Knight has written every episode of Peaky, admitting that the show is so personal, he could never hand it over to someone else. And having won a double commission for seasons four and five, the screenwriter found himself in the rare position of being able to pen the upcoming six new episodes knowing there was still more to come. However, that fifth season, which is likely to begin filming in late 2018 for a debut the following year, looks set to be its last, if the writer’s plans hold firm.
“I know what direction it’s going in and what it’s going to be about,” he reveals. “I’ve always had the same destination in mind. It will be sad to stop and, if five has the same momentum that four has got, or more, maybe you do carry on. But at the moment that’s the plan, to finish at the end of five.
“I know when I want to end it [with the first air raid siren in Birmingham at the start of the Second World War] but that doesn’t necessarily mean that season five will take place in or around that year. I’m thinking there is a way to resolve the story in a certain year and then fast-forward to where it’s going to be.”
Writers and producers often spend years crafting their passion projects before they come to air – but the risk is always whether the audience cares as much as they do, writes Michael Pickard.
When US cable network FX commissioned bloody medieval drama The Bastard Executioner (pictured above), it was billed as the eagerly anticipated next act from writer Kurt Sutter.
Sutter had built his career at FX, first working on ground-breaking cop drama The Shield and then creating hit biker series Sons of Anarchy, which ran for seven seasons until 2014.
The Bastard Executioner, which made its UK debut this week on History, would represent an entirely different direction from his previous work. It was an ambitious Middle Ages drama that told the story of a warrior knight in King Edward II’s charge who is broken by the ravages of war and vows to lay down his sword. But when that violence finds him again he is forced to pick up the bloodiest sword of all.
Sutter developed the series from an idea from Brian Grazer, who executive produced the 10-episode show with Sutter and Francie Calfo.
And it was immediately clear how Sutter he had invested in the show, exclaiming at the time of its commission in May 2015: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. And with this extraordinary cast – Stephen Moyer, Katey Sagal and newcomer Lee Jones – this world explodes on screen.”
But as Sutter would discover, no amount of excitement can turn the tide of public opinion if the audience doesn’t share the same interest in your passion project as you do.
Writers and producers can spend years developing a series, often focusing on obscure or niche stories or time periods. But in most cases, they must build their reputations working on other shows before being given the chance – and freedom from a network – to bring their passion projects to life. And even if the story does connect, there is still a possibility the project could be undone by its execution.
Among the successes is Poldark, BBC1’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels, starring Aidan Turner and written by Debbie Horsfield.
When it first aired in 2015, no one could have predicted how quickly the show would develop a devoted following in both the UK and the US, where it airs on PBS. The series has since been renewed for a third season to air in 2017 – ahead of its season two launch this September.
“Poldark is a passion project for all of us, and it’s with real excitement that we prepare for both the launch of season two and our return to Cornwall to shoot season three,” said Damien Timmer, MD of Poldark prodco Mammoth Screen. “Winston Graham and Debbie Horsfield’s extraordinary flair for storytelling means the saga of [lead character] Ross, his friends and enemies will go to even more thrilling places!”
Writer/actor Mark Gatiss is a long-time fan of sci-fi series Doctor Who and has written eight episodes of the show since it was revived in 2005. But it was the opportunity to write a special film to mark the franchise’s 50th anniversary that proved a real labour of love. Gatiss, who also co-created Sherlock, penned An Adventure in Time and Space, which followed the creation of the series with David Bradley portraying the first Doctor, William Hartnell.
“The strange thing is, because I’m a Jon Pertwee child, this was before my time,” Gatiss said at the film’s 2013 premiere, referencing the third actor to play the Doctor. “But I grew up with the story – almost like a bedtime story – of how the show came together. These very unlikely people coming together… nobody liking the Daleks… all these little stories that were like holy writ.
“I always thought it would just be a fantastic story to tell and it’s just come together at the right time.”
Steven Knight may consider himself a film writer, having penned movies such as Locke, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, but it’s in television that he found a home thanks to Peaky Blinders, a series that began life as a novel until Knight transformed it for the small screen with Nurse Jackie creator Caryn Mandabach.
When the series was given a two-season renewal by BBC2 following its successful third run earlier this year, Knight admitted: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”
More recently, Emmy-nominated spy drama The Night Manager was discovered to be a long-held passion project for star Hugh Laurie – so much so that the actor once tried to option the rights to the John Le Carré novel on which the show was based, only to find they had already been snapped up by Sydney Poitier.
The stylish BBC1/AMC series, which aired earlier this year, saw Laurie play arms dealer Richard Roper opposite Tom Hiddleston’s hero Jonathan Pine, with the adaptation penned by David Farr.
“I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” former House star Laurie said. “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
Meanwhile, HBO’s The Night Of, an adaptation of BBC drama Criminal Justice, was a passion project for the late actor James Gandolfini, who championed the series that was brought to air last month by Steven Zaillian.
Less successful, however, was Vinyl, HBO’s big-budget music industry drama set in 1970s New York City. Said to have been a passion project of former network programming chief Michael Lombardo, the series looked a surefire hit with a creative team comprising celebrated director Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
However, after disappointing reviews and lacklustre ratings, plus the departure of Winter and a change in management at the premium cable network, the show was cancelled in May after one season – reversing an earlier decision in February to order a second season after just one episode had aired.
“After careful consideration, we have decided not to proceed with a second season of Vinyl,” HBO said. “Obviously, this was not an easy decision. We have enormous respect for the creative team and cast for their hard work and passion on this project.”
Hoping to have better luck is forthcoming Amazon drama The Collection, which has been a long-time ambition for its creators, Oliver Goldstick and Kate Croft.
The series is set in an illustrious Parisian fashion house, emerging from the end of the Occupation into a golden age of design. The story focuses on two brothers while exposing the grit behind the glamour of the couture business.
“The Collection has been a passion project of mine for years; an entrepreneurial fable set in a pivotal moment in history, when fashion served as the ultimate vehicle for transformation and reinvention,” admitted showrunner Goldstick, best known for his work on US drama Ugly Betty. “It’s the story of a war-scarred family – upstairs and downstairs – tethered together by its success and its secrets.”
Croft, who executive produces the series and worked with Goldstick to develop the show, continued: “Out of our shared passion for the world and the period, Oliver has created his extraordinary vision of Paris and the golden age of couture. It’s full of his signature flourishes, and his unique take means we get to peek behind the elegant façade and realise it is not just about the dresses, but more about what they are covering up.”
Elsewhere, Laeta Kalogridis held the rights to Richard Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon for four years before Netflix commissioned a 10-part series in January.
The story is set in the 25th century when the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite interstellar warrior, has been imprisoned for 500 years and is downloaded into a future he had tried to stop. If he can solve a single murder in a world where technology has made death nearly obsolete, he’ll get a chance at a new life on Earth.
“Altered Carbon is one of the most seminal pieces of post-cyberpunk hard science fiction out there – a dark, complex noir story that challenges our ideas of what it means to be human when all information becomes encodable, including the human mind,” Kalogridis says.
As for Sutter and The Bastard Executioner, the writer took the unusual decision to cancel his own show when it failed to connect with viewers – an announcement he made by placing an advert in several Hollywood television industry magazines.
“Good reviews are wonderful and so are awards, but for me, I’m very aware of ratings because my job as a storyteller is to engage and hook an audience,” Sutter said. “Ratings let me know that I’m doing my job. This show premiered low, and we never really established a baseline where we could say, ‘OK, that’s our audience.’”
He added: “When a show gets cancelled, there’s often this perception that, oh, it’s a failure, or the network didn’t support it and pulled the plug. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A common saying among writers is only write what you love – why waste your time on anything else? But with passion projects, there will always be a risk that the audience might not care as deeply as those who created it.
As Sutter concluded in his advert: “The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is ‘meh.’ So with due respect, we bring our mythology to an epic and fiery close.”
SVoD giant Netflix has always been good at sharing its international subscriber data, but it has never bothered to provide much detail about the audiences that tune in to individual shows.
As an ad-free service, it doesn’t really need to; instead, it sees competitive value in keeping its rivals guessing.
This, of course, doesn’t stop third parties speculating – and this week research firm Nielsen is in the news for trying to unlock the secret of Orange is the New Black (OITNB)’s audience numbers.
The key finding, revealed at the Consumer 360 conference in Las Vegas, is that OITNB is the big hit that everyone always suspected it to be. According to audience data reported on by the Wall Street Journal, 6.7 million people watched the first episode of season four in the three days following its June 17 launch. The second episode then attracted 5.9 million viewers.
To put those numbers in context, they would make OITNB one of the most popular shows on US cable TV, if it lived within the traditional US cable system.
It’s not as big as Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but it would trump pretty much everything else. For the record, Nielsen also looked at streaming data for Seinfeld on Hulu, which drew 706,000 viewers within five days of launch.
Other shows in the news this week include AMC’s Preacher, which is halfway through its first 10-episode season. After starting strongly, with 2.38 million for episode one, the show slipped to 1.14 million by episode four.
However, there was an encouraging bounce back for episode five, which recorded 1.43 million (all figures are Nielsen overnights). Perhaps that’s why AMC chose this week to announce that the show, which stars Dominic Cooper, will have an enlarged second season of 13 episodes.
“Preacher is a special TV programme and we’re eager to share with fans the rest of this wild first season and, now, an expanded second season,” said AMC president Charlie Collier. “What (the team) has achieved in bringing Garth Ennis’s graphic novel to the screen is extraordinary. We look forward to more time with these unforgettable characters, be it in Heaven, Hell, Texas or beyond.”
Preacher is currently AMC’s fifth best-performing show behind The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Into the Badlands and Better Call Saul. The writer and showrunner is Sam Catlin.
A more surprising renewal is that for Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, a futuristic sci-fi time-travel drama set in the 2040s after a virus has wiped out much of Earth’s population. Based on the 1995 feature film of the same name, the show has been given a third season.
“In two short seasons, 12 Monkeys has become a cult favourite series,” said Chris McCumber, president of entertainment networks at Syfy parent NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “The team has brought to life a rich world not confined by boundaries of time, with multi-dimensional characters whose motivations for saving the world are deeply personal and intensely relatable. It’s exactly the type of smart, on-the-edge-of-your-seat entertainment we want.”
That eulogy comes despite the fact the show’s ratings have been pretty modest for season two. After averaging 795,000 for season one, the follow-up batch of 10 episodes evened out at 393,000. Although season two seems to have had a pretty stable audience across its run, that figure places 12 Monkeys at the low end of Syfy’s scripted dramas in terms of its audience.
While the impassioned nature of the show’s fanbase may be a reason for 12 Monkeys’ renewal, another explanation could be that Syfy is undergoing heavy schedule maintenance.
A lot of shows have ended or been cancelled recently, so it may be that the channel is looking for a few stopgaps while newer shows such as The Magicians, Killjoys and Dark Matter have a chance to build. No current Syfy show has got past season two.
Elsewhere, we have reported in the past on the ratings success of The Durrells in the UK, and now the show is proving to be popular with international broadcasters.
Distributor BBC Worldwide says it has sold the show to such channels as Iceland’s UTV, Australia’s Seven Network, New Zealand’s Sky, Estonia’s ETV, Finland’s YLE, Latvian Television, Denmark’s TV2 and BBC First in the Middle East and Benelux. This follows previous deals with SVT in Sweden and OTE in Greece.
Written by Simon Nye and produced by Sid Gentle Films, The Durrells is based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical books about his family’s life on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.
Still in the world of distribution, Amazon Prime Video has picked up the rights to Steven Soderbergh drama The Girlfriend Experience for the UK, Germany, Austria and Japan. The 13-part series, which stars Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough, airs on Starz in the US and is based on Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name.
The show hasn’t scored especially well on IMDb, which is probably down to its level of sexual content, which polarises audiences (it’s about a female law student who becomes an escort – another polarising factor for audiences). But it has its fans, who tend to focus on the excellence of the acting and craft.
The bottom line on this show is that it has undoubtedly found the perfect home in the rarified world of SVoD streaming.
Finally, an update on how BBC2 in the UK is doing it terms of drama – according to BARB ratings. Peaky Blinders signed off in mid-June with an audience of 2.27 million, meaning that it was pretty stable throughout the back end of its third season.
The show overlapped slightly with the launch of acquired drama Versailles, which is still running. The Louis XIV period piece debuted with 2.73 million but had slipped to around the two million mark at the time of writing. This, however, is still stronger than The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, which finished its run in April on around 1.85 million.
Last year, Wolf Hall brought the channel 3.8-4 million viewers per episode, while Banished wrapped up with 2.8 million for its final episode. All of which suggests the channel’s upmarket audience has a penchant for offbeat period drama, rather than the kind of contemporary show represented by American Crime Story. Outlander would be a good fit were it not streaming on Amazon in the UK.
The BBC has ordered two more series of Steven Knight’s gangster series Peaky Blinders, which is set in 1920s Birmingham in the UK. The show is currently four episodes into season three, which means it will now run for at least five seasons – though Knight has expressed a desire to keep going long after that.
Like the first three seasons, the new commissions will both consist of six hour-long episodes, which means a total of 30 hours of TV.
Caryn Mandabach, executive producer of the show for Caryn Mandabach Productions, said: “It’s a fantastic vote of confidence in the show and Steven Knight’s writing that the BBC has ordered two more series following the first episode’s overnight figures. We’re proud of, and grateful for, the BBC’s support of the show.”
Will Gould, who also works on the show as an exec producer for Tiger Aspect, added: “Peaky has become a global hit. Steve’s vision resonates with audiences the world over, and what a privilege it is that we get to make more.”
Knight, who will continue to write all episodes, said: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me, and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”
To be completely frank, the audience for season three of Peaky Blinders hasn’t been massive. It opened with 2.95 million (BARB) for episode one and then dropped to 2.43 million for episode two. So it’s not in the same league as BBC2’s Line of Duty (circa five million) or Channel 4’s Humans, which hit six million last June.
A possible reason for the modest audience is the show’s graphic violence, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Another is the esoteric nature of the season three plot, which revolves around the fallout from the Russian Revolution (angry White Russian exiles and so on).
But judging Peaky Blinders solely on the basis of its ratings would be a bit like castigating a Man Booker Prize winner for not muscling JK Rowling off the fiction best-seller list. The fact is that Peaky Blinders is superb – comparable to the best scripted series coming out of the UK, US, Nordics, Spain, Israel and elsewhere.
IMDb ratings back this up. The first episode of season three, which was slightly meandering, only managed 8.8. But the show really kicked into gear after that, with its IMDb rating jumping to a very impressive 9.5 by episode four. Critics are also pretty unanimous in their approval, with the Daily Express going so far as to call Knight’s show “this generation’s Godfather.”
The beauty of Knight’s formula is the way he plays different interest groups off against each other, blurring the line between criminality and legality, gangsters and establishment. The result of his complex plotting is that central character Tom Shelby is constantly saved from what looks like certain death by individuals or organisations that suddenly find they have a use for him.
Alongside the sophistication of Knight’s writing, the show is beautifully directed (by Tim Mielants in season three) and, of course, superbly acted. Cillian Murphy, as Tommy Shelby, is delivering a performance that, by this week’s episode four, is similar to the standards set by Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad. And Paul Anderson, as his brother Arthur, grows in stature with every season.
Murphy’s comment on the new commission is that: “Tommy Shelby is one of the most intense, challenging characters I’ve had the opportunity to play. I’m particularly grateful that Steven’s original, dynamic writing and the longform series allow me to explore Tommy in depth. I look forward to Tommy’s evolution over the next two chapters.”
Peaky Blinders’ graphic violence (Tarantino-like in its intensity at times) inevitably limits the kind of channels/slots where it can air. But as Gould says, the show has established a solid fanbase around the world. Netflix in the US, for example, will offer season three from May 31. And Arte in France has also aired the show. Peaky is distributed by Endemol Shine International, which will be pleased that it can now go to the global market with 30 episodes.
Another quality show in the news this week is FX’s Cold War spy drama The Americans, which has also been given a new two-season order. The difference with this one, however, is that these two seasons will be the last, with The Americans ending in 2018 after six seasons. Season five will have 13 episodes and season six will have 10, bringing the total volume to a very respectable 75.
“Through its first four seasons, critics have lauded The Americans as one of the best shows on television and, remarkably, a series that keeps getting better every year,” said FX original programming president Eric Schrier.
“All credit for that achievement goes to everyone who has worked on the show, and especially co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, (executive producer) Graham Yost, our brilliant stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Allison Wright, Holly Taylor and Annet Mahendru, and the ensemble cast for their incomparable performances. We have no doubt that this two-season order will allow Joe and Joel to tell this story to its perfect conclusion.”
Again, the show isn’t what you’d call a ratings hit. Season four is currently averaging around 930,000, which is down a little on season three. And it rates lower than a number of other FX shows, including The Bastard Executioner, which was cancelled after one season despite having a higher audience and better 18-49 demo.
Nevertheless, The Americans is a good show for FX because it attracts critical acclaim and gets a fair share of award wins and nominations – all useful for a cable subscription service. It has also had a decent life internationally, airing on Network Ten Australia, FX Canada, RTE Ireland and ITV/ITV Encore in the UK.
For Weisberg and Fields, there is no particular downside to the show ending, because they have also signed a new overall deal with FX Productions to develop their next scripted series.
Meanwhile, AMC’s latest new show, Preacher, has got off to a good start, with episode one securing an audience of 2.38 million. This puts it at number four on the channel behind The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands.
Preacher was helped by being scheduled after FTWD – so episode two will be an important benchmark for the show. But it could shed a significant amount of viewers and still be regarded as a hit by AMC.
By contrast, six-part espionage drama The Night Manager has just ended its run on AMC with a modest 790,000 average audience. It picked up slightly for the last episode but made nowhere near the impact it had on British television. This is a bit of a surprise considering that lead actor Hugh Laurie has a good profile in the US with his long-running lead role in House. However, it may indicate that the show wasn’t right for AMC.
One programme that has had an abject first season is CBS’s movie adaptation Rush Hour. Just eight episodes in, the show is delivering around four million viewers and has already been cancelled.
As British period gangster drama Peaky Blinders returns to BBC2 for its third season, creator Steven Knight explains that while the show is more ambitious than ever, his home will always be cinema.
Somewhere, perhaps in an office or filed away on a computer, are the first four chapters of a novel called Peaky Blinders.
An epic gangster story set in 1920s Birmingham, the story had been a longtime passion project for writer Steven Knight.
But the novel remained unfinished and Knight went into film, attaining credits including Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace, Eastern Promises and Locke.
Then when Nurse Jackie creator Caryn Mandabach asked him if there was anything he wanted to do for television, he returned to Peaky Blinders – which takes its name from the gang members who would sew razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps.
Knight recalls: “In 1992 I was going to do it as a novel. When I first started writing, this was one of the things I wanted to do. I did write four chapters as a novel – I wonder where it is now. But I went away and did film and Caryn got in touch and said, ‘Have you got any ideas?’ and this was one of them.
“Then we went to the BBC, they liked the idea and that was it. It’s a story of a family so you could do it in any way. I knew the basics (of the gang, led by the Shelby brothers), which were that the older brother wasn’t in charge, the younger one was, their parents are dead and they’ve just come back from the war. Before, they’d been pretty rough and ready, and now this younger brother (runs the criminal enterprise) with class and does it differently. That was the idea.”
Peaky Blinders burst onto BBC2 in 2013 and now, after a two-year break, the series is returning to screens for a third season, which sees gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) pulled into the glamorous and dangerous world of international intrigue in 1920s Birmingham, putting his entire organisation and family at risk and forcing him to question everything about his own ambitions and desires.
Knight explains: “They’re richer but not necessarily happier. The tensions in the family are growing but the question of the whole series is whether people from this (working class) background can escape. Can they become respectable? Can they ever get away? What I want to do is dramatise the things that pull them back and keep them who they are. It questions whether it’s because of who they are that they remain like that or if it’s because of circumstance. That’s really the fundamental question – can the Shelbys ever become respectable?”
Executive producer Caryn Mandabach adds: “This is emotionally ambitious – it’s a saga – so your ambition is to move hearts and minds, and to do that, you use every trick in the book to understand how people access feeling. There are lots of contexts – we all have family, we have relationships – but to dig deep into those phenomena is at the core of the ambition. As Steve says, you can run but you can’t hide.”
On screen, the show reunites returning cast members such as Helen McCrory, Tom Hardy, Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, Joe Cole and Finn Cole. And they will be joined by Paddy Considine, who plays this season’s villain and is described by Knight as “a force beyond anything Shelby has previously encountered.”
“They’re so, so smart,” Mandabach says of the cast. “And it’s not just emotional intelligence. They’re great to have a beer with and that’s because they’re curious and they take a lot of things in. Some actors, not so much. These actors, as a group, are the smartest bunch of folks I know. Clever on every level, well read and curious. They love being there because they’re with other people just like that and it’s fun.”
For many series, reaching season three is a landmark moment. Having established your characters and setting in season one and navigated the televisual equivalent of the difficult second album, a third run is a chance to push both the creative and production boundaries.
For Knight, reaching this stage just makes his job much easier. “The first season was setting the whole thing up and you really had to point out that this is mythology, that it’s larger than life,” he explains. “We’re not trying to do kitchen sink, it wasn’t ‘isn’t life awful.’ It’s the opposite of that. We want glamour and gangsters and westerns. Now everyone gets that and it makes it so much easier.
“It’s a fantastic time because you know the actors are great, you know they can do it. There are things you can do and they can pull it off. In other words, you can say that here in 1924 (the setting for season three), my characters are now here. I know how they’re going to behave so I can just watch them, effectively. This is what they’re saying, this is what they’re doing, getting themselves into the same old trouble, making the same mistakes over and over again. That’s the beauty of it. But the challenge is to throw different fireworks at their feet.”
But while he is enjoying working in TV with Peaky and forthcoming Tom Hardy drama Taboo, which will air on BBC1 and FX, Knight still considers the big screen to be his nine-to-five.
“I still consider film to be the day job,” he says. “And I consider Peaky to be what I do when I’m happy and relaxed. For me, I want to get to Peaky. The features – it’s such a different thing now where you write a script and a director takes it and that’s it, that’s fine. I’ll also be writing and directing a feature. Features are great but TV’s something different.”
He goes on to describe a TV set as “heaven” compared with being on a film lot: “It’s like taking your tie off, taking your boots off. It’s great, it’s lovely. You don’t have the studio’s notes, you don’t have the director’s notes. You don’t get all that and it’s all lovely. And that’s why I think television is thriving. Because people who make up and tell the story have the authority, rather than someone who feels intimidated by being given the story and feels as though they have to prove it’s theirs.”
Peaky Blinders is now on air in 163 countries around the world following deals by Endemol Shine International, while Netflix also carries the show internationally.
And like many film stars, Murphy has crossed over to television and admits “it’s a real gift for any actor to be given a part like this and be able to explore a character over 18 hours.”
He continues: “That’s a long time and it’s a real luxury. But first and foremost it’s the quality of the writing. To get scripts like this from the get-go and see a character develop like this, and see all the characters develop like this and see the writing keep that level of quality right from the beginning, I feel very lucky.”
In the role of Tommy, Murphy is rarely seen without a cigarette in hand, something that has become the character’s crutch and means the actor has smoked thousands of times during filming.
“People smoked all day and night (in the 1920s), that was their thing, and it just became a Tommy thing,” he says. “I don’t smoke myself but they’re these herbal roll-ups. I asked the prop guys to do a rough count of how many I smoked and they think it’s something like 3,000 in four months.”
Off set, Murphy has been enjoying his new role as an executive producer – the first time he has performed such duties. While he had been involved in discussing the show, the story and tone from the beginning, the EP credit formalises his position.
“It’s very collaborative,” he says of Peaky Blinders, which is produced by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect and boasts a contemporary soundtrack featuring Radiohead and Nick Cave. “It’s my first barbecue as an executive producer. It’s interesting trying to look at stuff dispassionately and objectively, whereas normally you watch yourself through your hands. So learning to try to watch stuff and look for the overall structure and story is very interesting for me. I’ve really enjoyed the process.”
Murphy avoided watching himself back while on set, however, hoping to avoid colouring his performance. “It all happens afterwards, it’s all in the post-production,” he adds. “I just come in and have a look at things and just add ideas. I would hate to colour the performance because it’s only in the post-production that you ever pipe up with thoughts. I’ve never looked at rushes or playback or anything during shooting. That’s not the way I would do things and I don’t think it’s a helpful addition to an actor’s arsenal to start looking at yourself during shooting.”
BBC2 in the UK is having a great year in terms of its drama output. The first part of 2016 saw a solid performance for US acquisition American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, while tomorrow sees the much-anticipated return of Peaky Blinders for season three.
Sandwiched between the two was the third season of Line of Duty, which has proven to be a huge hit for the channel. So successful, in fact, there are reports that season four, which is scheduled to air in 2017, will move to flagship channel BBC1.
As the dust settles on Line of Duty’s ratings, various claims are being made, but probably the most eye-catching is that the series is BBC2’s most successful drama in 15 years. With an average audience of just under five million per episode (live+7 day ratings), it even managed to outperform Wolf Hall, which was a strong performer in 2015 with an average audience of 4.4 million.
Line of Duty focuses on the activities of an anti-corruption unit led by superintendent Ted Hastings (played by Adrian Dunbar). It is the latest masterpiece from Jed Mercurio, widely acknowledged as one of the top talents working in British TV.
Mercurio actually started out as a doctor before breaking into the business with acclaimed medical drama Cardiac Arrest in the mid-1990s. Since then he has had pretty consistent success as a TV writer while also carving out a decent career as a novelist. Indeed, his second TV series was an adaptation of his first novel, Bodies.
He has proven particularly adept at creating procedurals with a twist. Aside from Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty, for example, he also created Critical, a medical drama for Sky1 set in a fictional trauma centre.
He has also tried his hand at a number of other sub-genres of the scripted TV business. The Grimleys (1999-2001), for example, was a comedy drama, while Frankenstein (2007) was a modern-day re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel. He also set up Left Bank’s long-running action-adventure series Strike Back (2010) and adapted DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC1 last year.
Within the UK system, Mercurio is unusual in that he is more akin to a US showrunner than a European writer/auteur. Typically, he will write and produce his shows – sometimes directing as well. As a consequence of this level of control, Mercurio is well placed to ensure his creative vision hits the screen.
Mercurio recently gave a very insightful interview to Den of Geek in which he distinguished his work from procedurals that delve into the private lives of their protagonists. “Part of me isn’t that interested as a person and a viewer in people’s personal lives. I’m more interested in what people do in the workplace and what goals they set themselves. I guess that’s why I write a lot of precinct drama. (There’s often) an expectation, or pressure sometimes even, to feel that the way to succeed with drama is to see all sides of a character by going into their personal lives, even if you’ve got nothing to say.”
It’s interesting to note that Line of Duty’s ratings have been building across the first three seasons, giving it the feel of a show that slipped under the radar but is now attracting new swathes of fans. All of which augurs well for season four, regardless of the channel it airs on.
In the US, this is a critical time of year for the scripted business as the major networks decide which pilots to take forward to series. Most announcements will trickle through in the next few weeks, though a few new shows have already been given the go-ahead.
One of these is ABC’s Designated Survivor, which will star Kiefer Sutherland (24) and is being written by David Guggenheim (Safe House, Bad Boys 3). Another is Taken, a spin-off from the hit movie franchise. The TV version, for NBC, will be penned by Alex Cary (credits include Homeland, Lie To Me).
Not yet greenlit but looking good is Fox’s Lethal Weapon, another reboot of a movie franchise. This one is being scripted by Matt Miller, whose writing credits include ABC’s short-lived Forever.
Also, this week, DQ’s sister site C21 Media reports that long-running CBS drama The Good Wife is being adapted for the South Korean market by broadcaster TVN. The show, created by Robert and Michelle King, comes to the end of its seventh and final season in the US this week. All told, that means TVN will have 155 episodes to work with.
The Korean version of the show will be produced by Jung-Hyo Lee (I Need Romance, Heartless City) and written by Han Sang-Woon. Like the CBS original, it will centre on the complicated relationships of people in the legal system working against a backdrop of scandal and corruption.
Interestingly, this is not the first adaptation Han Sang-Woon has worked on. Last year, he wrote Spy for KBS2, based on Israeli drama The Gordin Cell. Previously, he wrote the movie My Ordinary Love Story. Commenting on the production, TVN parent company CJ E&M told C21: “For the Korean version of The Good Wife, we focused on the casting and were successful in casting Korea’s biggest actress, Jeon Do-Yeon – who has won many awards in her career, including best actress at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival – in the lead role, marking her return to television after 11 years.”
Finally, continuing the writers-as-brands theme we discussed in last week’s column, Amazon is about to air ITV period drama Doctor Thorne in the US (May 20). When it does, it will call the series Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne, another indicator of the marketing leverage that leading writers increasingly possess.
As UK networks continue to mine classic stories for new dramas, Stephen Arnell asks whether international coproductions are the key to unlocking creativity.
It’s fair to say last week’s announcement that BBC Studios is planning a six-part series based on John Buchan’s popular adventure The 39 Steps – just eight years after the corporation’s previous Bourne/Bond-style stab at the novel – hardly set industry pulses racing.
In fact, unless the approach to the source material is radically different from previous adaptations, one can’t imagine the atmosphere in the BBC production meeting to discuss the idea when it was broached was exactly electric.
With the recent transformation of BBC Production into BBC Studios, this was perversely exactly the kind of show calculated to reinforce prior negative expectations of what the new entity would be – safe, traditional and rather unimaginative.
The exit of Studios head Peter Salmon after six months to Endemol Shine may see BBC Studios leave its comfort zone – if a non-corporation insider is chosen to replace him.
Coupled with the plethora of Agatha Christie adaptations, younger takes on popular characters such as ITV’s Endeavour (Inspector Morse) and the upcoming Prime Suspect prequel Tennison (incidentally, there’s a Young Marple in development for CBS in the US), as well as reboots of Poldark (pictured top) and Maigret, new versions of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and EM Forster’s Howards End, there is a feeling that mainstream drama in the UK is playing safe and becoming atrophied, although I’m sure production executives at the time felt that reviving a 1970s show such as Poldark was genuinely taking a risk.
The low figures attracted by recent series such as Jericho (ITV) and Dickensian (BBC1), which, despite familiar period drama elements and literary antecedents, at least attempted something a little different, may increase the caution displayed in TV drama commissioning in the UK for the big channels.
If we are going to pillage the past for source material, maybe producers can consider some other authors than the usual roll call of Austen, Dickens, Trollope (ITV’s Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne) and the Brontes.
Will the upcoming BBC1 retread of Homer’s Troy stumble in the same way as ITV’s fantasy actioner Beowulf?
Both shows, and BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, smack of a desire to emulate Game of Thrones, as did the flop BBC1 War of the Roses epic The White Queen back in 2013.
To some critics, BBC1’s choice to adapt 20th century classics last autumn (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, An Inspector Calls, The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) resembled nothing so much as an English literature A-level syllabus circa 1973.
Despite the likelihood of negative comparisons to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the BBC’s upcoming series based on Len Deighton novel SS-GB promises something a little off the beaten track from recent network drama.
With his works coming out of copyright, the oeuvre of HG Wells seems ripe for revival, judging by Sky Arts’ recent anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells and the upcoming Mammoth Screen (Poldark) version of The War of the Worlds, which aims to hue closely to the novel. With Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) adapting the story, we can be fairly certain that we’ll finally see something resembling Wells’ original vision.
There are, of course, some shining exceptions to the general air of caution, not least of which is The Night Manager (BBC1). Although never adapted for TV before, it does come from the pen of John le Carré, responsible for a string of successful movies, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, The Tailor of Panana, the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV series/one-offs (Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality).
The Night Manager is truly something different for BBC1 – the sheer luxury on display in terms of locations and casting, the sumptuous photography and even the Maurice Binder-style title sequence lift the show into another sphere, almost one of decadence, especially considering the ongoing budget cuts at the BBC.
Now perhaps there’s a glimpse of where the money saved from BBC3’s linear demise is heading – and also of the advantages of coproductions.
Co-funded by AMC, which likewise coproduced Channel 4’s Humans, The Night Manager perhaps demonstrates that only international financing can release the creativity for UK drama productions of real scale and ambition.
Former C4 drama commissioning editor Peter Ansorge voiced his frustration last month, commenting on the difference in television drama between here and the US: “You can’t argue against HBO, AMC, Showtime and Scandinavia being the new gold standard in TV drama. Even Germany has got in on the act with Deutschland 83.
“I’d question whether this is the case in the UK. These international shows have one thing in common: they are all original and contemporary works, with challenging things to say about their recent history and their countries’ social and political realities. HBO and AMC dramas challenge US audiences to look at themselves in new, often breathtaking ways.
“In contrast, the UK typically looks back, or towards crime. Downton Abbey tops the ratings on Christmas Day, Agatha Christie is catapulted into the ranks of our greatest novelists, the writing team on EastEnders are suddenly on a par with Dickens, a Tolstoy period adaptation feels like an Austen, writ large.”
If this sounds like a blanket dismissal of UK drama, it’s not – but it’s beginning to look like only international coproduction money and ambition can lift the country’s homegrown drama into binge-worthy series that can play well in the US.
Peaky Blinders has, to an extent, proven that uniquely British subject matter can – given the budget, casting and swagger – translate to overseas markets (admittedly shielded from some of the heat of the ratings war by its presence on BBC2).
BBC1 must surely be hoping this is the case for the upcoming Tom Hardy eight-part miniseries Taboo (from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight) and Steve McQueen’s as-yet untitled drama about the lives of a group of black Britons from 1968 to 2014.
The news that Julie Walters is to star in a TV series based on her role in the surprise BBC Films hit Brooklyn also raises hopes that there will be more ambition for the genre at the corporation than relying on rehashing popular classics.
Peaky Blinders producer Caryn Mandabach explains why she isn’t concerned by the so-called drama glut.
“There aren’t too many novels,” says Caryn Mandabach, the US television producer behind Nurse Jackie and gangster drama Peaky Blinders (pictured above).
She’s responding to a question about whether there’s too much television nowadays, a view expressed by FX Networks chief John Landgraf earlier this summer and one that has played heavily on the minds of broadcasters and creators alike ever since.
In the literary world, the bestsellers stand apart from the rest, and Mandabach views the television industry in the same way.
“I think the cream will rise to the top,” she says. “I’m always interested in stories and storytelling. I love a narrative that’s told through the medium of a character or characters because I relate to human beings, because I am one. I believe in the power of fiction and I think I’m not alone.
“What’s wonderful about Peaky Blinders is it appeals to young and old. Some things are just for the young, some things are just for the oldies, and if you can have something that crosses the border, that thing should go on forever. That has a depth of meaning. If a book, symphony or piece of art appeals to everybody, you’re connecting on a really deep level. Therefore, it’s like a novel.
“Something that’s wildly appealing is never going to out of style. Maybe the niche stuff might go out of fashion but if it’s appealing to a wide demographic, you’re always going to find something to say.”
From her roots in comedy, Mandabach’s television credits include The Cosby Show, Cybill, 3rd Rock from the Sun and That 70’s Show.
She’s since become known for producing Showtime’s dark comedy-drama Nurse Jackie, while BBC2’s Peaky Blinders – an epic gangster drama created by Steven Knight and set in 1920s Birmingham – is in production on its third season.
“I’m a daughter of a gangster from Chicago so the story of family, class and immigration was 100% mythologically accurate,” Mandabach says of Peaky Blinders. “Britain was yet to mythologise working-class people and Steven always says Americans mythologise cowboys and all they really are is guys who herd cows and horses, but we make a big deal of them. Similarly American gangsters.
“It’s not so much about gangster culture as the combination of the immigrant culture, the British class structure that was hard to break through and the inclination to ‘keep it in the family’ because they’re the only people you can trust. Steve appreciated I knew where he was coming from just on a human level.”
Caryn Mandabach Productions has two offices, one in Santa Monica and the other in London, where Mandabach began to spend more time after recognising the production possibilities offered in the UK, such as being able to retain rights over a series you created instead of handing them over to a US studio.
“That’s why I’m in the UK,” she admits. “We develop high-end drama series because I know how to do television series, and I’d be happy to do minis and one-offs. Because I know the rules here, I’m happy to play here. It’s a wonderful industry with lots of wonderful people.”
Mandabach is now developing shows for US cable channels, streaming platforms and broadcasters in the UK, and says she “couldn’t be happier” with the opportunities currently available to produce television.
In October, Caryn Mandabach Productions inked a multi-year deal with MGM Television (Fargo, Vikings) to produce hour-long and half-hour scripted series.
“The indie film industry has fallen away in both the UK and the US and, as a result, high-end extraordinary talent is now coming to TV,” she says. “Steven Knight writes movies and television. It doesn’t matter to him and it doesn’t matter to the actors. It shouldn’t matter to the audience.
“As a community of producers and writers, actors and directors, we don’t care any more. Steve is writing three movies – Peaky Blinders is six hours, that’s three movies for the BBC and for Netflix. That’s the way we treat it. The love and the passion of everyone involved – I haven’t seen the likes of it before.”
Mandabach says she is now working on new shows with writers including Craig Wright (Dirty Sexy Money), Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies) and Michael Thomas (The Devil’s Double), and has three projects at Sky and another with Sony’s international networks. But she admits she doesn’t worry about the competition to get commissions or where viewers might have to go to find her shows.
“It doesn’t matter where they are – people will find you now. You could be anywhere in the world watching Peaky Blinders, and that is a much more interesting game,” she says. “We the consumers don’t need parochial content, we just want great stories well told.”
The undisputed scripted success of 2014 was Empire, a music industry-focused series that gave Fox the US’s highest-rated broadcast drama in seven years.
Starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson, the final episode of season one secured a massive 16.7 million viewers. Among the many landmarks achieved by the series, it delivered the best first-season result of any new series on the ‘big four’ networks since Grey’s Anatomy ended its first season on ABC way back in 2005.
Not surprisingly, Fox was quick to order a second run, which will begin in September. But it is also doing its utmost to tie down the talent that built Empire. In May, it signed an overall deal with Ilene Chaiken, executive producer/showrunner of the series. And this week it set up a similar structure with the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels, which will allow him to develop, write, direct and supervise new television projects under his Lee Daniels Entertainment banner.
Like Chaiken, he will also remain an executive producer on the popular Fox drama.
Commenting on the Daniels deal, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden said: “Lee Daniels has a gift for telling authentic, provocative stories that are both truthful and wildly entertaining. His casting instincts are incredible, whether he is discovering tomorrow’s stars or attracting the most accomplished performers to his projects. As a director, he elevates world-class material to even greater heights, balancing heart-wrenching poignancy with surprising moments of levity. We love working with this inspired storyteller, and this deal is about deepening our relationship.”
Daniels co-created Empire with Danny Strong, with whom he had previously worked on the Oprah Winfrey/Forest Whitaker movie The Butler. Echoing that project, Daniels’ primary responsibility on Empire has been as the show’s director, while Strong has shouldered more of the writing responsibility.
Strong and Chaiken were both credited with four episodes in season one, including the record-breaking finale. They are also down to co-write the first episode of the second season.
Like Chaiken and Daniels, Strong is in demand at the moment. Since winning a Primetime Emmy in 2012 for the HBO TV movie Game Change, he has written The Butler, Empire, and the final two movies in The Hunger Games franchise (Mockingjay parts 1 and 2).
And despite his commitments to Empire season two, he has also found time to write the script for a new movie adaptation of Guys and Dolls. It’s also worth noting that Strong has a pretty impressive list of acting credits, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men.
While Strong is likely to be busy with Empire for the foreseeable future, it will be interesting to see if the Daniels deal with Fox sees the two of them team up on a new project.
Elsewhere, Tuesday night saw CBS launch Zoo, a 13-part series that imagines a world in which animals start attacking humans. The show, based on a sci-fi thriller by novelists James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, was also picked up this week by Sky1 in the UK.
Other broadcasters to acquire the series include Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1 Group, TF1 in France, CTV in Canada, Italy’s RAI, Mediaset España, Network Ten in Australia, M-Net across Africa, Yes in Israel, AXN India, FX Turkey, DR3 in Denmark, TV2 Norway, nc+ Poland and MTV in Finland.
Patterson’s novels have been adapted for the screen before, most recently in the shape of the Alex Cross movies. However, the last time his books formed the basis of a full-blown series was when ABC adapted Women’s Murder Club in 2007. The show only ran for one season before it was cancelled.
Conscious, perhaps, that the US is a cutthroat market, Patterson has been exploring whether his works might be suited to adaptations in other territories. For example, he co-wrote a book called The Postcard Killers with Swedish writer Liza Marklund. With Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon already a TV hit in Sweden, that might open the door for Postcard Killers to crack the Nordics.
The last few months have seen a number of other book-based projects bubble to the surface of the TV pile, including works by Philip K Dick, Len Deighton, Neil Gaiman, Gerald Durrell and Winston Graham.
Also in the headlines this week is Kelley Armstrong, whose Women of the Otherworld novels gave birth to hit TV series Bitten, which airs on Space in Canada and Syfy in the US. This week it was revealed that Syfy has picked up the series for a third season.
Chris Regina, senior VP of programme strategy at Syfy and Chiller, said: “Bitten’s emotional and engrossing storyline, combined with some truly creepy horror moments, really resonates with fans.”
The main writer on the show is Daegan Fryklind, who also serves as showrunner. Fryklind’s efforts are supported by Wil Zmak, Larry Bambrick, Jenn Engels and Garfield Lindsay Miller. Fryklind recently gave a very insightful interview in which she outlined some of the challenges of adapting a popular book to TV. These include everything from casting choices and production restraints through to decisions about diverging from source material.
“We killed a character who does not die in the books in order to create more story and growth for (another character),” she says of Bitten. “That was a bold choice, and Kelley took the heat for that.”
Another interesting piece of writer insight can be found this week at deadline.com, where Steven Knight, creator of hugely impressive gangland drama Peaky Blinders, gave an update on progress of season three – which is expected in early 2016.
Speaking last week, Knight said he was “sitting in front of it right this second, the scripts. I’m finishing the last episode. We start shooting September 10 in Birmingham and in the North (of England), but as much as possible in Birmingham.”
Peaky Blinders, the Steven Knight-scripted period crime drama, has had one of the best critical receptions of UK drama in recent years, also winning the Editor’s Choice award at the inaugural C21 International Drama Awards in November 2014. But what exactly does it take to create, and sustain, such a beautifully crafted drama? DQ talks to some of the key players behind the production.
Viewers of last November’s climactic season two finale of Peaky Blinders on BBC2 were treated – and boy was it a treat – to an hour-long illustration of just why the UK period crime drama has become one of the best-received UK series of recent years, and what The Guardian has called “Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire.”
The sixth and final episode of the drama’s second season saw its protagonist, 1920s Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy), faced with near-impossible decisions across his business, family and love life. A finale played out at the Epsom racecourse brought the show’s dramatic tension – love and hate, law and crime, loyalty and honour, right and wrong and, of course, life and death – to a brutal climax.
The derby day denouement of Peaky’s many tense arcs was, above all, the handiwork of its writer, Steven Knight. With screenplays Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises to his name, Knight was already a drama giant. But he’s perhaps less known for being the UK creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – an experience that no doubt honed his faculties for high drama.
For Peaky Blinders, Knight turned his attention to post-WWI Birmingham and the historical ‘Peaky Blinders’ street gang, so named for sewing razorblades into the peaks of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons.
Peaky Blinders was created by Knight and coproduced by Caryn Mandabach and Tiger Aspect. Jamie Glazebrook, an executive producer working for Mandabach, says the show’s genesis was almost incidental.
“Five or six years ago we had a great meeting with Steve about a different project. He called a few weeks later to say he had an idea for something else – and told us about Peaky Blinders. We loved it straight away.”
Mandabach had built an enviable reputation in the US for groundbreaking comedy hits including The Cosby Show, Roseanne and latterly Nurse Jackie. The move to a dark UK drama like Peaky took Mandabach Productions outside of its sweet spot, and it needed a partner.
“Our background is in family comedies, but we wanted to cut our teeth on a big period drama with horses and guns and a cast of thousands,” Glazebrook recalls. “Very early on it seemed the best thing for the show was to hook up with Tiger Aspect. We have been proved right: they have been geniuses at taking a relatively small budget and making it look like something that could absolutely compete with US cable.
Frith Tiplady, executive producer and head of production at Tiger Aspect, explains: “Caryn Mandabach had the relationship with Steve Knight and got the commission. The BBC asked them to partner up with a UK production house. I like to think that Mandabach came to us because of our production expertise in delivering quality on screen – interpreting the writing to deliver the best show.
“We are definitely clear on our roles and really respect what the other brings to the party. I am sure Caryn agrees. Together we have made something really special. I think it’s been a brilliant partnership.”
Knight’s scripts define Peaky. “We are here because of Steve’s words,” says Glazebrook. Tiplady concurs: “We really see our job as being like the LAPD – to protect and serve. The strength is in working with Steve, realising his vision and protecting him as the writer.”
The show’s gothic texture is grounded by a deliberately cinematic look and feel rooted in the grime of 1920s post-war industrial Birmingham, which also has more than a nod towards Sergio Leone and Ridley Scott. That production design is led by TV period veteran Grant Montgomery.
“When I first read the first script I wanted to be part of it,” says Montgomery. “Giving it a very cinematic look from the get-go helps give it integrity,” he adds. “It goes for very much a cinematic quality of storytelling. That comes really from Steven’s scripts. When you read those, you think you have got to bring everything – cinematography, prod – so of course it becomes even more high end.
“It is also then moving from Birmingham to London – from industrial second city to first city – and you have to bring all of that to the table. So the journey has to become very clear visually.”
History and a rooting in actual events is one of the things that grounds the show. So how important was this in Montgomery’s work? “Initially the industrial world was dark black and the houses were black, so it was very important for me to get that right,” he says. “And the minute detail – if you notice in season one they are all using oil lamps, and then when they go to season two they have electricity and wealth – all those details that show the changing of the period and of their status.”
Of similar importance, says Montgomery, was the use of exteriors to take viewers out of the present and give a sense of reality in the past. The challenge of creating that experience was “huge, because you don’t have an art department budget. There isn’t a Hollywood budget to build a street,” he explains. “It takes a lot of money to do that and we don’t have it, so to try to convert locations and make them as big as possible was the ambition of the show right from the start.
“Every exterior was really hard fought for, with us thinking about how we were going to do it. Maybe we would only shoot half of a street. For example, in season one you had the whole street, while this year we only had half of it – but being sneaky with our angles made it seem like more than it was.”
Peaky is reported to have cost £1m an episode to make, but in fact that figure is an underestimate. “It was about £1.3m, £1.4m and probably season two was more like £1.4m, £1.5m,” Tiplady reveals. “But that’s not surprising. It’s exactly what a big period drama costs.”
So how did the funding come together for the show? “For series one we needed more money than is traditional in UK television,” she says. “The BBC supported it through the licence fee, and we had huge help from Endemol Worldwide Distribution, which placed a very good advance. EWD and Screen Yorkshire brought in match-funding, which together was almost a third of the budget.
“What’s interesting is that series one was done before the government’s tax break and series two was done after the tax break, so they have different funding models. The change went hand in hand with the creative ambition for series two, which was so much bigger that we needed more money.
“The difference between season one and season two is probably about £250,000 an episode. So it’s a huge amount of money, and the tax break went into a huge hole. It enabled us to deliver our vision. Without it we would have had to curtail Steve’s ambition, which is something we don’t want to do.
Tiplady says the real investment was that “we were in there for the long haul. It wasn’t about series one – for us it was always about getting series two, getting series three. Steve wanted to write a saga, and if you get into bed with that kind of extraordinary writing, they you need to have faith that you can deliver quality and potential for going forwards.”
Of course, the success of Peaky Blinders lies not just in its script, nor its look. The stellar performances of lead actors Murphy and Sam Neill, joined by Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor in season two, are also a big part of the show’s success.
For Tiplady, the production has been dependent on the goodwill of the lead performers. “We operate with no options for them so there is a definite love for the project,” she says. “We are punching above our weight.”
A haunting goth-punk soundtrack, curated by singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and Paul Hartnoll of electronic dance duo Orbital, lends a dark and unsettling texture to the show from the off. Not least with their choice of Nick Cave’s vengeful anthem Red Right Hand as Peaky’s theme tune. The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash add to the dark-days soundtrack.
Tiplady says the show’s strong emphasis on pre-recorded artists presented its own challenges, not least because of the way the music industry itself is funded: “Music is extraordinarily expensive, very confusing and very complicated. I do think royalty-wise it needs a massive overhaul. The costs are such an important part of the process, but economics often force you down the composer route.
“When you are trying to do something creatively different like we are doing in Peaky, the only way we can do it is to get those artists involved at the production stage, which is fantastic and has worked extremely well – but that is very unusual and very hard.
“The music industry is finding other ways to explore things creatively. If the rights could actually shake up and release us then potentially we could see more shows like Peaky just being really rewarding for everybody. But I think the setup is so antiquated and I am not quite sure who it is looking after at the moment.”
With season three now confirmed (the producers announced it via Twitter in November), what are the challenges ahead? Glazebrook says: “I think we have a little bit more time. We were very tight in series two and, to an extent, Colm McCarthy was already directing when the final episode came in. So we were flying blind. Everyone who has seen that final episode will see it was pretty much all in new locations. That was hard, so we don’t want to put our director through it again.”
“We are going to have slightly longer to actually produce the show, so in essence that makes things 100 times more easy,” says Tiplady. “The driving force with Peaky is to keep pushing quality high and deliver an extraordinary viewing experience to the audience. Maintaining that is crucial to all of us, so that will be the challenge.”