Tag Archives: Peaky Blinders

Bigger, badder, bolder

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.

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.

Oscar winner Adrien Brody is among the additions to Peaky Blinders’ S4 cast

“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.

Cillian Murphy continues to lead the ensemble as Tommy Shelby

“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.”

Tom Hardy is back as Alfie Solomons

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.”

Helen McCrory in season four of the gangster drama, which launches tomorrow

Speaking to DQ ahead of the season three premiere in May 2016, Knight admitted his first love would always be film. But have those feelings since changed, with the continued success of Peaky and another project, Taboo, heading into a second season?

“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.”

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Passion pitfalls: The risky business of passion projects

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.

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

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
Aidan Turner in Poldark, which is written by Debbie Horsfield

“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 was best known for his film work before taking on Peaky Blinders
Steven Knight was best known for his film work before taking on Peaky Blinders

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.

Hugh Laurie (right) tried to buy the rights to The Night Manager years before it came to TV
Hugh Laurie (right) tried to buy the rights to The Night Manager years before it came to TV

“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.

Vinyl was cancelled after one season
Vinyl was cancelled after one season

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
The Collection was a labour of love for Oliver Goldstick

“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.”

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Nielsen peels away Orange audience mystery

Orange is the New Black
Nielsen research suggests Orange is the New Black is a massive hit in terms of viewing figures

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.

Preacher's second season will comprise 13 episodes
Preacher’s second season will comprise 13 episodes

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.

12 Monkeys
12 Monkeys is heading for a third run on Syfy despite modest viewing figures

“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.

BBC Worldwide has sold The Durrells across the globe
BBC Worldwide has sold family drama The Durrells across the globe

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.

The Girlfriend Experience is likely too sexual for some viewers
Starz series The Girlfriend Experience is likely too sexual for some viewers

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.

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BBC’s blind faith in Knight

Peaky Blinders will have at least two more seasons
Peaky Blinders will have at least two more seasons

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.

The Americans will conclude with season six
The Americans will conclude with season six

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.

AMC's Preacher has opened strongly
AMC’s Preacher has opened strongly

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.”

Rush Hour has been canned
Rush Hour has been canned

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.

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Playing a Blinder

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.

Steven Knight
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?”

Peaky Blinders stars Cillian Murphy, who is now also an executive producer on the series
Peaky Blinders stars Cillian Murphy, who is now also an executive producer on the series

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.”

The stellar cast includes Helen McCrory
The stellar cast includes Helen McCrory

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.

The third run follows the Shelby brothers' criminal organisation in 1924
The third run follows the Shelby brothers’ criminal organisation in 1924

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.”

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Mercurio’s Duty calls for viewers

Line of Duty has added viewers each season
Line of Duty has added viewers each season

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.

Critical
Mercurio created Critical for Sky1

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.

Liam Neeson starred in the Taken movie franchise
Liam Neeson starred in the Taken movie franchise

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.

The Good Wife is coming to an end in the US
The Good Wife is coming to an end in the US

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.

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Everything old is new again

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.

ITV's Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire
ITV’s Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire

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.

Julian Fellowes' new ITV series Doctor Thorne
Julian Fellowes’ new ITV series Doctor Thorne

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.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?

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.

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Drama at its peak: Caryn Mandabach on the state of the industry

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.

Mandabach: 'We the consumers don’t need parochial content, we just want great stories well told'
Caryn Mandabach: ‘We the consumers don’t need parochial content, we just want great stories well told’

“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.

Nurse Jackie
Showtime drama Nurse Jackie

“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.”

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Fox consolidates Empire

Empire delivered the best first-season result of any new series on the ‘big four’ networks in 10 years
Empire delivered the best first-season result of any new series on the ‘big four’ networks in 10 years

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.”

Writer and actor Danny Strong co-created Empire
Writer and actor Danny Strong co-created Empire

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.

Zoo, based on a sci-fi thriller novel
Zoo, based on a sci-fi thriller novel

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.

Bitten will return for a third season
Bitten will return for a third season
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.

Daegan Fryklind: taking 'bold choices' with Bitten
Daegan Fryklind: taking ‘bold choices’ with Bitten
“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.”

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Inside Steven Knight’s critically acclaimed period drama Peaky Blinders

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.

Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy, left) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson)
Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy, left) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson)

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.

Frith Tiplady
Frith Tiplady

“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.”

Jamie Glazebrook
Jamie Glazebrook

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.”

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