Tag Archives: Peter Bowker

A-nother Word

Howard Burch, creative director of scripted at prodco Keshet UK, looks at the challenge of repeating the success of hit drama The A Word with its forthcoming second season and discusses the development process behind the follow-up.

The first series of The A Word was a standout success, attracting a consolidated average audience of 5.5 million and a 22% share on BBC1 in 2016. It also aired on SundanceTV in the US, which is also the US broadcaster for season two.

What can one hope for with a second season of a successful show? That it expands on the original? That it whets the audience’s appetite for more? Maybe even that it is better than the first? Or simply that it doesn’t disappoint a loyal audience eager for more?

Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, and based on an original Israeli series by Keren Margalit called Yellow Peppers, The A Word is about a messy extended family living in the Lake District, whose youngest son, Joe, just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.

The A Word centres on an autistic boy Joe (Max Vento) and his family

But in writer Peter Bowker’s assured hands, the drama is never issue-led or ‘about’ autism. Audiences flocked to it because it was warm, accessible and light-hearted – and with a great soundtrack to boot!

The second season, coming to BBC1 and SundanceTV this autumn, picks up on events two years on – and Joe, played by Max Vento, is changing. Now seven years old, he has begun to look at the world and finds that he doesn’t fit in. It revisits the funny, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents, carers and lovers… and to work out what’s really important in the face of nothing ever feeling normal.

Bowker explains: “‘Autistic’ is a word Joe has heard but can’t yet understand. ‘Different’ is what he feels, and fears it might be something bad. It’s up to the whole family to help Joe make sense of who he is and his place in the world. But to do that, they must first be honest about themselves.”

The team, including executive producers Patrick Spence, Marcus Wilson and producer Jenny Frayn, again consulted with various bodies such as the National Autism Society and Anna Kennedy Online to make sure the scripts feel authentic. But the series has never tried to be reflective of every experience of autism in the family. It tells the story of every family through the prism of one family struggling to come to terms with their son’s unexpected diagnosis.

Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie play Joe’s parents

“Peter Bowker has extensive experience of working with families with children with autism and was able to draw on this wealth of knowledge to create a detailed and truthful portrait of a family with a child with autism at its heart,” says producer Frayn. “As well as drawing on Peter’s experience, we also spoke to a number of organisations involved in autism, as well as parents of children with autism. We kept in touch with them after the first series aired and we were pleased by the support we received and the largely very positive feedback.”

For the first season, we filmed in Manchester and the Lake District, just as Storm Desmond brought record rainfall to the North West. For the second season, we were blessed with calmer conditions, partly because filming was pushed back to the spring and summer of 2017. “Although, the weather in the Lake District doesn’t follow the typical laws of the seasons,” notes Frayn. “We started filming in March with snow on the hilltops, and in June we faced torrential rain and high winds.

“We tried to film a fell-running festival with outdoor stalls, people in skimpy running gear and young children licking ice-creams as tents were being blown away and rain lashed the bouncy castle. The cast and crew were all real troopers about coping with the weather, but in the end we had to come back on a sunnier day and stage the fell-running festival all over again. It looked glorious.”

One of the ingredients new to this season is an even greater verisimilitude. “A brilliant illustration of this,” says Wilson, “was the sequence in the special school. We took Max and his on-screen parents Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby into a real special-school classroom to film Joe’s first day because we wanted to portray an authentic environment.

The series also features former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston

“Producer Jenny and location manager Gary Barnes liaised in detail to work out exactly how this could be achieved by integrating a small documentary-style crew into the classroom and letting real-life action unfold around our characters. We had to make sure we were incredibly sensitive to the needs of the class and teachers, making sure they were comfortable with the equipment and that lighting and sound and all the usual noises of a set were attuned to what the class could cope with.

“Director Sue Tully managed the set beautifully, whispering directions and capturing genuine moments. To ensure the families felt comfortable with what was shot, Jenny [showed footage] to parents and teachers and discussed what we were trying to achieve and whether they were confident about what was seen in each shot.”

The show has sold around the globe, via our distribution arm Keshet International, to countries including Canada, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea, as well as a second-window VoD rights deal to Amazon Prime Video in the US. The series is proving over and over again how relatable and important it is, perhaps because it just really resonates with people – we all have a family, and families all have challenges to overcome. So it’s with comfort and pride that we envisage more viewers around the world watching something so worthwhile.

Hopefully viewers will find this season an even deeper and more rewarding experience than the first. As with any returning series, the writers and creators know the actors they are writing for and can play to their strengths. But, crucially, both cast and crew have spent longer in each other’s company, and that feeling of being one big, unconventional and sometimes fractious but mostly harmonious family filters through in every scene.

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Writing shows with mass audience appeal

Peter Lenkov
Peter Lenkov

In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.

A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.

The first episode of CBS's Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers
The first episode of CBS’s Macgyver reboot picked up almost 11 million viewers

With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.

Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.

Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.

James Nesbitt in The Secret
James Nesbitt in The Secret

Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.

Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.

The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.

Walcyr Carrasco
Walcyr Carrasco

Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.

This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.

Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.

Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.

Frog Stone
Frog Stone

“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.

At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.

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The A Word

The A Word is a six-part drama that tells the story of a family struggling to come to terms with their youngest son’s autism diagnosis. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it is coproduced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK for BBC1, and has also been acquired by SundanceTV in the US. Both the original and the adaptation are distributed by Keshet International. Here, writer Peter Bowker and director Peter Cattaneo describe their favourite scenes from the opening episode.

Aword1

Aword2

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Bringing its A game: BBC1 tackles autism in The A Word

A family struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism in BBC1 drama The A Word – the latest international drama to be inspired by a hit Israeli series.

Israeli dramas have inspired a host of successful international remakes, most notably In Treatment and Homeland – based on Be Tipul and Hatufim (Prisoners of War) respectively.

Now comes The A Word, a BBC1 series that finds its origins in Yellow Peppers and tells the story of a family that struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism.

The cast is led by Christopher Eccleston, Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby and also includes Greg McHugh and Vinette Robinson. The series also introduces six-year-old newcomer Max Vento as Joe, whose diagnosis with autism proves to be the catalyst for an emotional, thought-provoking and often funny family drama penned by Peter Bowker (Marvellous, Capital).

From Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word is executive produced by Bowker, Patrick Spence, Jenny Frayn, Sara Johnson, Avi Nir, Lucy Richer and Yellow Peppers creator Keren Margalit. Keshet International distributes both the original series and the BBC version.

The A Word has been adapted from Keshet's Yellow Peppers
The A Word has been adapted from Keshet’s Yellow Peppers

Having worked as a teacher of children with learning disabilities for 14 years and known for putting social issues at the heart of his writing, Bowker had been interested in writing about autism when Johnson approached him with a proposal to adapt Yellow Peppers.

“I went in to see Keshet worried they just wanted me to transcribe it (into English) and the first thing they said was they didn’t want a cover version, they wanted something brand new,” Bowker says.

“I always want to write about how families see themselves, how the myth of the perfect family pervades our culture and puts great pressure on people to appear that way. A lot of my writing is about people who are, for other reasons, unable to express the most profound emotions. That for me is what’s interesting in drama, when you are not articulate enough to express that.

“It’s already in the ballpark of what I like to write about, but what I wanted to do here was take a family that, on the surface, is aspirational, fairly comfortably well-off, smart, funny and articulate but that still can’t talk about this stuff.”

The series opens with young Joe, played by Vento, walking alone through the scenic Lake District carrying nothing but a pinwheel spinning in the wind (pictured top), his headphones blasting the Arctic Monkeys. Later it becomes clear there’s something more to his love of music than is first apparent, while he also becomes the subject of arguments between his family, leading to his diagnosis.

The show follows the impact on his family of a young boy's autism diagnosis
The show follows the impact on his family of a young boy’s autism diagnosis

Bowker purposefully keeps Joe’s diagnosis hidden from viewers at the start, preferring instead to initially present him as a young boy who simply doesn’t quite fit in.

“I wanted to write about hidden disability, hidden difference,” the writer explains. “I felt if you had a child pretending to be a child with severe autism, it would be both unwatchable and exploitative. I wanted to get under the bells and whistles of visible disability and look at what happens when there are a number of behaviours that don’t quite fit.”

Another key character in the drama is the setting – the Lake District in North West England provides a picturesque backdrop to The A Word, which takes in a number of outside scenes and even sees some characters running through the hills.

“I chose the Lakes very early because in the original, they’re living on the edge of a desert,” Bowker says. “I chose somewhere where it looks like you’re raising a child in paradise until the problems for the child arise, in which case how do you access resources? And the Lake District is both pretty and threatening so suddenly you start to see the landscape in a completely different way.”

Behind the scenes, Bowker enjoyed collaborating with lead director Peter Cattaneo (Rev), who helms the first three episodes in the six-part series.

While he has no aspirations to get behind the camera – “People ask me if I want to direct and I don’t” – he says Cattaneo immediately understood the style and tone of The A Word that he had written into his scripts, all played out to a pulsating indie soundtrack.

The UK version has been written by Peter Bowker
The UK version has been written by Peter Bowker

“I loved Rev. It was brilliant in so many ways but, particularly, I’m an atheist and yet he made me care about faith – and I wanted a director who could make this special to someone who had had nothing like these kinds of experiences,” Bowker says. “It’s no use to me if just parents of children with autism watch it. It’s preaching to the converted anyway. It needs to be more universal than that.”

Working on The A Word, Cattaneo enjoyed finding a similar balance between comedy and pathos that he employs in Rev. Visually, he also makes the most of the sweeping vistas offered by the Lake District setting in which the action plays out.

“It’s like life,” he explains. “Life is about laughter and tears and it was about trying to not go too maudlin with the sad stuff but ensure it was poignant, and not to go too gaggy with the comedy but hopefully to make deft moves from one to the other. For this, authenticity felt key.

“Pete was brilliant. He let me get on with it but it was great to have someone to turn to as a collaborator. He let me direct and we’d talk about my notes here and there to open it out visually. He was very respectful.”

Bowker is already thinking of a second season of The A Word – and beyond: “My ambition for this is to ‘do a Boyhood’ (Richard Linklater’s acclaimed film tracking 12 years of a boy’s life) and watch him grow up, because the challenges change over time and I’d love to follow a family for that length of time.”

Until then, he’s concentrating on an epic Second World War drama called World on Fire, produced for the BBC by Mammoth Screen. He also has aspirations to work with producer Julian Farino on a “gritty but sweet” series based on the real-life story of a group of Syrian refugees who are rehomed on the Scottish island of Bute.

“Perhaps not for new writers, but for established writers, it feels like a great era of television,” he adds, citing Russell T Davies (Cucumber), Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Andrew Davies (War & Peace) as scribes at the top of their game. “The ambition and the understanding that an audience doesn’t have to be spoon-fed is incredibly encouraging.”

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