Tag Archives: Peter Straughan

Built to Last: Bonafide Films MD Margery Bone

Bonafide Films is set to break out with a wartime period drama penned by Peter Moffat. MD Margery Bone tells Michael Pickard why The Last Post is just the beginning.

From grenade attacks and roadside bombs to conflict and terrorism, The Last Post could be a study of soldiering set against today’s political landscape.

Instead, the eight-part series’ focus falls on Aden, 1965, at the end of the British Empire as writer Peter Moffat recalls his childhood memories to tell the story of a British army unit fighting insurgency in the Middle East and the women and children who were there with them.

Exploring his father’s life as an officer in the Royal Military Police and his mother’s struggle between being what the army required and what she felt like, Moffat also draws upon the pressures and excitement of being married to someone in the army at a moment when sex and feminism also begin to emerge in the 20th century.

Peter Moffat
Peter Moffat is drawing on his own childhood memories for The Last Post

The story will also follow the regiment over several key strategic postings over that period – from Aden to Hong Kong to Cold War Germany in the early 1970s, and then to Belfast during the Troubles in the mid-1970s.

The forthcoming BBC1 series is produced by Bonafide Films and The Forge Entertainment, and is due to air in spring 2017. A director is currently being sought ahead of filming, which is due to begin in September this year.

For Bonafide MD Margery Bone (pictured top), the show emerged from a desire to create a series about the British army. Moffat was approached about the idea of doing a contemporary drama, before he suggested writing about his own mother and father and setting it during the 1960s.

“It has huge parallels with today and it was a hugely dramatic opportunity for us,” says Bone, who exec produces the project. “So there was the historical aspect. (Aden) was also a place that was dangerous, hot and quite glamorous. (Moffat) remembers being a small child and his mum going to the officer’s mess with officers in their uniforms. We felt there was a real Mad Men-romantica element to it, which was interesting as well.

“It’s a story about being married to the army as well as being in the army. That unique way in – looking at it from the point of view of families, as well as from the soldiers’ experience – gave it an interesting dual perspective.”

The sense of family, both among the soldiers and for their loved ones, is a strong theme that will run through the heart of The Last Post, offering viewers an entry point beyond the wartime setting and exotic location.

“Family is how we live, who we care about and is fundamental to the human experience,” Bone says. “It feels at the heart of everything. It’s also a way of making something inaccessible accessible. Even if the circumstances of being at war in a foreign country or travelling backwards in time are alien, you’ve got this unique access through family. It’s about those you love and that shared experience makes it eminently relatable. It’s quite hard to be drawn into drama that you don’t care about.”

Talking to the Dead
Bonafide’s Talking to the Dead aired on Sky Living

The Last Post looks set to be Bonafide’s breakout series on the back of 2013’s Talking to the Dead, a two-part crime drama for Sky Living.

The company was founded in Newcastle before opening a London office in 2010, and has also produced comedy Undercover for UKTV’s Dave and one-off Nosferatu in Love for Sky Arts.

“Drama feels like it’s king at the moment,” says Bone. “There’s more and more competition, not just in terms of the amount of companies out there but equally in terms of slots out there and competing for audiences. The challenge today is how to reach those audiences, and a mainstream slot on BBC1 is a great launch pad.”

At the heart of Bonafide is a desire to be writer-led and to support stories that will hook audiences in with a strong authorial voice, particularly from new talent.

“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” says Bone of supporting fresh writing talent, “but I think we have noticed, like everybody has, that it feels more like a closed shop (to new writers) than ever.

“We have always talked to new writers. Agents know we’re somewhere they can go with new writers. We’re working with spoken-word poet Sabrina Mahfouz and have some ideas in development with her for her first drama. But it’s also about being more proactive, and that’s a bit harder for a small company in terms of our time because we don’t have much infrastructure to do it. But we certainly try.

Nosferatu in Love
Mark Strong starred in Bonafide’s Nosferatu in Love

“There are some amazing places for new writing to start out, including live theatre, which is how I met Peter Straughan (who wrote Nosferatu in Love). But there are fewer opportunities for writers coming out of there, and that’s something I’d like to do more about. The ideal for me is if we could find a show like Lime Pictures has done with Channel 4 teen soap Hollyoaks as a way of bringing new writers in – to shadow, to be mentored and to start writing on a show. Company Pictures did that with Skins quite a lot as well.”

As the start date of production for The Last Post looms into view, Bonafide is also building a strong development pipeline. Two series are in development at Channel 4, one from writers Straughan and Mark McClaren and the other from Ben Hervey.

Bonafide is also building a slate of adaptations. It has optioned a series of UK-set crime novels by author Michael Robotham, featuring criminal psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. They will be adapted by Pete McTighe, who has worked on ABC Australia’s prison drama Wentworth.

It has also secured the rights to JG Ballard’s Super-Cannes, a mystery about a couple who go to work at an ultra-modern business park in the south of France but discover a subculture of crime that is spiralling out of control. Saul Dibb has been tapped to direct the series, written by DC Moore for an as-yet-unnamed broadcaster.

On the appeal of Super-Cannes, Bone says: “Ballard saw the future in so many ways, and in this story your work environment provides everything for you. You almost don’t have to leave the place. Ballard’s exploring that in a way that also asks what that does to us as people and what the darker side is.

“In Super-Cannes you have the wealthy 1% behind these walls and it’s incredibly topical for today as, at the other end of the scale, refugees are being washed up on the shores and having no foothold in society. Those themes, which we’re all facing, are huge parts of the book so we felt it was very timely to adapt it.”

Peter Straughan
Peter Straughan

The setting will also provide Bonafide with a chance to explore a UK-France coproduction model that has been successful with shows such as The Tunnel and The Last Panthers, both jointly commissioned by Sky Atlantic and Canal+.

“We’re having a couple of conversations with broadcasters and there seems a lot of interest in it,” Bone adds. “It’s that challenge of finding ideas that work internationally that don’t feel like Euro puddings. We are an international society, more so than ever, and those stories are there to be told.”

To fuel this growing slate, Bone says Bonafide is looking to “scale up” to cope with increasing production demands – but not to the detriment of its relationships with writers.

“We would certainly be able to do more than one show but we don’t want to grow too big,” she explains. “We just want to be able to manage the shows we’ve got but always be looking out for the next development. However, we wouldn’t want to get to a point where we weren’t having direct contact with our writers. That’s in our DNA.”

Bonafide’s growth is evident in its development deal with German distributor ZDF Enterprises, through which Bone hopes to forge closer ties with broadcasters, producers and talent – both on screen and off – in Europe.

“There are also remake opportunities and the chance to have lots of introductions to European talents who want to work in the English language through ZDFE, which we felt was something they were keen to offer us and that felt a bit different,” she adds.

Bone returns to the subject of new talent when describing the obstacles she sees in the television industry.

“One of the challenges bringing new talent through,” she says. “There’s lots of brilliant stuff getting made but it feels likes there’s only a core of writers who are good enough. How do you get to that point where you can get commissioned for a major piece? That’s the main challenge. The bar is set so high, you’ve got US writers coming to the UK; Hollywood is calling our writers. For you to get those slots, it’s got to be a really strong proposition.”

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Golden Globes makes bold TV selections

Mozart in the Jungle's writing team features a range of scribes from very different backgrounds
Mozart in the Jungle’s writing team features a range of scribes from very different backgrounds

I’m not sure if bookmakers take bets on the Golden Globes. But if they do, they would have offered a long price on Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall winning the three TV drama categories.

That a cable series about hackers, an obscure Amazon original about classical musicians and a British series about Thomas Cromwell could come out on top is testament to the significant changes that are currently taking place in scripted television.

Mozart in the Jungle, which won Best Series – Music or Comedy, is perhaps the most surprising choice, particularly as it came out ahead of its much-praised Amazon stablemate Transparent. A quirky story of professional musicians working the New York concert circuit, Mozart is based on the memoir of an oboist called Blair Tindall.

It was brought to the screen by a company called Picrow, with the pilot episode written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. Once the show was commissioned as a 10-part series, a further eight people were credited with either writing scripts or providing stories. The most prominent names among these were John Strauss and Paul Weitz, the latter also directing a number of first season episodes.

Season two, which was released on December 30, 2015, involved some of the same writers but there were also five new additions – giving the show an ensemble feel both on and off the screen.

Jason Schwartzman has a writing credit on three episodes of Mozart in the Jungle
Jason Schwartzman has a writing credit on three episodes of Mozart in the Jungle
Among the key names, one of the best known is Roman Coppola – partly because of his famous father Francis Ford Coppola. However, Roman, like sister Sofia, has proved himself a genuine talent in his own right. In 2007, he co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited with Wes Anderson and Schwartzman and then, in 2012, he co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom with Anderson (securing an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay).

Mozart in the Jungle collaborator Schwartzman, still only 35, is better known as an actor than a writer, having appeared in a string of excellent, usually quirky, films dating back to Rushmore in 1998. He has since featured in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is now a member of the Mozart cast. Aside from his involvement with The Darjeeling Limited, his only writing credits to date are the three episodes of Mozart that he has so far co-written with Coppola and/or Alex Timbers.

Timbers, who has written or co-written four episodes of Mozart, is a Yale graduate whose career to date has mostly involved writing and directing for Broadway. Twice Tony-nominated, his directing credits include Rocky The Musical and Peter & The Starcatcher.

The appropriately named John Strauss wrote three episodes of Mozart season one and is much more of a jobbing writer than the three who produced the pilot. Major credits go all the way back to TV series Boy Meets World in 1994, followed by movies such as There’s Something About Mary and The Santa Clause 2 and 3.

Weitz, writer and director on Mozart, is arguably the most feted of all the creatives behind the show. An experienced producer, director and writer, his many credits include American Pie (director), About a Boy (writer/director), Little Fockers (director), and Off Centre – a 2001 sitcom for The WB network about a couple of young guys having a crazy time in New York.

Sam Esmail's Mr Robot has been given a second season
Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot has been given a second season on USA Network
Once you see the array of different talents involved in Mozart in the Jungle, you begin to get some sense of why it has been so successful. The above five bring film and TV experience, an array of skillsets and a deep love of New York to the table. That the series was ordered by Amazon just goes to show how much viewers are benefiting from the current SVoD revolution.

Mr Robot, a Universal Cable Productions show for USA Network, beat Narcos, Game of Thrones, Empire and Outlander to win the Best Television Series – Drama category, which is an extraordinary achievement.

There were six credited writers on the 10-part first season. But unlike Mozart in the Jungle, it’s clear who Mr Robot’s driving force is, with Sam Esmail writing five episodes including the story setup and the conclusion. He also directed three. Esmail, 38, had limited success before Mr Robot, which he originally conceived as a movie – but that has now changed.

Aside from his Golden Globe success, he was a winner at the 2015 American Film Institute Awards and is also nominated for the 2016 Writers Guild Awards.

USA Network has ordered a second season of Mr Robot, which Esmail will direct in its entirety, while Universal Cable Productions has given the writer a seven-figure TV deal under which he will write other series for NBCUniversal’s family of networks.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall won Best TV Limited Series
“Sam is a visionary and, although he might not use the term himself, a real mensch,” said Jeff Wachtel, CCO of NBCUniversal cable entertainment and president of Universal Cable Productions when announcing the deal. “Everything about Mr Robot has been a dream. We look forward to creating other shows with him.”

And then there is Wolf Hall, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s novel by Peter Straughan, which took home Best TV Limited Series at the Globes.

Before Wolf Hall, Straughan was best known as a movie writer, with credits including the superb Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (written with his late wife Bridget O’ Connor). Wolf Hall is his first major TV work but it’s unlikely to be his last if he can fit it in around his movie work. The latest reports suggest he is working on an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning novel The Goldfinch for Warner Bros.

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Leader of the pack

BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall delivered the channel its best ratings for a drama series in more than a decade and won fawning praise across the board. DQ caught up with the creative talent behind the camera.

Distilling more than a thousand pages of Booker Prize-winning prose into six hours of television is no mean feat. Trying to condense the reasons behind the success of the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is rather easier: outstanding source material; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a multitudinously decorated director; a world-class cast; and an executive producer who ran HBO Films for almost a decade – a role for which he received recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

There are other factors: its “sumptuous settings and jaw-dropping attention to detail,” to quote The Daily Mail, a normally staunch anti-BBC tabloid whose review wondered if the series, which combines both books, might be “the greatest period drama ever.”

Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII
Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII

For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are the first two novels in Mantel’s intended trilogy (the third, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to publish) telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as the right hand to Henry VIII through the first half of the 16th century.

Wolf Hall was the first book to which Colin Callender optioned rights when he set up Playground Entertainment after leaving HBO in 2008. Inevitably, there was plenty of competition but Callender was able to win the author over.

“I spent a lot of time with Hilary talking about how it could be adapted for the screen,” he recalls. “She had taken the form of the historical novel and really shaken it up and I thought there was an opportunity to do the same in television – to create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience.”

Peter Straughan, best known for movie adaptations including How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as scribe but only after he was told the project was set for television.

“When I first got sent the book, I thought it was being suggested as a film and I was going to say no,” he reveals. “It does sometimes happen that you get a book which is simply too large a canvas to fit into a film-sized pot. But when they told me it was for TV, I said I definitely wanted to do it.”

Straughan had never worked in the medium before. “I’d never been given six hours to write a drama, and for a writer it’s a great place to be,” he says. He broke the novels down into half a dozen “mini films” – each with their own beginning, middle and end that needed to be slotted together to form the overarching canvas – and worked closely with Mantel, whom Straughan says was “helpful, constructive and generous all the way through… never intrusive or dictatorial.”

Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity  to 'create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience'
Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity to ‘create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience’

“The good novelists understand the process and know a slavish adaptation usually won’t make a good film or TV series,” he adds. “Hilary was certainly one of those. She was completely open to any change and I would usually run things by her and always send the episode as soon as I’d finished for her notes.”

The resulting series, starring Mark Rylance (main image) as Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, is an intense, brooding piece of television, which lingers on the characters’ expressions and is as much about the silences and shadows between them as it is the whispered politicking and slow-burning menace of a king who is disarming in his vulnerability but primed to ignite at any time.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a drama that’s challenged the perceived notions of what tempo needs to be in television,” says Straughan. “There’s a kind of fear behind that, which I think is about ‘we’re going to lose the audience any second if we don’t do something quickly.’ So it was interesting to say we’re not going to do that, we’re going to go at a different pace, a different metabolic rate, and see whether a large audience would go with that. Luckily it seems they have.”

Indeed, Wolf Hall became BBC2’s highest-rating drama series in more than 13 years when it concluded in March this year, while coproducer Masterpiece began airing it in the US in April.

Straughan refers to a “post-HBO, post-Breaking Bad confidence” in TV drama, and the experience of working in the medium has encouraged him to explore other projects, potentially penning a pilot for HBO with Tom Hanks’s Playtone to bring Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels to the small screen.

“The adult, interesting, complex stories that you used to be able to expect from cinema, you now find in television,” he says. He believes TV is “the writer’s medium,” whereas film remains firm directors’ turf.

Peter Kosminsky has worked in both and won countless awards in each, but he was slightly surprised to be asked to direct Wolf Hall – his first period drama.

Kosminsky is celebrated for contemporary political dramas such as The Government Inspector (2005), which also starred Rylance, and The Promise (2011), starring Foy, but his career as a filmmaker spans three decades.

Wolf Hall is all about the politics of the Henrician court, he points out, and while he had read the books when they were first published, it was Straughan’s adaptation that convinced Kosminsky to sign up. “I read a lot of scripts – dozens every year – and I think they were just about the best I’ve ever read,” he says.

They were only first drafts, too, Kosminsky notes, making them all the more extraordinary. He talks about Straughan’s “apparently effortless distillation” of Mantel’s “densely typed prose.”

Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen 'mini films'
Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen ‘mini films’

“Peter had rendered this into six hours of television without any sense of hurry or confusion. It seemed to go at a very measured pace and yet I wasn’t particularly aware of any major strands that had been excluded. Once I read those scripts, there was really no doubt in my mind this was something I wanted to do.”

If one of the hallmarks of Wolf Hall is its meditative, cerebral tempo then the decisions Kosminsky took behind the camera and in the edit suite are as much responsible as Straughan’s writing. “In filmmaking terms this is not an adventurous piece,” says the director. “Most of the scenes are two or three people sitting in a room talking to each other, so we had to think about how to give it some kind of style, how to make it feel unusual and fresh. We wanted to get a strong sense of atmosphere and, if possible, of silence. We wanted the silence of the rooms, the silence of the pauses between words to be a character as much as the words themselves.”

Kosminsky says this was something that naturally developed, rather than being imposed. “We rehearsed and then I let the actors play in front of the camera and I tended not to give them notes. I liked the pace at which they played the drama. It seemed to me it showed the complexity. You could see the wheels turning as Cromwell, who’s faced with death on a number of occasions, tries to decide on the safest course of action.”

Wolf Hall is very much about watching those wheels turn and the precision with which Rylance engineers them. The actor is in every scene, points out producer Mark Pybus, praising the former Globe Theatre artistic director for his stamina.

“In the novels you’re very much inside Thomas Cromwell’s mind and even though it’s not written in the first person, it somehow feels as if it is, and that’s one of the magic tricks Hilary pulled off,” Pybus adds.

“We wanted to give you Cromwell’s viewpoint. In order to convey that to the audience, you have to enter a room with him to establish we don’t know information before our lead character does. We experience events in that room with him and we leave with him. As a result, you have travelling shots in and out of rooms to get that sense of being on his shoulder.”

Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance's performance
Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance’s performance

Part of the character’s allure, says Pybus, is that he was famously a man who gave little away. Therefore a voiceover would have been inappropriate. “With an actor like Mark Rylance, the subtlest hints are given but you have to have the right pace for those to come across. If you quickly cut between scenes, you lose those magical moments where suddenly it becomes clear what Cromwell was thinking.”

Just about the only point for which Wolf Hall faced criticism from British reviewers was its occasionally dim lighting, due to a reliance on real candles – something only made possible by the latest Arri Alexa cameras. But the reception was otherwise almost universally favourable. Kosminsky admits all involved were “slightly taken aback by the reaction” – even himself, after such a long career.

“It’s a difficult book and we didn’t set out to dumb it down, we set out to confront its difficulty. We expected this to be appreciated by a small group of devotees, quickly dumped by the rest of the viewing population and largely ignored by the popular press. Nothing in 35 years in television programme-making has prepared me for the scale of the response, so I’m slightly unnerved by it and still trying to come to terms.”

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