As the first director to take charge of BBC period drama Poldark, Ed Bazalgette tells DQ about his approach to directing, the importance of casting and how he works with writers and actors. He also discusses his work on Doctor Who spin-off Class and his latest trip in the Tardis for the Doctor Who Christmas 2016 special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio.
For the past week, the British media has had a lot of fun hyping up the ratings war between ITV’s new drama Victoria and the BBC’s returning series Poldark (both of which, ironically, are produced by ITV-owned production company Mammoth Screen). But the truth is both sides can be pretty happy with their performances.
Victoria, produced by Mammoth for ITV and PBS in the US, debuted at 21.00 on Sunday August 28 with 5.7 million viewers. Keen to build on its momentum, ITV then scheduled the second episodes of the eight-parter on the following night, a bank holiday in the UK. This episode attracted 5.2 million, suggesting the show had done a good job of retaining the audience’s interest.
The direct clash between the two shows came the following week, when they were scheduled against each other at 21.00 on Sunday September 4. In this slot, Victoria secured 4.8 million viewers and then picked up a further 400,000 in a second showing an hour later on ITV+1. Poldark, meanwhile, attracted 5.1 million viewers to what was the first episode of its second series.
Different media outlets have interpreted these figures in different ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to attack Poldark by saying a) it was beaten by Victoria (with its amalgamated 5.2 million figure) and b) this year’s Poldark launch was weaker than last year’s, which attracted 6.9 million. However, neither of these interpretations should take away from the fact that it was a good opening for Poldark. The only meaningful comparison between the two will come after 14 to 28 days when we begin to get a sense of time-shifted viewing. By then, we’ll also have a clearer idea of whether Victoria can sustain its ratings.
Good news for both broadcasters is that the critics have praised the two shows. Both have scored 8.4 on IMDb, putting them at the upper end of audience approval ratings.
Looking to the long-term, the Victoria vs Poldark battle is likely to become a pretty permanent feature on the UK drama scene. Neither broadcaster wants to give up the 21.00 Sunday-night slot to the other but both have plans to run and run with their respective series. Poldark has already been commissioned for a third season and could easily run for five or six. ITV is also envisaging a similar life span for Victoria.
Congratulations are of course due to Mammoth Screen for pulling off a remarkable feat. And to ITV, which gets to distribute both shows to the international market (it has just licensed Victoria to ITV Choice in Asia and the Middle East). It’s also still something of a novelty for female screenwriters to run primetime dramas – so it’s a positive sign that these shows are penned by Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) and Debbie Horsfield (Poldark).
Another show in the news this week is The Young Pope – a Sky, HBO and Canal+ co-production that sees Jude Law play a feisty young American Pope. The ten-part series has been hyped up a lot in recent months by its distributor FremantleMedia International (FMI) –and it looks like it could turn out to be the hit the company has been hoping for. The first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival and received glowing reviews from the media. The Telegraph was especially enthusiastic, reporting that: “The first, feature-length episode is like the skin-prickling opening to a game of chess played across a board of gold and marble – with each piece, from king to pawn, gliding enigmatically into place for the coming battle”. Law, says the Telegraph, is a “force of nature.”
FMI has also reported strong interest among buyers. Broadcasters that have already picked the show up include MNET (Pan-Africa), HBO (Pan-CEE), BETV in Belgium, OTE TV in Greece, 365 in Iceland, Sky in New Zealand and Hot in Israel. Nordic SVoD platform C More, which belongs to Sweden’s TV4 Group, has also acquired the series. As part of the latter deal, The Young Pope will also air on TV4’s free-to-air channel in Sweden. As for the partners in the show, Sky Atlantic will air it across its territories from October 27.
One of the most-talked about programmes of the last couple of years has been Netflix’s Pablo Escobar drama series Narcos – a double winner at the 2015 C21 International Drama Awards. This week, Netflix announced it had renewed the show for third and fourth seasons. It’s lucky that the creators called the show Narcos rather than Escobar – because the new series will follow the Medellin cartel after the death of the Colombian drug lord in 1993.
As we’ve noted on several occasions, Netflix doesn’t release audience figures – so it’s difficult to know how well the Spanish-language show does on the platform. However, a deal between Netflix and Univision means the show is also due to air on the US Hispanic network in the near future, so it should soon be possible to get a perspective on its appeal. Interestingly, Netflix and Univision are also partnering a series called El Chapo, which is based on the life of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán. In the US, this series will air on UniMás in 2017 before appearing on Netflix. Outside the US, the show will make its debut on the streamer.
It’s been evident in recent times that there is a strong audience in the US for scripted series that place black actors at the centre of the story (Empire and Power being a couple of the most recent successes). There’s more evidence of this from a couple of newly launched shows. The first is Queen Sugar, which has just debuted on OWN. Following the same pattern as fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, the Tuesday and Wednesday roll-out of Queen Sugar drew a healthy 2.42 million viewers. With The Haves and the Have Nots also doing well on OWN, the channel’s drama output is currently firing on all cylinders.
More good news for the black creative community has been the early response to Community star and rapper Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta, which has just launched on FX. Set in the world of local hip hop, the show has been warmly received by critics and secured a promising 1.1 million viewers in its 22.00 slot. With an 8.9 rating on IMDB, Atlanta could shape up as one of the year’s surprise critical hits, though there was some grumbling among audiences that it was scheduled directly against the launch of Queen Sugar.
Writers and producers often spend years crafting their passion projects before they come to air – but the risk is always whether the audience cares as much as they do, writes Michael Pickard.
When US cable network FX commissioned bloody medieval drama The Bastard Executioner (pictured above), it was billed as the eagerly anticipated next act from writer Kurt Sutter.
Sutter had built his career at FX, first working on ground-breaking cop drama The Shield and then creating hit biker series Sons of Anarchy, which ran for seven seasons until 2014.
The Bastard Executioner, which made its UK debut this week on History, would represent an entirely different direction from his previous work. It was an ambitious Middle Ages drama that told the story of a warrior knight in King Edward II’s charge who is broken by the ravages of war and vows to lay down his sword. But when that violence finds him again he is forced to pick up the bloodiest sword of all.
Sutter developed the series from an idea from Brian Grazer, who executive produced the 10-episode show with Sutter and Francie Calfo.
And it was immediately clear how Sutter he had invested in the show, exclaiming at the time of its commission in May 2015: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. And with this extraordinary cast – Stephen Moyer, Katey Sagal and newcomer Lee Jones – this world explodes on screen.”
But as Sutter would discover, no amount of excitement can turn the tide of public opinion if the audience doesn’t share the same interest in your passion project as you do.
Writers and producers can spend years developing a series, often focusing on obscure or niche stories or time periods. But in most cases, they must build their reputations working on other shows before being given the chance – and freedom from a network – to bring their passion projects to life. And even if the story does connect, there is still a possibility the project could be undone by its execution.
Among the successes is Poldark, BBC1’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels, starring Aidan Turner and written by Debbie Horsfield.
When it first aired in 2015, no one could have predicted how quickly the show would develop a devoted following in both the UK and the US, where it airs on PBS. The series has since been renewed for a third season to air in 2017 – ahead of its season two launch this September.
“Poldark is a passion project for all of us, and it’s with real excitement that we prepare for both the launch of season two and our return to Cornwall to shoot season three,” said Damien Timmer, MD of Poldark prodco Mammoth Screen. “Winston Graham and Debbie Horsfield’s extraordinary flair for storytelling means the saga of [lead character] Ross, his friends and enemies will go to even more thrilling places!”
Writer/actor Mark Gatiss is a long-time fan of sci-fi series Doctor Who and has written eight episodes of the show since it was revived in 2005. But it was the opportunity to write a special film to mark the franchise’s 50th anniversary that proved a real labour of love. Gatiss, who also co-created Sherlock, penned An Adventure in Time and Space, which followed the creation of the series with David Bradley portraying the first Doctor, William Hartnell.
“The strange thing is, because I’m a Jon Pertwee child, this was before my time,” Gatiss said at the film’s 2013 premiere, referencing the third actor to play the Doctor. “But I grew up with the story – almost like a bedtime story – of how the show came together. These very unlikely people coming together… nobody liking the Daleks… all these little stories that were like holy writ.
“I always thought it would just be a fantastic story to tell and it’s just come together at the right time.”
Steven Knight may consider himself a film writer, having penned movies such as Locke, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, but it’s in television that he found a home thanks to Peaky Blinders, a series that began life as a novel until Knight transformed it for the small screen with Nurse Jackie creator Caryn Mandabach.
When the series was given a two-season renewal by BBC2 following its successful third run earlier this year, Knight admitted: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”
More recently, Emmy-nominated spy drama The Night Manager was discovered to be a long-held passion project for star Hugh Laurie – so much so that the actor once tried to option the rights to the John Le Carré novel on which the show was based, only to find they had already been snapped up by Sydney Poitier.
The stylish BBC1/AMC series, which aired earlier this year, saw Laurie play arms dealer Richard Roper opposite Tom Hiddleston’s hero Jonathan Pine, with the adaptation penned by David Farr.
“I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” former House star Laurie said. “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”
Meanwhile, HBO’s The Night Of, an adaptation of BBC drama Criminal Justice, was a passion project for the late actor James Gandolfini, who championed the series that was brought to air last month by Steven Zaillian.
Less successful, however, was Vinyl, HBO’s big-budget music industry drama set in 1970s New York City. Said to have been a passion project of former network programming chief Michael Lombardo, the series looked a surefire hit with a creative team comprising celebrated director Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
However, after disappointing reviews and lacklustre ratings, plus the departure of Winter and a change in management at the premium cable network, the show was cancelled in May after one season – reversing an earlier decision in February to order a second season after just one episode had aired.
“After careful consideration, we have decided not to proceed with a second season of Vinyl,” HBO said. “Obviously, this was not an easy decision. We have enormous respect for the creative team and cast for their hard work and passion on this project.”
Hoping to have better luck is forthcoming Amazon drama The Collection, which has been a long-time ambition for its creators, Oliver Goldstick and Kate Croft.
The series is set in an illustrious Parisian fashion house, emerging from the end of the Occupation into a golden age of design. The story focuses on two brothers while exposing the grit behind the glamour of the couture business.
“The Collection has been a passion project of mine for years; an entrepreneurial fable set in a pivotal moment in history, when fashion served as the ultimate vehicle for transformation and reinvention,” admitted showrunner Goldstick, best known for his work on US drama Ugly Betty. “It’s the story of a war-scarred family – upstairs and downstairs – tethered together by its success and its secrets.”
Croft, who executive produces the series and worked with Goldstick to develop the show, continued: “Out of our shared passion for the world and the period, Oliver has created his extraordinary vision of Paris and the golden age of couture. It’s full of his signature flourishes, and his unique take means we get to peek behind the elegant façade and realise it is not just about the dresses, but more about what they are covering up.”
Elsewhere, Laeta Kalogridis held the rights to Richard Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon for four years before Netflix commissioned a 10-part series in January.
The story is set in the 25th century when the human mind has been digitised and the soul is transferrable from one body to the next. Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite interstellar warrior, has been imprisoned for 500 years and is downloaded into a future he had tried to stop. If he can solve a single murder in a world where technology has made death nearly obsolete, he’ll get a chance at a new life on Earth.
“Altered Carbon is one of the most seminal pieces of post-cyberpunk hard science fiction out there – a dark, complex noir story that challenges our ideas of what it means to be human when all information becomes encodable, including the human mind,” Kalogridis says.
As for Sutter and The Bastard Executioner, the writer took the unusual decision to cancel his own show when it failed to connect with viewers – an announcement he made by placing an advert in several Hollywood television industry magazines.
“Good reviews are wonderful and so are awards, but for me, I’m very aware of ratings because my job as a storyteller is to engage and hook an audience,” Sutter said. “Ratings let me know that I’m doing my job. This show premiered low, and we never really established a baseline where we could say, ‘OK, that’s our audience.’”
He added: “When a show gets cancelled, there’s often this perception that, oh, it’s a failure, or the network didn’t support it and pulled the plug. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A common saying among writers is only write what you love – why waste your time on anything else? But with passion projects, there will always be a risk that the audience might not care as deeply as those who created it.
As Sutter concluded in his advert: “The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is ‘meh.’ So with due respect, we bring our mythology to an epic and fiery close.”
tagged in: Debbie Horsfield, Doctor Who, Kurt Sutter, Mark Gatiss, Oliver Goldstick, Peaky Blinders, Poldark, Steven Knight, Steven Zaillian, The Bastard Executioner, The Collection, The Night Of, Vinyl
The Rose D’Or Awards were dominated by the UK last year with wins in nine out of 11 available categories – and following this week’s release of the Rose D’Or shortlists for 2016, it looks like the UK stands an extremely good chance of repeating its success.
One thing is for sure, the UK will win both the sitcom and the newly created drama series categories. In sitcom, the three shows slugging it out are Episodes from Hat Trick Productions, Mum and Raised by Wolves, the latter two from Big Talk Productions.
In drama, the contest is between Happy Valley, River and This Is England ’90. The winners will be revealed in Berlin on September 13.
Looking first at the dramas, Happy Valley (written by Sally Wainwright) and This Is England ’90 (Shane Meadows/Jack Thorne) have already received plenty of plaudits. River, a six-part drama for the BBC, is probably the least-known of the three, despite being written by one of the UK’s top talents, Abi Morgan.
Having started out writing for theatre, Morgan’s earliest credits were in TV (Peak Practice, My Fragile Heart), but more recently she has moved effortlessly back and forth between film and TV. Her best-known films include Brick Lane, The Iron Lady and Suffragette, while stand-out TV credits include novel adaptation Birdsong, The Hour and River.
Regardless of whether River triumphs in Berlin, Morgan certainly got the thumbs up from critics. In the UK, The Daily Telegraph critic Michael Hogan said the series was “beautifully written by Abi Morgan, stylishly directed and superbly acted. [Lead actor] Stellan Skarsgård delivered a powerhouse performance: sad and soulful in one scene, sardonically spiky and manically energetic in the next. With his craggy face and crumpled demeanour, the haunted detective prowled the streets of London like a wounded bear. I’m torn between wanting River to get recommissioned and wanting this series to stand alone as six near-perfect episodes.”
Aside from its UK screening on the BBC, River has also been available via Netflix internationally. In Canada, Globe and Mail critic John Doyle added his voice to Hogan’s, calling the show a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama: “It is the sort of drama critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief.”
The Rose D’Or sitcom category, meanwhile, brings international recognition for Stefan Golaszewski, writer of BBC2’s Mum. Golaszewski previously wrote Bafta-winning sitcom Him & Her for BBC2. In Mum, he tells the story of a woman seeking to rebuild her life following the death of her husband.
When the show was commissioned, Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning, said: “Commissioning Mum was a delightfully easy decision after seeing the sure-footed pilot. Stefan is a unique author and this is a very confident next chapter in what promises to be a distinguished career in comedy. All his hallmarks are there – painful authenticity, comedy grotesques, emotional tenderness, revelation and depth – it’s a class act. I think it will connect with a lot of people as a refreshing take on an overlooked stage in life.”
Conveniently for the sake of narrative flow, last year’s Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is also in the news this week, with Channel 4 commissioning a third and fourth season of the critically acclaimed show. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the second season of Catastrophe was C4’s second-highest performing comedy of the year. The show has also been streamed in the US by Amazon Prime and picked up for adaptation for French-speaking Canada.
Announcing the news, Phil Clarke, C4’s head of comedy, said: “I am thrilled to commission a third and fourth season. It’s a welcome return for the brave, razor-edged, excruciatingly honest and painfully funny portrayal of a modern, long-term relationship.”
Critics have also been effusive in their praise of the show. The Guardian’s Will Dean said it “inverts the classic romcom with sexual honesty, a barrage of swearing and a wonderfully dysfunctional support cast. Catastrophe is a modern great. All 12 episodes [the first two seasons] were superb in pretty much almost every aspect. At its heart it’s an ordinary love story, couched in some first-class swearing, about sexual honesty, served with a side-plate of adultery, lust, elderly parents, flirtatious colleagues, money worries and a dead dog. The love story we deserve.”
The Times’ Hugh Rifkind added that it is “the funniest British comedy of the past five years. I shan’t say more, because it is so funny that me telling you the funny bits would be considerably less funny than you actually watching it, which is definitely what you should do. It’s tight and sparse and there’s never a wasted moment. In a nutshell, the best bits are about all the terrible things you never quite say to your friends, family and significant other, and what would happen if everybody just said them.”
Announcing the recommission, Horgan and Delaney said: “We are thrilled to be making a third season of Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are a blast to spend time with. And we’re not talking about ourselves in the third person, we’re talking about the characters. We’re eager to breathe life back into Rob and Sharon. Okay, now we are talking about us. In the first season Rob and Sharon went through a lot (us) and even more in the second season (back to the characters). We’re looking forward to putting Rob and Sharon (both us and the characters) through further pain for your enjoyment (now we’re talking about you).”
Delaney recently took part in a panel session at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, during which he talked about the challenges of delivering great comedy. He talked about the need to keep ego under control, even when the world is telling you how great you are. “I had this fear of becoming this walled-off guy who wouldn’t listen. So I’m a real believer in humility,” he said.
Explaining why he persisted with comedy as a career, Delaney said: “I realised after the global financial collapse that no career is safe, that everyone else knows how comedians feel. So I thought I might as well do exactly what I want to do.”
He was also very refreshing on the subject of encouraging diversity, observing that it is “insane” not to draw on diverse voices. “My advice is to be selfish, make money by embracing diversity,” he quipped.
Finally, in the UK, there are reports that the new season of BBC period drama Poldark will go head-to-head on Sunday night with ITV’s new period drama Victoria (September 4, 21.00). Fortunately, most of us have time-shifting technology these days, so my guess is that people will store Victoria so they can avoid the ad breaks.
Poldark is written by Debbie Horsfield while Victoria is created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in her screenwriting debut. Alongside the likes of Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps and Abi Morgan, these shows may be indicators that female writers are starting to hold more sway in primetime – a section of the schedule that, from a writer’s point of view, can sometimes resemble a London gentleman’s club. Or Muirfield Golf Club.
tagged in: Abi Morgan, Birdsong, Brick Lane, Canada, Catastrophe, Channel 4, Daisy Goodwin, Debbie Horsfield, Episodes, Happy Valley, Hat Trick Productions, Hugh Rifkind, Mum, Phil Clarke, Poldark, Raised by Wolves, River, Rob Delaney, Rose D’Or Awards, Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps, Sharon Horgan, Stefan Golaszewski, Stellan Skarsgård, The Hour, The Iron Lady, This Is England ’90, Victoria
UK television has a long tradition of using quirky or unusual locations as backdrops for drama series. Bergerac (Jersey), Morse (Oxford) and Doc Martin (Cornwall) are just a few examples of the way place can almost become a character.
Historically, one of the logistical limitations on this kind of show has been the lack of production infrastructure available in some of the UK’s less-travelled locations.
But the last few years have seen increased ambition in terms of where producers are willing to base their stories. Broadchurch, for example, is one of the few non-Thomas Hardy dramas to have based itself in Dorset – introducing ITV viewers to the spectacular Jurassic Coast.
With a couple of exceptions (such as Morse), quirky locations used to be employed as the backdrop to gentle comedies (Last of the Summer Wine, Monarch of the Glen, Ballykissangel) or soft-hearted crime series (Hamish Macbean), with the occasional foray into the unknown by period drama that demanded it (anything based on works by Hardy, Lawrence, Eliot, Gaskell, Laurie Lee…).
Broadchurch, however, brought hardcore murder and mayhem to under-exploited locations and reminded us that universal stories can be built around hyperlocal experiences. This idea has subsequently been picked up by other producers.
So now we have seen crime stories like Hinterland (set in Aberystwyth, Wales), Happy Valley (Yorkshire), The Fall (Northern Ireland) and Safe House (the Lake District) gracing our screens. Perhaps we can also see the influence of Nordic Noir here, with the notion that location can somehow reflect the inner workings of the soul.
Other shows to have stepped into the (relatively speaking) unknown include Poldark (Cornwall) and Midwinter of the Spirit (Herefordshire), so that now we are at a point where pretty much anywhere in the UK is a possible starting point for a story.
This point is underlined by two new drama developments this week, which will showcase opposite ends of the England-Scotland spectrum. ITV, for example, has commissioned a six-part murder mystery based in the area around Scotland’s Loch Ness. Produced by ITV Studios and supported by Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund, the show will focus on the hunt for a serial killer in a setting made famous by the mythical Loch Ness Monster.
Some 750 miles south, meanwhile, All3Media-owned indie producer Studio Lambert has optioned a police officer’s memoir, The Life of a Scilly Sergeant. Based on the experiences of Scilly Islands-based police sergeant Colin Taylor, the aim is for a primetime, returnable series. On paper, it has echoes of Hamish Macbeth.
More good news for the UK’s South West is that the BBC has ordered a third season of Poldark – before the second run hits the air.
The first eight-part season centred on 18th century war veteran Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) returning to Cornwall to try to build up his family’s mining business in the face of stiff opposition from entrenched local business interests. The show is based on a series of classic novels by Winston Graham and was previously adapted in the 1970s. The new version, a major hit for the BBC, is written by Debbie Horsfield and produced by Mammoth Screen.
In the US, meanwhile, Turner Broadcasting’s cable channels TNT and TBS have renewed three of their drama series. TNT has renewed Animal Kingdom for a second season while TBS has ordered a second run of Wrecked and a third of Angie Tribeca.
Wrecked, which is billed as a comedy version of ABC’s cult series Lost, is currently halfway through its first season with an audience in the 1.2-1.3 million range. Animal Kingdom attracts a similar-size audience for TNT, which is currently undergoing a bit of a creative overhaul.
TNT shows that are ending or have been cancelled include Rizzoli & Isles, Proof, Falling Skies, Agent X, Public Morals and Legends. The channel’s top performer aside from Rizzoli & Isles is Major Crimes, which has been running for five seasons. There is no indication yet whether it will be renewed or dropped as part of the channel’s wider schedule revamp.
Still in the US, video streaming platform Hulu is continuing its ambitious push into drama with The Warriors, an adaptation of Sol Yurick’s novel that was previously turned into a cult movie in 1979. The story follows a period in history when New York was being torn apart by gang warfare.
It will be adapted by the Russo Brothers, who have found fame with their recent work on Marvel franchises like Captain America. They will work with writer Frank Baldwin on the series, with Paramount TV as producer.
The project is the latest in a long line of movie reboots, though projects in the US cable and SVoD space seem to be faring better than those relaunched for US network TV. The latest network reboot to get the axe is ABC’s Uncle Buck, after just one season. Surely the big four must be getting the picture by now.
On the acquisitions front, shows making their mark this week include Beta Film’s three-part German-language drama NSU German History X, which has been picked up by Netflix for use in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Netflix has also unveiled a multi-year agreement with The CW to stream all past seasons of the US network’s shows in the US. Titles include Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, The Vampire Diaries, The 100, iZombie, The Originals and Reign.
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief creative officer, said: “This is a great step forward with a valued network partner to give fans exactly what they want, when and how they want it.”
Elsewhere, UK multi-channel operator UKTV has picked up Sony Pictures Television miniseries The Red Tent, which originally aired on cable channel Lifetime in the US. A four-parter based on the novel by Anita Diamant, The Red Tent tells the tale of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, from the Old Testament book of Genesis in the Bible.
Alexandra Finlay, UKTV’s head of acquisitions and coproductions, said: “The Red Tent is a perfect addition to (UKTV channel) Drama’s growing slate of shows, featuring an epic story with a fantastic ensemble cast.”
tagged in: ABC, Angie Tribeca, Animal Kingdom, Broadchurch, Hulu, ITV, Netflix, NSU – German History X, Poldark, Studio Lambert, TBS, The CW, The Life of a Scilly Sergeant, The Red Tent, The Warriors, TNT, UKTV, Uncle Buck, Wrecked
This week, BBC1 in the UK launched Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part drama based on the period fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke. Scheduled at 21.00 on Sunday evenings, the first episode attracted 4.5 million viewers. While it is highly likely that this number will be boosted once time-shifted viewing is included, the live audience is probably at the lower end of expectations.
It is lower, for example, than Poldark and The Casual Vacancy – both of which previously occupied this slot. And it’s also less than the slot average for the last 12 months (which is just over five million).
UK newspapers were divided over the appeal of the show. The upmarket titles were generally upbeat, with The Independent calling it “a real treat” and The Daily Telegraph describing it as “a brilliant adaptation of the novel.” However, The Daily Mail was not impressed, acerbically noting that: “If your idea of a racy evening is chit-chat in the dons’ common room at an Oxbridge college, then perhaps you found this entertaining. For the rest of us, it was so deathly dry it might as well have been dehydrated.”
The Spectator, meanwhile, hedged its bets, concluding that: “In theory, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is to be congratulated on its bold rejection of Sunday-night convention. In practice, it hasn’t yet banished the feeling that it might end up seeming a bit silly.”
As a public broadcaster, the BBC is not compelled to chase ratings. But it seems likely that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from the fact that there was no compelling PR hook on which to hang its launch. The Casual Vacancy benefited from the fact it was based on a book by JK Rowling (who takes Harry Potter fans with her whereever she goes), while Poldark had two things going for it. Firstly, it was a remake (thus appealing to older audiences). Secondly, there was a lot of media interest in lead actor Aidan Turner’s six-pack (thus appealing to younger female audiences). Having failed to ignite audience interest for episode one, JS & Mr N is now in a fragile position and the BBC will need to hope that The Daily Mail’s assessment is wide of the mark. If so, it may regain momentum from word of mouth/social media.
Of course, all of the above might prove to be overly pessimistic if the show does pick up a lot of additional viewing via time-shifting technologies. In this respect, there is encouragement from the US this week, where Wayward Pines has just recorded the highest ever percentage increase of any Fox debut show as a result of time-shifted viewing. Having debuted on May 14 with around 3.75 million viewers, live plus-three ratings surged by 65% to 6.2 million.
As is the way these days (to avoid piracy), Fox made Wayward Pines available to the international market as soon as possible after the US launch. It then pumped out a series of figures that suggest the show has been well received. In Australia, says Fox, the show “increased the performance in its primetime slot by 683% and outperformed The Walking Dead’s season five premiere.” In Germany, meanwhile, the show increased its slot average by 158%. As for Norway, the Wayward Pines premiere is the best series premiere for a new show ever for Fox Norway among viewers aged 12-plus. Portugal also tuned in. Here, the premiere was the most watched show of the day on pay TV.
Channels around the world debate endlessly about the relative merits of local versus international TV. The orthodox view is that audiences prefer local content because it better reflects their own life experience. One area where this thesis seems to break down, however, is in the world of scripted series. Here, there are still plenty of examples of US shows outperforming local rivals.
One case in point is UK pay TV channel Sky Living, which recently saw its origination budget cut for exactly this reason. In this case, the origination budget has been handed to sister channel Sky1 (so it can fund more ambitious projects), while Sky Living will place its emphasis on acquired shows. This decision makes a lot of sense when you see how Sky Living’s US dramas fare compared with its home-grown shows. Typically, US dramas like Bones and The Blacklist pull audiences of around one million-plus on the channel. By contrast, a recent showing of Eleven Films’ original three-parter The Enfield Haunting pulled in around 676,000.
This is actually a pretty good audience when compared with the channel’s slot average. And there’s no question it was a great piece of television. With a superb cast headed by Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, The Guardian called it “an outstanding chiller, beautifully directed and packed with big scares and superb performances.” Presumably, however, the problem lies squarely with the economics of pay TV. Acquiring a US show is usually cheaper than making a domestic original. And it typically offers a lot more episodes. Limited-run dramas like The Enfield Haunting require a lot of pre-transmission marketing and have limited amortisation value afterwards. Overall they are better-suited to free-to-air channels which are able to mobilise big audiences more easily. Having said all that, however, hats off to Eleven for a great piece of TV. All eyes will now be on Nazareth, which the company is reportedly developing for Fox in the US.
Still in the UK, BBC4 has become an important staging post for non-English-language dramas hoping to establish a presence in English-speaking markets. Titles to have aired on the channel include Wallander, Spiral, Borgen, The Killing, Inspector Montalbano, The Bridge, Salamander and Hostages. The basic rule is that if a foreign-language show can rate well on BBC4, it stands a chance of selling into the US as either a completed series or a format. And if that happens, it may then pick up interest from other markets that wouldn’t have considered it prior to a US deal. In some ways, BBC4 has become a victim of its own success, because it is now experiencing competition for this category of shows from UK and US pay TV channels (such as E4 and Sundance) and SVOD platforms. But it remains an important player.
All of which brings us to 1864, a Danish drama that has just debuted on the channel with an audience of 642,000 at 21.00 – well ahead of the slot average. An eight-part series that originally aired on DR1 in Denmark, 1864 tells the story of a war between Denmark and the German Confederation (as it then was). The show is significant for the Danes, which are trying to demonstrate to the world that the breadth of their storytelling skills goes well beyond spooky police procedurals. Borgen went some way to proving that point, but 1864 shows a new side to Denmark’s production prowess. Also look out for Follow The Money, another DR series that has been acquired by BBC4. Coming soon, this is billed as “the story of speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.”
Sue Deeks, the BBC’s head of programme acquisition, says: “Follow The Money is a stylish, intelligent, thought-provoking and complex multi-stranded drama. We are delighted to have another superb series from DR on BBC Four.”
Season five of fantasy phenomenon Game of Thrones has picked up where its previous runs left off, delivering massive ratings for US cable network HBO. Overnights for the first three episodes came in at eight million, 6.81 million and 6.71 million respectively.
That slight week-on-week decline shouldn’t give too much cause for concern, because so much viewing of the show is now time-shifted, on-demand or via other platforms. To underline the point, HBO has just released data that shows a staggering 18.1 million viewers watched episode one in the first week after its launch (a period of time referred to as live+7). This figure, which includes linear showings, HBO Go, HBO Now and on-demand views, confirms the serious pulling power of the show – while also cautioning against hasty judgements about first day viewing.
Game of Thrones is also popular internationally, with the UK launch garnering similarly enormous ratings. Sky Atlantic, which airs the show one day after the US transmission on HBO, reported record overnight ratings of 1.57 million – up 29% on season four’s debut. As in the US, those figures are certain to increase once time-shifted and multi-platform viewing is factored in. There were also record ratings for Foxtel in Australia, where 242,000 tuned in to watch episode one at 11.00 local time. An additional 311,000 tuned in at 19.30, creating a record day-one audience of 553,000.
Game of Thrones’ ratings success is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is such a heavily pirated show. In the US, it holds the dubious honour of having been the most-pirated show for the past three years in succession. Problems with piracy have been exacerbated this year, with the first four episodes of season five having been leaked online ahead of the show’s official launch.
The ratings story is less rosy for Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s 12-part series AD: The Bible Continues, which has seen its audience on US network NBC slide in consecutive weeks. After a robust opening of 9.7 million on Easter Sunday, the next three episodes have come in at 7.75 million, 6.36 million and 5.77 million respectively.
AD is a sequel to The Bible, a Burnett/Downey miniseries that aired on cable channel History US last year. Its underperformance is a surprise, given that The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers per episode over its 10-episode run – making it the biggest US cable show of 2014.
AD’s performance has led some analysts to suggest that NBC will probably cancel the show (though a final decision on that will need to take into account time-shifted ratings and a couple more episodes of data). This would be a blow to Burnett and Downey, who told journalists at MipTV in Cannes that they would like AD to be the launch pad for a multi-series franchise that tells more stories about the early years of the Christian church. Possibly, in hindsight, they would have been better placing AD in the less ratings-obsessed world of cable.
The standout performer in the UK so far this year is BBC1’s Poldark. Based on books by Winston Graham (and also a remake of a classic 1970s series), the show is set in 1790s Cornwall, where former soldier Ross Poldark battles against vested interests to make a success of his family’s copper mine. Not an obvious ratings winner, it has been boosted by the brooding good looks and heroic demeanour of Aidan Turner, who plays Poldark. While Captain Poldark’s handsome face, enviable abs and moral rigour have led to some mockery, The Independent newspaper gets it about right when it calls the show “an addictive Sunday night treat.” Poldark may not be Wolf Hall, but it is a hugely entertaining show.
With consolidated ratings averaging around 7.5 million across an eight-episode run, Poldark has been recommissioned for another series, to be filmed in September. And there are reports that the BBC wants to tie Turner down to a long-term contract and build Poldark up as its answer to Downton Abbey. The programme also looks set to have a decent life internationally, with ITV Studios Global Entertainment licensing it to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Sweden. Confirmation of a second series will help ITVSGE with its further sales efforts.
Elsewhere, the international drama community has been keeping a close eye on the Nordic territories after a run of recent successes. The latest show to watch out for is Acquitted, a 10-part series from Miso Films for TV2 Norway. Acquitted follows the story of Aksel Borgen, who left his native town after being cleared of the murder of his high-school sweetheart. Twenty years later, he returns to save the place that once turned its back on him – but the past has not been forgotten.
Acquitted has rated well for TV2, with its first six episodes averaging 649,000 (55% up on the slot average). This week it also premiered on SVT in Sweden, where it achieved similarly strong ratings. With more than one million viewers (30.5% share), Acquitted ranks as of the most successful foreign dramas to have launched on SVT over the last five years. Miso Films co-founder Peter Bose says: “In an industry where we’re constantly hearing about viewers migrating to non-linear platforms, Acquitted has been quite an achievement on SVT.”
Ratings, of course, play a huge part in deciding whether to renew a show. So it’s no real surprise to see ABC US cancel Revenge after a couple of seasons of modest ratings. It seems, however, that the US can’t get enough of zombies. AMC’s The Walking Dead is as strong as ever, which explains the network’s decision to launch a spin-off called Fear the Walking Dead. The CW is also having some success with iZombie, which debuted in March this year. Now halfway through its first run of 13 episodes, the show is achieving healthy ratings in the 1.7-1.9 million mark. Aimed at a younger audience that The Walking Dead, it has received a positive critical response and is expected to return.
A bigger question, perhaps, is the future of A+E’s The Returned, which was eight episodes into a 10-episode run at time of writing. The Returned is a supernatural drama that explores what happens when the dead return to a small town and try to live normal lives, much to the shock and confusion of the living residents. Its significance is that it is based on a successful French series called Les Revenants (produced by Haut et Court for TF1). For those in the format sales business, it’s important that shows like The Returned do well, to avoid spreading fear among US commissioners that shows don’t transfer well into their market.
So far, ratings have not been especially encouraging, starting at 1.54 million but sliding to 0.82 million by episode eight. There are two possible explanations for this – one is that ABC has been airing a similar-concept series called Resurrection; the other is the view among some critics that the A+E show has not taken the French version forward. The Wrap calls it “a serviceable but mostly by-the-numbers remake of a brilliantly nuanced French series that didn’t need to be brought back to life in America a second time.”
A+E is not the kind of network that gives up on shows easily, however, so a cancellation at the end of season one would be surprising. Netflix will be watching developments with interest, having recently picked up the global rights to the A+E series.