Tag Archives: Polly Hill

Eyes on the prize

Kate Rowland, creative consultant at Red Planet Pictures and former creative director of new writing at the BBC, discusses the challenges of developing new writers for television as Red Planet seeks submissions for the latest round of its writing competition.

Kate Rowland

Television drama is more popular than ever; a creative medium that continues to evolve and innovate. As platforms proliferate and broadcasters ring-fence their drama output, it would appear that this is a great time to be a television writer. But how big a challenge is it for someone to break through? How do they make their idea stand out and persuade a commissioner to take a risk on their project?

In the current climate channels are more likely to focus their money and attention on writers they trust – experienced talent with a track record of producing drama that makes standout television like Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.

There is a genuine appetite for stories and characters that capture our imagination and make us look at the world in a fresh way. As a writer, you need to not only write a brilliant script but also to understand the art, the craft and the business of being a writer. You need to be relevant and resonant. In a complex market where drama is expensive, broadcasters have to balance the needs of the UK audience along with the potential of coproduction deals to serve a global market and reach international viewers. There is no doubt that it is a demanding landscape to cut through and get that first original commission.

Crime drama Broadchurch was written and created by Chris Chibnall

However, the UK has an incredibly engaged industry, where producers and commissioners recognise that television is a writer’s medium. They are interested in the next generation of talent and want to find ways to support, nurture and mentor writers who can gain experience from open competitions and targeted shadow schemes offering training and commissions on the big returning shows. You have to think what best suits you, look at the kind of stories and worlds you want to create and see whether you are the right fit.

Many of our most exciting writers have written across platforms, for the theatre, radio and film, alongside their TV output. You only have to look at the likes of Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster) and Jack Thorne (Kiri, pictured top), both of whom I gave first radio commissions to. Don’t pigeon-hole your talent or your ideas too early on, as online and social media have opened up a whole new arena of potential digital platforms for new drama.

Red Planet Pictures’ Red Planet Prize is a great example of how new talent can be uncovered by commissioners and producers. Launched in 2007, the prize is searching for emerging writing talent who can create fresh and inspiring popular drama content, and this year is being held in partnership with ITV Drama for the first time.

Dickensian was penned by Red Planet Pictures CEO Tony Jordan

The prize offers shortlisted writers a unique, ‘money can’t buy’ invitation to take part in a masterclass, giving finalists the opportunity to network with established television writer Tony Jordan (Life on Mars, Hustle, Dickensian) and ITV commissioners Polly Hill and Victoria Fea, who, along with actor Adrian Lester (Trauma, Spooks), make up the judging panel. Along with key executives and script editors from both Red Planet and ITV, the shortlisted writers will have time to hone their pitch and develop the series potential of their idea. The winner will get a script commission and development opportunities with ITV.

Previous finalist Robert Thorogood created the BBC1 smash-hit series Death in Paradise, now starring Ardal O’Hanlan and produced by Red Planet Pictures, which is currently airing its seventh season and has been recommissioned for an eighth run next year. Last year’s winner Tom Nash is developing his winning series, Percentages, and has been commissioned to write on the eighth season of Death in Paradise – his first professional engagement.

Alongside The Red Planet Prize, I recommend that writers keep across the different opportunities on offer in the UK from the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, as well as those promoted by independent companies. Recently Sister Pictures and Kudos North both hosted new schemes.

Red Planet Prize winner Robert Thorogood created BBC hit Death in Paradise

Professional bodies such as Creative Skillset and the British Film Institute are also a great place to look for advice and inspiration. These tailored schemes bring work to the experts where development is tailored to the needs and wants of that organisation. There is no better place than BBC Writersroom to find out about the creative business of being a writer.

Over the years, I have read thousands of scripts and I am acutely aware when someone has that indefinable thing called talent. But how that then translates into a commission is more complex. Personal taste also plays a part and affects the way your script is received. It might be well written but lack originality, compelling narrative or a big idea that makes the story complex and rich. Can the idea sustain more than one episode? Is it distinctive enough to engage an audience? Will anyone care?

There are always several questions that need to be answered, firstly by you, the writer, about what drives your characters and their story, and then by the reader. Be aware of the innovations happening on the digital platforms. Remember, content is king so think carefully about where your drama starts its journey and how you can develop it from there. Never underestimate the importance of a great calling card script – that’s what grabs the attention. Once people are interested in you, you can pitch them your killer idea. Be passionate and be thoughtful. Write what you want to see and have more than one good idea.

Submissions for Red Planet Prize 2018 are being welcomed until Monday, February 12 2018 via the Red Planet Pictures website. The winner will be announced in summer 2018.

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Amazon boards D83 sequel

Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)
Deutschland 86 is set three years after its predecessor (pictured)

There are several reasons why the US scripted content business casts such a shadow over the international drama market.

The first is that the US produces so many great scripted shows. Barely a week goes by without an eye-catching new drama going into production or development. Even now, as dozens of new shows hit the US autumn schedules, it is noticeable that the next wave of scripted projects is already shooting down the pipeline.

Second, viewers around the world love US shows. While dramas from other territories tend to have fairly well-defined regional hot spots, US shows can be found on free TV, pay TV and SVoD almost anywhere. This widespread appeal is reinforced by the availability of so many titles on US-based thematic channels (Fox, AXN and so on).

The third reason is that so many producers around the world still see entry into the US market as the pinnacle of their creative ambition. This is particularly evident in the field of scripted formats, where IP owners’ relentless pursuit of localisation is matched by a voracious appetite for ideas among US channels.

And finally, there’s the fact that the US still dictates so many of the trends in the international scripted market. The rise of Netflix and Amazon, and all of the creative innovations this has brought about, is one example. But so is the shift towards day-and-date windowing – expertly introduced by major US rights owners.

UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann
UFA Fiction CEO Nico Hofmann

Having said all this, Mipcom (which began yesterday in Cannes and runs until Thursday) is one point in the calendar where US shows have to fight for exposure alongside titles from around the world.

For example, one of the biggest stories of the week so far is that UFA Fiction and Amazon are joining forces to create a sequel to German-language series Deutschland 83 (D83). Called Deutschland 86, the new show will premiere exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in Germany in 2018. In addition, all episodes of D83 are available for streaming for Prime members in Germany and Austria.

As with the first series, Sundance in the US is a coproduction partner and FremantleMedia International handles international sales. RTL, the German broadcaster that commissioned D83, has acquired free TV rights to D86.

Created by Anna Winger (head writer) and Jörg Winger, D86 returns three years after D83, in 1986, and picks up the story of East German Agent Martin Rauch. Martin has been banished to Africa until he is recruited to fight for the last gasp of Communism abroad.

Set against the backdrop of real events during the last Summer of Anxiety, when terrorism raged across Western Europe, Martin’s mission takes him to Johannesburg, Tripoli, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, where he is forced to face new realities at home – and to make an impossible decision

Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of UFA, said: “With this latest collaboration between Amazon, RTL Television, FremantleMedia International and UFA, a long-awaited wish comes true. This deal is a milestone in coproduction history. It will be resetting standards for the upcoming years.”

Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights
Tangled Sisters is among the Indian shows acquired by Eccho Rights

Dr Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Prime Video Germany, added: “After the Amazon Original You Are Wanted with Matthias Schweighöfer and Michael Bully Herbig’s Bullyparade – Der Film, Deutschland 86 is the latest German-made production that will be available exclusively on Prime Video. German series and movies are important for our Prime members and we are happy to build on our engagement with German production industry and bring new shows to our customers.”

In another interesting new development, Sweden-based distributor Eccho Rights has picked up three drama scripts from Indian broadcaster Star for the global market. The titles involved are Vera (Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera), Tangled Sisters (Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena) and Unexpected Love (Diya Aur Baati Hum).

The deal is significant because Eccho has made a name for itself selling Turkish scripted formats to the international market. If it has anything like the same success with Indian titles, it will represent a major breakthrough in the global drama business. The titles are also interesting because they have so many episodes – meaning there is a lot of content for buyers to work with.

Nixon Yau Lim, head of Asia Pacific at Eccho Rights, commented: “The globalisation of drama is developing at a very interesting speed and one focus of Eccho Rights is to expand our partnership with producers to manage their script assets in new markets.”

Martin Clunes in Doc Martin
Martin Clunes in Doc Martin

Also of interest this week is the news that Sony Pictures Television has licensed three drama formats to Russian broadcasters, two of which are from the UK. The first is a local version of UK drama Doc Martin called Doctor Martov, which will air on Channel 1. The show is being produced by Lean-M Productions, which will also produce local versions of Mad Dogs and The Good Wife for NTV.

Away from Mipcom, UK broadcaster ITV announced a slate of news dramas this week, the first commissions by its new head of drama Polly Hill. The titles are Trauma by Mike Bartlett, Girlfriends by Kay Mellor, White Dragon by Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood, and Next of Kin by Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan.

Hill said: “All four are authored contemporary pieces, from wonderful writers who have a compelling story to tell. I think audiences are looking for drama with real authorship, and I am delighted that I start at ITV with a mix of great experience and new voices. This is just the start of what I hope will be an exciting journey for us and the audience.”

Mike Bartlett
Mike Bartlett

Trauma is a three-part story set in the trauma department of a central London hospital. It tells the story of a 15-year-old boy who dies under the care of trauma consultant Jon Stephens. Devastated and heartbroken, the boy’s father believes Jon is responsible for his death and as he strives for justice, he begins to unpick the fabric of Jon’s life.

“Trauma is a story about two fathers with very different lives, locked in conflict,” says Bartlett, creator of last year’s hit BBC drama Doctor Foster. “I hope the series will be moving, terrifying and timely. If we mistrust institutions and experts, what happens when we desperately need them?”

White Dragon, meanwhile, is a conspiracy thriller from screenwriting newcomers Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Filmed on location in Asia, it will tell the story of Professor Jonah Mulray, whose life is turned upside down when his wife, Megan, is killed in a car-crash in Hong Kong. Not long after arriving in Hong Kong, Jonah makes a shocking discovery about his wife.

Finally, a few stories from the US. First up, US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of Van Helsing, a female take on the classic vampire hunter story. The hour-long drama will go into production in January 2017, with an additional 13 episodes planned.

Van Helsing has been given a second season
Van Helsing has been given a second season

There are also reports this week that Amazon has teamed up with producer Chuck Lorre to make a TV series based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book was turned into a movie in 1990 that failed to live up to the hype. However, its sprawling New York-based narrative is probably better-suited to a limited TV series treatment.

Finally, MTV has greenlit a shortened third run of its horror series Scream. Season one had 13 episodes and season two had 10. The new series will have six episodes and, given the show’s rapidly declining audience ratings, will probably also be its finale.

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Williams brothers plot deceitful drama

The Williams brothers
The Williams brothers’ Liars is coming to ITV

Harry and Jack Williams burst onto the international drama scene in 2014 with The Missing, a compelling crime drama for the BBC in the UK. So successful was the show that the BBC ordered a second season of what has morphed into an anthology scripted series.

Now, the Williams brothers have been commissioned to write a series for UK commercial broadcaster ITV via their indie company Two Brothers Pictures.

The new six-part drama is called Liar and will explore the consequences of deceit. Starring Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd, it tells the story of a teacher and a surgeon who start seeing each other, neither realising the consequences that their meeting will have for each other or their families.

Commenting on the show, ITV head of drama Polly Hill said Jack and Harry Williams “are brilliant storytellers who have written a gripping thriller that doesn’t shy away from exploring a powerful subject. I’m thrilled we’ve commissioned Liar for ITV.”

The Missing saw premium pay TV network Starz come on board as US partner, so it’s no real surprise to see that Liar has also managed to secure a US partner in the shape of AMC sister channel SundanceTV.

Das Boot is being adapted as a television series
Das Boot is being adapted as a television series

Sundance has previously come on board high-profile European dramas such as The Honourable Woman and The Last Panthers.

Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said: “Liar is that rare combination of a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the human condition, and a page-turner. The Williams brothers have created something relevant and compelling – attributes our audience respects and embraces.”

As for the brothers, they said: “This story deals with highly emotional and important subject matter, exploring gender politics through the lens of a character-driven emotional thriller. We couldn’t be happier with the calibre of the team working on this.”

All3Media International, which handled distribution on The Missing, did the SundanceTV deal and is handling TV sales on Liar.

Another high-profile US/European partnership to hit the headlines this week is Das Boot, a TV drama that will be a sequel to the classic 1981 movie (itself based on a 1973 novel).

Previously announced by Germany’s Bavaria Fernsehproduktion, the show has now added Sonar Entertainment as global distributor. The only territories Sonar will not manage are Germany, Austria, the UK, Ireland and Italy, since these have already been secured by pay-TV broadcaster Sky (a coproducer on the production).

The Heart Goes Last
Rights to The Heart Goes Last have been picked up by MGM Television

The eight-part, €25m (US$28m) series will be set in 1942 and will focus on Second World War submarine warfare, primarily from the point of view of the Germans.

David Ellender, president of global distribution and coproductions at Sonar, said: “This project reflects Sonar’s ongoing strategic commitment to pursue fully integrated creative and commercial collaborations with top tier global partners to develop and distribute high-end content. Das Boot is a property with broad-based appeal to networks and broadcasters worldwide and will play exceptionally well.”

Outside these two projects, it has been a busy and varied week in terms of scripted series development. US studio MGM Television, for example, has announced that it is extending its relationship with Canadian author Margaret Atwood by securing TV rights to her novel The Heart Goes Last. The book, published last year, tells the story of a young couple who have been hit by job losses and bankruptcy in the midst of a nationwide economic collapse.

MGM and Atwood have already worked together on a TV adaptation of the author’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is set to launch on Hulu next year.

This show will also be part of MGM’s Mipcom line-up later this month, alongside new TV adaptations of classic movies Get Shorty and Three Days of the Condor. These join MGM’s ongoing movie-to-TV franchises Fargo and Vikings.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s works will be reimagined in Welcome to Hitchcock

Another interesting project to break cover this week is Welcome to Hitchcock, a new anthology series from Universal Cable Productions (UCP) that will reimagine Alfred Hitchcock classics.

The show was made possible following a deal between UCP and rights holder Alfred Hitchcock Estate. “Long after his death, Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most celebrated directors and visionaries in the world, a master manipulator of the macabre,” said Dawn Olmstead, executive VP of development at UCP. “We’re honoured that The Hitchcock Estate has put its trust in our studio to pay homage to his work.”

Meanwhile, The scramble for rebootable franchises looks like it will also result in a new version of iconic TV series Dynasty. US network The CW has reportedly asked Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to breathe life back into the franchise.

The original series aired on ABC from 1981 to 1989 and was a hit for the network. There’s no guarantee the new version will catch fire, however. TNT’s recent reboot of fellow classic US glamour soap Dallas only managed three seasons before it was taken off air.

Another interesting link-up this week sees The Weinstein Company join forces with rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter to produce TV and film projects. Jay-Z has already been involved in films including the 2014 Annie remake and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, while DQ also recently reported that he is involved in an HBO project centred on the US civil rights movement.

Dynasty
Dynasty is set to be reborn on The CW

Outside the US, DQ sister publication C21 reports that South African producer Ants Multimedia is developing a Zulu drama based on a 1986 novel by the late Kenneth Bhengu. The novel tells the story of a Zulu man who is sent to woo a princess on behalf of his king, but decides to court her for himself and so faces the wrath of the ruler. Bhengu was a prolific Zulu-language writer who published 18 novels and novellas.

This week also saw New Zealand pubcaster TVNZ unveil a broad-based slate of shows for 2017. On the drama front, it highlighted Screentime NZ’s five-part drama Dear Murderer, which stars Mark Mitchinson in a saga based on colourful, larger-than-life barrister Mike Bungay. Among TVNZ’s acquisitions for next year are dramas Victoria, Cold Feet and One of Us from the UK. US imports include Time After Time and 24: Legacy.

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Outlander outdoes itself on Starz

Outlander
Outlander’s season two premiere delivered its best ratings performance yet

It’s not quite Games of Thrones, but adventure/romance/time-travel series Outlander is proving to be an ace in the pack for US pay TV channel Starz. The first episode of season two aired last Saturday and attracted an audience of 1.46 million (Nielsen’s live plus same-day ratings).

Not only is this a record for the show, it translates into a 50% increase on its season one finale. This suggests that a lot of people played catch-up on the series and have now been converted into hardcore same-day fans.

The show also set a Starz record for a season premiere, beating Power’s second-season opener by a fraction. All of these metrics bode well for Outlander, and suggest Starz may have managed to get its claws into a female audience, with a lot of its shows to date – the likes of Black Sails and Spartacus – having felt quite male-skewing.

Starz also launched its new Steven Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, on Sunday. Because it’s Hollywood director Soderbergh, the critics have taken this show very seriously, mostly coming out in favour (though The New Yorker reviewer Richard Bordy wasn’t a fan). Less clear-cut is the feedback from IMDb, where the show has scored a 7.4 rating, which suggests the audience is either ambivalent or polarised.

Riley Keough stars in The Girlfriend Experience
Riley Keough stars in The Girlfriend Experience

In terms of TV ratings, The Girlfriend Experience launched with back-to-back episodes – averaging around 350,000 viewers across the two. The numbers look stronger if you add up the various staggered showings of the new episodes, but it’s not an outright success – especially when you consider there’s a lot of raunchy content to lure viewers in. So we’ll need a few more weeks to see if the show can build.

Season two of AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) also launched last weekend. With an overall audience of 6.67 million, this is in a similar ballpark to the ratings it was achieving at the end of season one. True, FTWD saw a slide in the number of 18-49s watching the show, but it is so far ahead of AMC’s other series (with the exception of The Walking Dead) that it seems nitpicky to point that out.

It’s also in a league of its own compared with the rest of the US cable universe. Keep in mind that FTWD also has a Talking Dead chatshow brand extension, which brings in a further 2.36 million viewers just after it finishes. On the whole, AMC must be ecstatic about the show’s numbers.

Fear The Walking Dead
Fear The Walking Dead looks to be picking up where its first season left off, securing strong numbers

The network has delivered some superb US-produced shows over the years (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands to name but a few). But it was notable that it didn’t do quite so well in ratings terms with the UK version of Humans (although this is also a good show). Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the channel does when it airs the six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.

The Night Manager recently aired in the UK, where it was a resounding success for the BBC – achieving an audience of eight to nine million for every episode (Live+7 days: BARB). In terms of its AMC showing (which begins on April 19 at 22.00), one thing it has in its favour (compared to Humans, for example) is an internationally recognisable cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.

If the show were on PBS (or maybe even A&E) it would be a dead cert to succeed. But whether the AMC audience will be as enthusiastic is an open question. Hopefully for British-based producers, it will be a big hit.

The Night Manager was a resounding success on BBC1
The Night Manager was a resounding success on BBC1, but how will it fare on AMC?

Meanwhile, US cable channel Bravo’s first foray into scripted TV was Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently completed its second season with an average of 660,000 viewers per episode – reasonable, but not amazing. Nevertheless, it’s clearly doing a good enough job for Bravo because the network has just announced that it wants three more seasons (a commitment that echoes Netflix’s recent backing for Orange is the New Black).

“With our first foray into scripted, Bravo’s viewers fell in love with Abby (the lead character) and her close-knit group of friends experiencing the joys and disappointments of juggling dating, careers, family and relationships,” said Frances Berwick, president of Lifestyle Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all excited to see what’s next for Abby and her friends.”

One show that is, perhaps surprisingly, under pressure is ABC’s The Catch, which started airing on March 24. The latest series from the Shonda Rhimes stable (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), it was expected to fly out of the blocks. Instead, it debuted to a lacklustre 5.85 million viewers.

The Catch isn't doing as well as expected
The Catch isn’t doing as well as expected

Now three episodes in, it is hovering just under the five million mark. It would be a major surprise if ABC bailed on a Shonda Rhimes show after just one season, but The Catch does need to start turning things round quite soon to keep the channel’s suits on board.

On the other side of the Atlantic, ITV has decided to ditch its fantasy adventure series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, thus rounding off a painful winter that also saw an unsuccessful outing for Jekyll & Hyde. The good news, however, is that spring has started off much more promisingly with strong ratings for ITV’s attempt at Nordic noir, Hans Rosenfeldt’s Marcella, and Sunday night treat The Durrells, which launched in the week ending April 3 with around 6.68 million viewers.

This will be welcome news for Polly Hill, who has just quit as BBC controller of drama to become ITV’s new head of drama. Explaining her decision to jump ship at a time when the BBC has just racked up successes with Doctor Foster, Poldark, War & Peace and The Night Manager, Hill said: “After 11 years at the BBC I am proud to be leaving it at the top of its game. ITV has always played a vital part in the landscape of British drama and shows such as Cracker, Prime Suspect and Band of Gold had a huge influence on me and the drama I wanted to make.

Stephen Dillane and Clemence Poesy in The Tunnel
Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel

“I am proud to be joining ITV and will lead the drama department into its next exciting chapter, making the very best popular drama, which will feel original, distinctive and authored. I can’t wait to start.”

Finally, one show to keep an eye on is the second season of The Tunnel (adapted from The Bridge), on Sky Atlantic, which debuted on April 12. The first season, which aired in 2013, settled down at around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers.

A three-year absence means the franchise will probably have lost some momentum, but early reports suggest The Tunnel is the channel’s biggest series launch of the year to date. We’ll check back in after a couple more episodes to see how the ratings performance of season two stacks up against the first outing.

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November reign: How did the now ex-ITV drama boss do?

Following Steve November’s exit from ITV, Stephen Arnell assesses his tenure as the commercial broadcaster’s head of drama.

The news of ITV drama director Steve November’s departure brought to a close the first stage of new ITV director of television Kevin Lygo’s shake-up of senior commissioning roles at the network.

For the commercial broadcaster, drama is the most important genre in terms of cost, peaktime value and ratings.

Although Lygo’s background is chiefly in entertainment (his skills will be crucial in reinvigorating that critical part of the schedule), one shouldn’t forget that he was, under pseudonym Ruby Solomon, the writer of the one-off comedy-drama Walter, commissioned and broadcast by BBC1 in 2014.

And when Lygo was Channel 4’s director of television and content, drama successes under his regime included Shameless, The Devil’s Whore, Skins, Elizabeth I, Dead Set and Any Human Heart.

With characteristic speed, Lygo poached BBC drama chief Polly Hill to replace November – no doubt fulfilling a dual purpose in both attracting proven talent and inconveniencing the BBC during a period when drama is its strongest genre.

So how should we assess November’s tenure at the helm of ITV drama?

November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde - but the show has been picked up abroad
November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde – but the show has been picked up overseas

He was very fortunate in inheriting a department in rude health thanks to the previous team of Laura Mackie (director) and Sally Haynes (controller), who were responsible for a slate of hits including Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Whitechapel, Appropriate Adult, Mr Selfridge, Scott & Bailey and Vera – all contributing to ITV’s Channel of the Year win at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2013.

The pair rescued ITV’s reputation for quality drama, which had taken a major hit under then ITV director of television Simon Shaps, when new series such as Rock Rivals, Harley Street, Demons, Brittania High, Moving Wallpaper, Echo Beach, The Royal Today and The Palace proved major disappointments for both viewers and critics.

At the same time, Shaps axed ratings bankers Foyle’s War and Rosemary & Thyme in an attempt to change perceptions of the then-beleaguered network.

Once Shaps left ITV in 2008, his successor Peter Fincham swiftly recommissioned Foyle’s War, which continued to enjoy healthy ratings until the series eventually ended last year.

November’s tenure hasn’t had the same level of critical or ratings success as the Mackie/Haynes era, but neither has it plumbed the depths of the Shaps years; so it’s more of a qualified success.

November (pictured top at last year’s C21 International Drama Summit) was dealt a good hand in inheriting shows that still had a lot of mileage left in them; the reception given to his commissions, however, was mixed.

November's tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella
November’s tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella

He enjoyed critical success with the likes of Peter Morgan’s The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries and Jeff Pope’s Lucan, while new commissions including the single film Cilla and the series Grantchester, Home Fires, Safe House, Prey, Unforgotten and Black Work all attracted strong ratings and broadly favourable notices.

All these achieved audiences high enough to warrant sophomore seasons.

The strong 6.4 million (29% share) debut enjoyed by The Durrells on Sunday, April 3 will give ITV hope for a long-running pre-watershed hit in the vein of the Darling Buds of May and Wild At Heart.

With a very healthy 6.1 million viewers (27.6% share) for it’s opening episode, Nordic Noir-style crime drama Marcella also gave November a high note on which to bid farewell to the network.

But balanced against these achievements were a run of high-profile misfires. The strategy of commissioning early-evening drama for a move into territory previously solely occupied by the BBC (Doctor Who, Atlantis, Merlin and Robin Hood) proved a costly misjudgement.

Both Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands returned low ratings accompanied by poor reviews, with many feeling the dramas fell between the two stalls of early-evening and post-watershed drama; too adult in tone for younger viewers and too juvenile for more mature audiences.

One wonders if doubts were expressed during development over whether commissioning apparently family-friendly ‘light’ takes on Penny Dreadful (Jekyll & Hyde) and Game of Thrones (Beowulf) would work for the Sunday early-evening ITV audience, but other considerations no doubt came into play.

With US cable-style orders of 10 and 12 episodes respectively, the underperformance of Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf left sizeable holes in ITV’s peaktime share.

Both shows found a home in North America, with Jekyll & Hyde on Canada’s CBC and Beowulf on The Esquire Network – both transmitted post-21.00.

Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in the schedules
Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in its slot

It appears unlikely that ITV will venture this far from its comfort zone in the near future, as the last attempt to crack the pre-watershed weekend drama market was also a bust – the aforementioned Britannia High (2008) and Demons (2009).

Some of November’s dramas also failed to connect with audiences over the most recent Christmas holidays, avalanched by the traditional dominance of BBC1 over the period, which appeared to be the case with both Harry Price: Ghost Hunter and Peter & Wendy, which were otherwise critically well received.

Period miniseries The Great Fire, which aired in 2014, was seen as an attempt by ITV to explore an area not usually associated with the channel, but unfortunately for the network, reviews and audiences were largely indifferent.

Scheduling has been a problem for ITV when launching new dramas, with BBC1 able to overwhelm the opposition with an unusually strong slate of shows. Midwinter of the Spirit was crushed by Doctor Foster, Jericho was taken out by established hit Death in Paradise and Doctor Thorne was similarly dealt with by the huge success of The Night Manager.

In some cases, such as Doctor Thorne, ITV introduced shows after BBC1 had already established its new dramas in the slot with a number of episodes, making the task of winning viewers more difficult than if they had simply clashed head-to-head on their debuts.

With pay channel ITV Encore, it’s difficult to quantify what counts as a success in the limited universe of Sky subscribers – 2015’s Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles returned respectable consolidated figures and was picked up by A+E in the US.

Reviews were generally favourable but there’s no word yet on season two.

In recent weeks, Encore’s Edwardian detective mash-up Houdini & Doyle’s opening episode was given a preview on ITV to kickstart the show. It’s probably too early to see if this has paid off in terms of the ratings for the series on Sky, but reviews have been fairly poor, although production values were praised.

The casting of comedian Stephen Mangan as Arthur Conan Doyle in particular came in for criticism; it was also noted that this was the second ITV drama in to feature Doyle as a character in a year (Arthur & George being the first).

Now with Hill in the top drama job at ITV, Lygo will be hoping she can continue her run of hits, which include The Night Manager, Poldark and Doctor Foster.

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Great Expectations: On set with the BBC’s Dickensian

Tony Jordan has brought together some of literature’s best-known characters in a celebration of Charles Dickens. DQ went on the set while Dickensian was still filming to find out why those behind the show were sure of its success.

He’s the revered author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

But what would it be like to peer inside Charles Dickens’ mind and bring the characters from his novels – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham et al – into the same world?

Red Planet Pictures' Tony Jordan
Red Planet Pictures’ Tony Jordan

Wonder no more, because that’s exactly what Tony Jordan has done with Dickensian, a 20-part, 10-hour drama now airing on BBC1.

Set within the fictional realms of the author’s novels, Dickensian brings together many of Dickens’ best-known characters as their paths cross in 19th century London.

It’s produced by Red Planet Pictures, with Red Planet MD Jordan acting as lead writer alongside Sarah Phelps, Simon Winstone, Julie Rutherford, Chloe Moss and Justin Young. Jordan and Belinda Campbell executive produce along with BBC1’s Polly Hill, with David Boulter producing.

Yet while viewers can enjoy spotting characters from different novels, another character that may receive less attention is the set itself. Described as a working set, its exteriors are joined to its interiors to create an all-encompassing world where The Old Curiosity Shop sits next to a fully functional Three Cripples pub.

The set was built inside a huge warehouse on a nondescript industrial estate in north-west London, inside which you are instantly transported into Victorian London. When DQ visits, it is dusk, with only the glow emanating from the Three Cripples providing light outside. Shops are painstakingly detailed along Market Street and as you walk across the cobbles, you can pick out such stores as Mantalini’s (Nicholas Nickleby) and The Old Curiosity Shop and the office of Scrooge and Marley (A Christmas Carol).

Inside Satis House – the town house belonging to Amelia Havisham and her half-brother Arthur (Great Expectations) – statues line the hallway and chandeliers hang from the ceilings, with a dining table laid for a feast. In contrast, Fagin’s den is dark and dingy, with barred windows keeping out the light.

Recreated locations
The Three Cripples pub is among the painstakingly realised locations

The scale and scope of the Market Street set is breathtaking – and it needed to be, says Jordan, who began working with production designer Michael Ralph before a script had even been written. “I had to build the world. That was key to making it work,” he explains. “I didn’t think it would work like a traditional show with a bit here and a location there. Dickens used atmosphere almost as a character – there’s always mist, smog and snow. So building the world became the only way to make this work. That’s what we’ve done.

“Satis House is in there, a church, the Three Cripples pub. I’ve got horses and carriages going round. It’s crazy beyond belief but that makes it a magical place to work and it’s created this family-company atmosphere among cast and crew.”

Jordan says that for Dickensian, which cost more than £1m (US$1.5m) an hour to produce, he tried to delve into Dickens’ imagination: “It’s all Dickens’ characters, all his stories, everything he’s ever written, but inside his head they’re allowed to mix up and to have slightly different outcomes. Timelines can mix, stories can mix, characters can mix. One story can affect another.”

The writer admits he’s not a Dickens scholar, joking that his starting point was The Muppet Christmas Carol. But by working with Dickens experts, Jordan ensured he remained faithful to the characters while bringing viewers stories never seen on screen before.

Cast
Dickensian’s ensemble cast includes Stephen Rea, Tuppence Middleton and Caroline Quentin

“Every time you’ve ever seen Miss Havisham, you’ve only ever seen this mad bird in a dress and a veil,” Jordan says. “But do you really need to see another adaptation of that? There’s a passage in the book where Pocket explains to Pip the history of Miss Havisham and how she had a half-brother who felt cheated after the death of their father and conspired with a man called Compeyson to steal her money. It’s still faithful to the story, the character and the spirit of what Dickens wrote but you haven’t seen that before. You haven’t seen the young Miss Havisham, falling in love, meeting that man. We see her on her wedding day – that’s exciting.

“As a writer, writing the scene between Ebenezer Scrooge and Fagin, that’s sexy stuff. I don’t care about broadcasters. Buy it or don’t buy it – I’m gonna write it anyway. I’ll do it on a Saturday morning. (Before I started) I thought somebody must have done this already, but they hadn’t. It was like Christmas. I felt like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve.”

Jordan and Ralph previously worked together on Death in Paradise, Hustle and The Ark, so before the script stage of Dickensian, Ralph created some artwork and even built a model of the main Market Street set. Jordan was then able to use that in his writing while the full-size set was being built.

“There’s no way you would know this show is filmed entirely on a set,” Jordan says. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, you’re just wondering where the fuck it is because it looks stunning. There’s no way you’d know, and that was really important.”

Another
The BBC1 series comprises 20 parts and began airing at Christmas

Ralph describes Dickensian as the “biggest and most ambitious series” he has ever worked on, adding that he was thrilled to work on a set where every element of weather and lighting could be controlled. “I delight in delighting Tony, finding him what he wanted when he wrote it and what he envisaged,” he says. “I was totally released with my imagination and creativity. I had so much freedom to produce what I did, it was unbelievable.

“I dressed nearly every set individually, sometimes on my own, especially The Old Curiosity Shop. If you can spend long enough dressing a set, it feels like you’re invading someone else’s space and that’s what it was like. I won’t let anyone put anything on the set that doesn’t have something written on it that actually relates to the character. That detail does take a lot of time, but we were given the time.”

Ralph says his designs are always inspired by the script and reveals the final set was almost identical to his initial sketches and models. “With all productions these days, no one ever thinks they have enough money to do anything,” he notes. “For me, less money is what I want. It opens up a well of creativity and means people have to be more focused on what the camera is really seeing. I’m a great believer in using the camera. The camera lies like a bastard and I’m embracing the deceit. We’re making films; man-made dreams for people who are awake.”

With a starring role in fellow BBC period drama War & Peace, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Amelia Havisham, is no stranger to epic productions. But while she travelled across Europe for Andrew Davies’ retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, she says she “loved” filming Dickensian on the purpose-built set.

“As soon as we walk through the doors of the studio, you’re transported into this world,” she says. “It’s such a huge job to build an entire street. I don’t think that ever happens. I’ve never done anything that has been like this.”

Describing Miss Havisham as an “iconic character,” Middleton adds: “To a lot of people she’s this crazy old woman living in a house, who looks like a ghost and has lost her mind. Actually, she was a normal young woman once and I think that’s a really interesting thing to explore.”

Also in the cast is Joe Quinn, who plays Arthur Havisham. Quinn left drama school early to take his place in the cast and admits it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “The story gives me a lot of creative freedom to flesh out a character that hasn’t really been portrayed before but is still in existence. He is an entitled, spoiled little brat with a bit of an alcohol problem. So no acting required,” he jokes.

Quinn says his first day on the set was “daunting,” adding: “It’s enormous – it’s a whole world. And the detail is such a testament to the craftsmen and the creative team that built it. They’ve done an amazing job.”

Viewers also meet Bleak House character Captain James Hawdon (played by Ben Starr), in a storyline that serves as a prequel story to Dickens’ novel, in which he is the father to Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter.

Starr was equally impressed by the set, which he said helped him get into character: “We’re going into Mantilini’s and you can look in the drawers and there are 100 types of buttons and different kinds of fabrics. Looking around this set is so helpful as an actor. It’s a huge playground in which you get 30 actors to fool around and pretend to be Dickens characters.”

But would Dickens have ever created Dickensian? Jordan certainly thinks so. “With everything I know about him, I’m pretty sure he’d be doing this, and if not this, something very like this,” he says. “He was a showman. This is big, noisy and features all his characters – it’s a celebration of Dickens. So of course he would be doing this, and I like the thought of that.”

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BBC heads in the write direction

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.

A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.

Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.

Charles Dance in And Then There Were None
Charles Dance in And Then There Were None

The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.

Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”

The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”

Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.

The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett
The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett

Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”

Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”

Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”

Jimmy McGovern's Banished will not return
Jimmy McGovern’s Banished will not return

One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.

“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.

“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”

The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.

Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”

Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White
Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White

Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.

David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”

Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.

The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”

Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”

Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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Women in the lead

Supergirl
Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, is flying high on CBS during its debut season

There’s a growing trend in the US towards female-led series and movies. And one interesting aspect of this is the reboot of ideas that previously had male leads.

Supergirl, currently doing very well for CBS network, is a kind of example of this trend, since it takes DC Comics’ ‘Super’ mythology and sidelines the traditional male lead character. But even more to the point are upcoming series where the central character is being given a gender swap.

ABC, for example, is working with Sony Pictures on a reboot of Fantasy Island in which the central character Mr Roarke will be recast as a woman. CBS, meanwhile, is taking a similar route with its reimagination of HG Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau and with a planned resurrection of 1980s series MacGyver. All of this is in addition to movie launches such as the all-female Ghostbusters.

This week came news of another gender-swap drama, with US channel Syfy picking up Nomadic Films’ new take on the Dracula story, in which vampire hunter Van Helsing will be a woman. A 13-part series due to launch in autumn 2016, the show will focus on Vanessa Helsing, who must lead mankind against a world controlled by vampires. Neil LaBute is the writer/showrunner.

There was more good news for female onscreen talent this week with the news that BBC1 has commissioned UK hit drama Doctor Foster (starring Suranne Jones) for a second series. The renewal follows a trend in the UK of bringing back successful serials even if they look to have reached a natural conclusion (Broadchurch, The Missing, Safe House and Prey are other examples).

van_helsing_2004_1920x1280_805530
The Van Helsing movie starred Hugh Jackman as the vampire hunter

The trick is to leave a loose editorial strand at the end of the first run and then see if the audience is sufficiently interested to justify a follow-up. In the case of Doctor Foster, which is written by Mike Bartlett, an average consolidated audience of 8.2 million across five episodes made renewal a no-brainer, even though the first run seemed to have come to a fairly neat conclusion.

The second season order was announced by Polly Hill, BBC Drama commissioning controller, who said: “Mike has not finished telling the story of Gemma (Dr Foster) and Simon (her husband) and there will be many more surprises in the next chapter of this powerful drama.”

Bartlett added: “I’ve been astounded by the response to Doctor Foster. So I’m thrilled that alongside (production company) Drama Republic and the phenomenal Suranne Jones, we’re going to tell the next chapter in Gemma’s story. Her life in Parminster may look better on the surface, but as she will discover to her cost, every action has its consequences eventually. No one comes through hell unscathed.”

Still in the UK, commercial broadcaster ITV is the latest company to announce a drama revival, with news that it is bringing back Cold Feet. Created and written by Mike Bullen, Cold Feet ran from 1998 to 2003 and was both a ratings and critical success for ITV.

Doctor-Foster-Sura_3450804b
Suranne Jones-starring Doctor Foster has been given a second season on BBC1

Centred on the lives of three couples, it was credited with addressing social issues in a way not previously seen on British TV. Likened to US shows such as Friends and Thirtysomething, it was also adapted for NBC in the US, although the Stateside version was quickly cancelled.

There aren’t too many details on the new Cold Feet as yet, but media reports seem to suggest it will involve most of the original cast. This means it will be looking at the same characters later in life (presumably with kids), as opposed to using a new cast working with similar but updated scripts to the earlier run.

Interesting stories out of Europe this week include the news that German pubcaster ARD is backing a miniseries about the brothers who founded Adidas and Puma – Adi and Rudi Dassler respectively. Called Rivals Forever: The Sneaker Battle, the four-part production will air in 2016.

The series is being distributed internationally by Global Screen, which has already licensed the show to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. “Rivals Forever tells one of the greatest success stories of German industry,” says Global Screen head of TV sales Alexandra Heidrich. “At the same time, it is a gripping and dramatic saga, full of love, friendship, mistrust and intrigue.”

cold-feet
The original Cold Feet cast – who will return for ITV’s revival of the hit series?

Elsewhere, the Turkish drama success story continues with the news that Indonesian channel SCTV is to adapt the Green Yapim drama Elif. The original version of Elif has already been a hit on SCTV, having first aired successfully on Kanal 7 in Turkey. International distribution of the show is handled by Eccho Rights.

Back in the US, cable channel ABC Family is poised to rebrand as Freeform from January. The new name is part of the channel’s attempt to become a “core destination” for people in the 14- to 34-year-old age range (which it calls ‘becomers’ as shorthand).

To support the shift, the channel has given series orders to two new shows. The first is Beyond, a drama about a young man who wakes up from a coma after 12 years and discovers he has developed supernatural abilities that propel him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy. The second, Guilt, the pilot of which was much discussed because of its similarity to the Amanda Knox story, is about a young American woman in London who becomes the prime suspect in the savage murder of her roommate.

The pilot of Guilt was shot in London and Budapest – and presumably the series will need to follow a similar line. Perhaps it’s too early to call this a meaningful trend, but it seems like a growing number of US cable networks are taking advantage of European production tax breaks. In addition to Guilt, we’ve seen E!’s drama series The Royals come to London, FX’s The Bastard Executioner shot in Wales and Homeland film in Germany. Starz and History have also produced in Europe.

Following another trend, Syfy has decided to do its bit for the undead by renewing its zombie series Z Nation for a third season. Eight episodes into its current 13-part run, the show is proving rock solid with an average audience of around 0.88 million. The show is currently Syfy’s strongest performer among 18-49s.

Finally, this week saw Amazon launch six new drama pilots. Based on their popularity with subscribers these show will either fade away and die or be given a shot at a series.

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Whose Dark Materials?

Philip Pullman is looking forward to seeing his work brought to life on TV
Philip Pullman is looking forward to seeing his work brought to life on TV

The BBC has greenlit an eight-part drama series based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, which comprises novels Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Commissioned by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore and BBC drama commissioning controller Polly Hill, the adaptation will be produced by Bad Wolf – the new prodco from Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner’s – and New Line Cinema, which is making its first move into scripted TV. The show will be made in South Wales and Los Angeles.

One thing we don’t know is who will write the show. Screenwriters are being talked to right now, so this week we’re speculating wildly on who might get the job.

Adapting His Dark Materials (which has sold 17.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages) is undoubtedly a great gig for any TV writer. But it will also be a tough challenge.

Not only is Pullman’s trilogy a complex and controversial piece of work (which may not sit comfortably in the BBC1 schedule), it has the shadow of a failed movie hanging over its head in 2007’s The Golden Compass, so there is no question it will require a proven talent to pull it off – someone who can capture the dark, subversive nature of the work without diminishing its sense of mischief, romance and adventure.

Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf
Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf

If their diaries allow it, the obvious choices to handle the project would be Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, both of whom have exactly the right credentials for a project of this kind. Moffat, immersed in Doctor Who and Sherlock, might not be a realistic option right now. But both writers are close to Tranter and Gardner and know what it takes to create shows that can work on both sides of the Atlantic, which will be a significant consideration for New Line Cinema.

On the face of it, both writers perhaps seem a little too slick for Pullman’s sombre fantasy world, but their sense of fun may be exactly what’s required to avoid the fate of The Golden Compass movie.

Tranter and Gardner won’t want to stray far from this kind of quality. But if Davies and Moffat aren’t available then they may look to other writers who have developed their credentials in and around Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sherlock. Again it depends on diaries, but you would have to look at the likes of Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who, Sherlock) – who might even bag a part in the show.

Strong alternatives with proven showrunner ability include Chris Chibnall (Doctor Who, Torchwood and Broadchurch) and Toby Whitehouse. Whitehouse would be an interesting call; a long-time friend of Gardner, he has shown the same kind of versatility as Gatiss and Chibnall with credits such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, Being Human and The Game.

His Dark Materials has been adapted for several forms, including the theatre...
His Dark Materials has been adapted for several forms, including the theatre…

If you’re looking for someone with recent credentials in adapting awkward novels then Peter Harness may be an option. Aside from his BBC1 adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, his credits include Wallander and City of Vice. Interestingly, he is also now part of the Doctor Who star chamber, having written episodes for the last two seasons (including The Zygon Inversion, co-written with Steven Moffat).

Other in-demand writers that you ignore at your peril include Jack Thorne (The Fades, The Last Panthers), Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman) and Howard Overman (Misfits). And to balance the fact that this is an all-male list, you’d have to consider talents like Abi Morgan, Sally Wainwright and Sarah Phelps – though this certainly feels like more of a project for graduates of the Doctor Who school of creative writing (which means we should also consider Neil Cross, whose credits include Spooks, Doctor Who and detective series Luther).

Tranter and Gardner might, of course, head in a completely different direction. With so much movie talent coming over into TV, why not go for Alex Garland or Jane Goldman – Brits who are pre-eminent in their field? Or maybe it requires the involvement of Nicholas Wright, the playwright who successfully adapted the novels for the National Theatre.

...for the big screen, as the critical and commercial flop Golden Compass...
…the big screen, as the critical and commercial flop Golden Compass…

The innate Britishness of the Pullman project (its location, its core characters and its brooding discontentment with Catholicism), combined with the film’s underperformance, probably militate against the use of a US writer. And it looks like the kind of project that would suit a writer-auteur rather than a writers room.

But US writers who Gardner and Tranter have worked with recently include Glen Morgan (Intruders), David Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) and John Shiban (Torchwood: Miracle Day). So if winning the US market is a big priority then any of these might be a credible screenwriting solution.

All of which is, of course, pure speculation – and there are plenty of other scribes who could handle the brief. It’s important, for example, to keep in mind that the chosen writer will need to pass muster with Pullman, not just Tranter and Gardner.

...and a graphic novel
…and a graphic novel

In the meantime, all we really know so far is what the production team and author have told us. Commenting on the project, Pullman said: “It’s been a constant source of pleasure to me to see this story adapted to different forms and presented in different media. It’s been a radio play, a stage play, a film, an audiobook, a graphic novel – and now this version for TV.”

Although the BBC announcement was only made this week, there is already a sense that His Dark Materials is better suited to TV than film (echoing other complex fantasy works such as Frank Herbert’s Dune).

Pullman, who will executive produce, seems positive about the medium’s potential to tell his story: “In recent years we’ve seen the way that long stories on television, whether adaptations (Game of Thrones) or original (The Sopranos, The Wire), can reach depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel. And the sheer talent now working in the world of longform television is formidable.

“For all those reasons I’m delighted at the prospect of a television version of His Dark Materials. I’m especially pleased at the involvement of Jane Tranter, whose experience, imagination, and drive are second to none. As for the BBC, it has no stronger supporter than me. I couldn’t be more pleased with this news.”

Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy
Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy

Tranter added: “It is an honour and a joy to be part of the team responsible for bringing Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels to the BBC. Ever since they were first published, these books have been a huge influence on so much of my thinking and imagination and it is enormously inspiring to be now working on them for television adaptation.

“The broad horizons of television suggests itself as the best of vehicles to capture the expansiveness of the story and worlds of Lyra and Will, and I am looking forward to seeing how Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass will occupy their place in an audience’s imagination across many episodes and seasons.”

Tranter’s use of the word ‘seasons’ as opposed to ‘season’ is, of course, illuminating. The books aren’t Game of Thones-like in length, so it’s doubtful the three of them could justify more than a series each (unless Bad Wolf goes down the interminable route taken with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit). So any writer who is thinking about coming on board is probably looking at a three-year commitment (assuming the TV show doesn’t suffer the same fate as the movie version) – which isn’t too bad. That said, they should probably read this article in The Guardian to remind themselves why the film version didn’t work.

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