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Hold the front page

Journalists from two competing newspapers go head-to-head in Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett’s latest BBC1 drama, Press. DQ went on set to speak to the writer, executive producer Faith Penhale and the cast about this examination of the fourth estate.

Unusually for a national tabloid newspaper, the floor of The Post is quiet and still. Computer screens are turned off and chairs sit empty beneath large signs displaying the publication’s bright red masthead.

In the next room, however, dozens of extras are lining up, ready to take their places on the set of Mike Bartlett’s new drama, Press. Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, the series aims to explore the personal lives and constant professional dilemmas facing journalists as they attempt to balance work and play amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.

Mike Bartlett

On one side are the employees of The Post, a traditional tabloid newspaper known for entertainment and scandal, while on the other are those working for The Herald, a left-leaning broadsheet. When The Post moves into new offices directly opposite The Herald, these two groups of journalists and the newspapers they represent are thrown into direct conflict.

The six-part series is produced by Lookout Point, BBC Studios and Deep Indigo for BBC1, and coproduced with PBS strand Masterpiece in the US. BBC Studios is handling international distribution.

Bartlett, best known for BBC1 drama Doctor Foster, says he had wanted to write about newspapers and the press for a long time, describing the newsroom as “the ideal place for a drama.” He reveals he first pitched the idea 10 years ago, but since then the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry in the UK have brought the operations of newspapers and journalists into sharper focus. And in the age of Donald Trump and so-called ‘fake news,’ the press is arguably under greater scrutiny than ever.

It was a meeting four years ago with executive producer Faith Penhale, joint CEO and creative director of Lookout Point, that finally put Press into development.

“What is interesting about that is the show was initially about a quite stable industry but, over the course of researching and writing this, it became a story about an industry that is changing rapidly, and no one knows what is going to happen to it,” Bartlett explains, seated one floor above the set built inside a former office block on a north London industrial estate. “As a dramatist, it’s a wonderful world for drama because you have got new people coming in, new ways of doing things, and you have got older people who have been there a long time and are worried about losing a sense of what it used to be.”

Ben Chaplin plays Duncan Allen, editor of The Post

During his research, Bartlett visited the offices of UK publications The Guardian, The Sun, The Independent and the London Evening Standard, which he says both matched and confounded his expectations. He then sat down to write.

“I got a real sense of vocation from most people I spoke to, even if it was buried underneath a load of having a hard day and being really busy,” he says. “People on all different desks in the newsroom had a real belief in what it was doing, whether it was for entertainment or revolution and political change. So the show, on one hand, is a workplace drama where people sleep together and fall out and make friends and do all the things you would expect, but I also said from the start that the stories have to come from the world of journalism. If could you tell the same story in a world set in a hairdressers then it wasn’t the right story.”

Bartlett and Penhale go to great lengths to stress that Press is an entirely fictional drama, despite the echoes of real-life publications – The Post could easily be The Sun, while  The Herald surely doubles for The Guardian – and say the show doesn’t put their own personal views on the screen, despite Bartlett admitting he’s a “leftie, Guardian-reading writer.”

“We’re telling stories in this world and hopefully showing all the highs and lows and everyday dilemmas and huge, life-changing dilemmas. It’s got everything in there but it’s entirely created,” Penhale says. “We certainly don’t shy away from the emotional drama within the stories and within the characters as they face certain challenges. Emotions run high and things can get quite punchy as a result.”

Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard) plays Duncan Allen, the charismatic editor of The Post. “It was a fun role,” Chaplin says when he’s asked what attracted him to the part. “He’s a little bit amoral, which probably helps in that line of work, if tabloid editors will forgive me. He’s very persistent, he never gives up – like he’s an irresistible force.”

Poirot star David Suchet as newspaper owner George Emmerson

That means Duncan isn’t afraid of employing some “pretty shocking” tactics to get the story he wants. “I don’t think he has a lot of qualms about how you get a story, or any at all actually,” Chaplin says, referring to the ‘dark arts’ used by journalists in search of a scoop.

But to the actor, the vibe of a newsroom is rather like being in a theatre company: “There’s this camaraderie but there’s healthy competition as well. It reminded me a little bit of being shipmates, like you’re on the same ship.”

Duncan also comes under pressure to increase readership – and revenue – from The Post’s owner, George Emmerson, played by Poirot star David Suchet.

Having played a real-life newspaper proprietor before in Maxwell, a 2007 biopic about the late media magnate Robert Maxwell, Suchet was keen to avoid any links to real-life figures this time. “When I was offered the role, I said, ‘I don’t want to play [The Sun owner Rupert] Murdoch, I just want to play the character that is in the script,’ and Mike has trodden a very good line. You are not supposed to link him at all. It doesn’t feel thinly veiled and I was very keen to not put on any accents or anything.”

In the wake of recent movies such as Spotlight and The Post, Suchet believes now is a good time for TV to tackle the newspaper world. “It’s like courtroom drama,” he notes. “There have been great films in Hollywood about the press and journalism; it’s great drama and there are great characters.”

Press also stars Charlotte Riley as a journalist for The Herald

In the hands of Bartlett, that meant Press was a series Suchet couldn’t turn down: “He is the only writer, and Doctor Who [2017 episode Knock Knock, written by Bartlett] was the only programme, I have ever said yes to without reading the script. Mike’s scripts are possibly the finest scripts in media today, whether on television or film.

“When I got this script to do, it was just so good, and the relationship between my character and Duncan is really clever. It’s good dialogue. It’s really zingy. There’s nothing cliched about his writing at all. It’s very good. I think it’s going to be a very classy piece of television.”

On another day, DQ is at Three Mills Studios in east London, home to the set of The Herald, where Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders, Close to the Enemy) plays the broadsheet’s deputy news editor Holly Evans. Principled and passionate, she’s dedicated to journalism and it’s through her that viewers will see the personal cost of working in the industry.

“Her career has come at the expense of her personal life. She’s pretty lonely,” Riley says. “She has colleagues that she gets on well with. But the loneliness she experiences is outside the office. She lives to work – being in the office brings her to life. It’s her raison d’être. It’s quite sad that as soon as she walks through those doors, she breathes again. Being on her own she has to deal with her demons.

“What attracted me to the role is that she’s fast-thinking but the cogs turn very slowly emotionally. It’s a very detailed emotional arc for her. That was nice to play – it’s not driven by falling in love.”

Riley previously worked with Bartlett on King Charles III, the writer’s BBC2 adaptation of his successful stage play. “Coming from a theatre background, Mike and I have weekly conversations about the things we’re shooting and what’s coming up,” she admits. “It’s wonderful to have access like that to discuss every character and what’s going on and why.

“Shooting TV these days is so quick; you don’t get to be as immersed as you’d like. For most actors, mainly your training is theatre. We had a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of,” Riley adds. “I just really like his work, the way he writes. His characters are great.”

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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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