Tag Archives: Robert Thorogood

British writers display their dark side

Today is the last day of BBC Showcase, an annual event that sees around 700 programme buyers from around the world descend on Liverpool in the UK to view and potentially acquire BBC Worldwide (BBCWW)-distributed content.

At this year’s event, BBCWW has had a lot of its success with crime drama, selling around 900 hours of programming to markets including Europe, the Middle East and Japan. It’s a reminder that the Nordic nations aren’t the only ones capable of producing compelling noir.

Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBCWW, commented: “British crime drama is hugely popular around the world and accounts for over 40% of our drama revenue.”

The fact that the UK does so well is a testament to the quality of TV crime writing in the country, so this week we’ll take a look at some of the talent driving the international hit machine.

luther-5Luther, which stars Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, was acquired by German public broadcaster ZDF, Star India and also by platforms in South Korea and Africa. The fourth series, which aired in the UK during December 2015, consisted of two feature-length episodes. What it lacked in volume, it made up for in ratings, with the two episodes attracting around 7.5 to eight million viewers. All 16 episodes of Luther have been written by New Zealand-based Neil Cross, who has also written episodes of Doctor Who for the BBC. Cross has also been commissioned by the BBC to write Hard Sun, a six-part apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.

lynleyThe Inspector Lynley Mysteries was also picked up by ZDF for its ZDFneo channel. Originally broadcast from 2001 to 2008, the series (based on the novels by Elizabeth George) has proved a decent performer on the international market. In the US, for example, all 23 episodes have aired on PBS. Several scribes have written episodes, including Pete Jukes, Simon Block, Lizzie Mickery, Valerie Windsor, Kate Wood, Francesca Brill, Valerie Windsor, Ann-marie di Mambro, Kevin Clarke, Simon Booker, Julian Simpson, Mark Grieg and Ed Whitmore. Whitmore also wrote a large number of episodes for fellow long-running BBC crime drama Waking the Dead. His other credits include Silent Witness (which was also picked up by TV4 Sweden at Showcase), Arthur & George and Identity, an ITV production that was subsequently sold as a format to ABC in the US. Whitmore also has a couple of episodes of CSI to his name.

happy-valley-dvdHappy Valley season two, was picked up by French PayTV broadcaster Canal+ (which also acquired the fourth season of Luther). The show’s first run was a strong seller overseas and there’s no reason to suppose the new outing will fare any less well. The show is produced by Red Production Company and written by Sally Wainwright. Wainwright also created Scott & Bailey, another popular female-led crime series that has been airing since 2011 on ITV.

prey-series-2Prey is broadcast by ITV in the UK but is distributed internationally by BBCWW. The first batch of three episodes aired in 2014 and starred John Simm, while a second run of three aired in late 2015 and starred Philip Glenister. The latter has just been sold to broadcasters including NRK Norway, YLE Finland and Canal+. Prey was created by Chris Lunt, who wrote all six episodes. Lunt’s success is a reminder that it’s never too late to break into the TV writing business. After 10 years of knocking on doors and pitching more than 80 projects, Lunt finally got his break at age 43. Media reports suggest he is also working on a modern-day adaptation of The Saint with the aforementioned Ed Whitmore.

sherlockSherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, has sold very well around the world since it debuted in 2010. At the start of this year, Gatiss and Moffat created one-off special The Abominable Bride, in which much of the action took place in the Victorian era (though a scriptwriting sleight of hand meant the story was actually linked back to the contemporary setting of the series). Broadcasters that picked up the special at Showcase include Degeto (Germany), SVT Sweden, Czech Television and Channel One in Russia. A fourth series of Sherlock is on the way in 2017, with stories for a fifth season also sketched out by Gatiss and Moffat. The show is very slow to come to market because of the busy schedules of Gatiss, Moffat and the lead cast members.

maigret_itvMaigret, based on the books by Georges Simenon, is a new ITV series starring Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr Bean). At Showcase it was picked up by Germany’s Degeto, which also acquired Sherlock: The Abominable Bride. The writer on this one is the experienced Stewart Harcourt, whose other credits include Agatha Raisin: The Quiche of Death, Love & Marriage, Treasure Island, Inspector George Gently, Poirot and Marple. So if anyone can handle a book-based period detective story, it’s Harcourt.

unforgottenUnforgotten, like Prey, is an ITV series distributed worldwide by BBCWW. Aired in October 2015, the first six-part series focuses on four people whose lives are rocked when the bones belonging to a young man who died 39 years ago are discovered below a demolished house. At Showcase, the drama was picked up by France 3 and YES DBS Satellite in Israel. The show was produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written and created by Chris Lang. Lang started his career on The Bill and has had a successful writing career since, with credits including Amnesia, Torn, A Mother’s Son and Undeniable. The ratings success of Unforgotten convinced ITV to commission a second series. There’s no information yet on the plot but it looks like it will be another cold-case drama, with Lang saying there will be “a new story, where long-buried secrets will once again be slowly brought to light.”

deathinparadiseDeath In Paradise was part of a package of 232 hours of crime drama sold to SVT in Sweden. Produced by Red Planet Pictures, the show has also been given the greenlight for a sixth series this week by Charlotte Moore, controller of BBC1, and Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning. All told, that will mean there are 48 episodes, which is a good number for the international market. Maybe that explains why it has sold to 237 territories worldwide including China, South Africa, the US and the Caribbean countries close to where the show is set and filmed. Echoing some of the other BBC dramas, Death In Paradise is written by a number of people. But the best-known name is series creator Robert Thorogood, who came to Red Planet’s attention via its scriptwriting competition.

fatherBrownFather Brown is based on the books by GK Chesterton and perfectly fits into the British tradition of eccentric or unusual amateur sleuths. The central character, played by Mark Williams, is a Roman Catholic priest. Unusually for a British drama, the 1950s-set show is already up to 45 episodes after just four series. At Showcase it was picked up by PBC (PTV) in South Korea and ABC Australia. Given the high number of episodes, it’s no surprise Father Brown is an ensemble-written afffair, with credited writers including Tahsin Guner, Rachel Flowerday, Nicola Wilson, Rebecca Wojciechowski, Jude Tindall Dan Muirden, Lol Fletcher, Paul Matthew Thompson, Dominique Moloney, David Semple, Rob Kinsman, Stephen McAteer, Jonathan Neil, Kit Lambert and Al Smith. Particularly prominent has been Guner, who wrote the very first episode and the last one in series four (among others). Repped by David Higham Associates, Guner was selected for the 2009/10 BBC Writers Academy and has written scripts for dramas including Holby, Casualty and New Tricks. He is currently developing original drama series Borders.

ripperstreetRipper Street was licensed this week to Multichoice VoD service Showmax. The show, which was famously saved by a financial injection from Amazon, is a period crime drama set in Victorian England. With four series of Ripper Street already produced and released, Amazon has already committed itself to a fifth season – taking the total number of episodes above 30. Another team effort, the key writer name attached to this is creator Richard Warlow, who tends to deliver about half of the episodes in each series. Warlow’s previous writing credits include Waking the Dead and Mistresses. Other writers on the show have included Toby Finlay (Peaky Blinders) and Rachel Bennette (Lark Rise to Candleford, Lewis and Liberty).

coronerThe Coroner is a daytime drama series about a solicitor who takes over as a coroner in the South Devon coastal town she left as a teenager. At Showcase it sold to AXN Mystery in Japan and Prime in New Zealand. The show was created by Sally Abbott, who also wrote three episodes of the first series. There’s a good blog from Abbott about how she got her break in the business here.

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Eyes on the Red Planet Prize

deathinparadise
Death In Paradise resulted from Robert Thorogood winning the Red Planet Prize

Red Planet Pictures, the UK indie behind productions such as Dickensian, Stop! In the Name of Love and Hooten and the Lady, has launched the latest edition of its scriptwriting competition.

First held in 2007, the Red Planet Prize aims to kickstart the career of new writing talent by optioning their television pilot script in the hope of turning it into the next hit series. The winner will receive £5,000 to have their screenplay exclusively developed by Red Planet Pictures and will also have six months of intensive development with an experienced script editor.

Announcing this year’s competition, Belinda Campbell, head of drama at Red Planet Pictures, explained: “The Red Planet Prize is about finding hidden writing talent and giving them the opportunity to develop their skills through an unrivalled mentoring scheme. Red Planet Pictures is all about the writer and we are committed to finding new voices, original stories and ambitious scripts from upcoming talent.”

Red Planet head of development Judith King added: “We’re looking for ideas that burst with character, people and worlds we’ve never seen before, new spins on genre or totally new genres. But, most importantly, ideas that are deeply truthful and personal to the writer – stories that only they can tell.”

Red Planet Pictures' Dickensian
Red Planet Pictures’ Dickensian

Last year, the competition (held in partnership with Kudos) was won by documentary editor Paul McIntyre and former film art executive Tracy Ann Baines, the first time there had ever been joint winners. McIntyre’s project The Family Next Door was about a woman who discovers family secrets after finding a hole leading to her neighbour’s house. Baines, meanwhile, was singled out for her period drama Iron Roads, which looked at the men on the frontline of the industrial revolution.

There’s no news yet on whether either of these projects is going forward into production. But if you delve a bit further back into the history of the prize, it’s clear that it can deliver on its promise to kickstart writing careers. The most celebrated example of this is Robert Thorogood, who won the 2008 prize with his ‘copper in the Caribbean’ idea. Three years later, it hit the screens as BBC drama Death in Paradise. Thorogood wrote five episodes of the first season, which immediately proved popular with UK audiences. He went on to write episodes across the next three seasons and also wrote a series of Richard Poole murder mystery novels (Poole was the central character in the first couple of series of Death In Paradise).

So what does it take to win the prize? There is an interesting interview here with 2013 winner Jonathan Neil, where he outlines how he approached the competition. And there is also a useful blog here, from someone who got to the second phase in 2009.

Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik
Burning Bush, from Stepan Hulik

One interesting point to take away from both these articles is the issue of the first 10 pages. The way the competition works is that you enter 10 pages of your script in the first round. If the judges like those, you’ll be asked to send the rest of your script. Neil’s assessment of this was that it was important to be dramatic and bold and to “set the tone quickly.”

However, what’s also clear is that you need to have made some progress with the rest of the script as well. The message from the second blog is that there is no point having a great 10 pages if you haven’t got the rest of the script in shape. This is because the turnaround time between finding out you have made the second round and submitting the rest of the script is too tight.

With that warning, for anyone interested, submissions are being welcomed here from 12.00 on Monday January 4, 2016 until 12.00 on Friday January 22, 2016. You’ll also find full details about what the competition requires from you.

Elsewhere in the world of writing, HBO Europe has announced is now in production on an original idea from writer Stepan Hulik. Called Pustina (Wasteland), the eight-hour drama tells the story of a village on the verge of extinction. The village sits on huge reserves of coal, and foreign companies plan to acquire it, remove its population and their homes and establish a mining complex.

Commenting on the show, Antony Root, exec VP of programming and production for HBO Europe, said: “We are proud and excited to be producing this major original piece from one of the most talented young screenwriters in our region. Pustina tells a story that goes to the heart of the economic and social changes facing communities in the new Europe. It is also a page-turning mystery. We believe both the story and its themes will resonate strongly with our audiences.”

Hulik’s major credit to date is Burning Bush, a three-part miniseries centring on the true story of a Prague history student who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the 1968 Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.

El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US
El Chiringuito de Pepe is being remade for the US

That show saw success at the Monte Carlo International TV Festival, where Ivan Trojan won a Golden Nymph award for best actor in a miniseries. Hulik himself won screenwriting awards in his native Czech Republic. Hulik, who is also reported to be working on a biopic of the troubled 1960s jazz singer Eve Olmerova, is also known as a film historian. As part of his work, he has looked at the famous Barrandov Film Studio and how it was affected by the Soviet occupation in the period after the 1968 invasion.

Finally, DQ reported a few weeks ago that ABC in the US is leaving no stone unturned in its pursuit of international ideas that can be adapted for its home market. More evidence that this is a concerted drive comes this week with the news that ABC is developing a local version of Spanish drama El Chiringuito de Pepe. The US version will be written by Don Todd, whose writing credits include Sleepy Hollow, Hart Of Dixie, Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty.

The original show is about a famous chef who comes to a small beach town to breathe life back into his father’s failing cafe. However, he quickly finds himself falling in love with the place.

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Death in Paradise’s Robert Thorogood on writing for a global audience

Not long ago, Robert Thorogood couldn’t get his foot in a production exec’s door. Now, the Death in Paradise creator is writing a series that caters for audiences in more than 200 countries. He gives DQ the inside track on his journey and how he makes the show work.

Robert Thorogood’s life has to some extent been a story of all-or-nothings. Five years ago, he was one of the thousands looking to make his first mark on the TV industry, having already spent years trailing from one production boss to another looking for someone to take his scripts.

Robert Thorogood, whose big break came after meeting Red Planet Productions' Tony Jordan
Robert Thorogood, whose big break came after meeting Red Planet Productions’ Tony Jordan

His latest idea – a drama about an expat policeman working in St Lucia – was, as he readily admits, a tricky sell. Shooting in the Caribbean for five months straight was hardly going to make for a cheap show, and producers just weren’t interested in such an ambitious concept from a first-time writer.

Thorogood’s pedigree was solid enough, though. Having spent 15 years as a script reader, he had also sold a number of treatments to production firms across the UK and been commissioned to write three original scripts for the BBC and ITV. But by 2010, the only show to have been penned by Thorogood and produced was an afternoon play called From Abstraction, broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Despite his ambition and confidence, the affable and remarkably honest Thorogood admits that, as he approached 40, he began to consider careers away from writing. It was only after an encounter with Tony Jordan at London-based Red Planet Productions that Thorogood finally got the break that would ultimately enable his Death in Paradise concept to become one of the most widely sold shows in the world.

Thorogood met Jordan after the producer set up a competition for ‘new’ writers. And although his ‘policeman in St Lucia’ idea did not claim the top prize, it was a finalist and, most importantly, caught Jordan’s eye – laying the groundwork for the two to work closer together. “He ignored the problems of making an expensive show in the Caribbean and decided to do it anyway,” Thorogood says of the Red Planet MD.

It turned out to be a pretty good call. The show was championed by Jordan, whose track record with such series as BBC1’s Life on Mars and Hustle saw him welcomed into the offices of TV commissioning execs across the UK’s capital. BBC eventually greenlit the show, and Death in Paradise – via the broadcaster’s commercial arm – has gone on to become a global juggernaut, airing in more than 200 countries. It’s now set for a fifth season on the UK pubcaster’s flagship channel next year.

The show has faced down its fair share of troubles, however – not least in getting around the financing issue. The solution was to create a coproduction between the BBC, its commercial arm BBC Worldwide and France Télévisions, with Red Planet and France’s Atlantique Productions at the coalface out in Guadeloupe making the show. The setup got Death in Paradise off the ground but it also meant there were regular competing interests that demanded subtle – and not so subtle – changes to the scripts.

“There are always an infinite number of challenges and an infinite number of ways of being miserable on a TV show,” Thorogood says, “but the cultural differences between working in the UK and in France were definitely noticeable.”

Such contrasts were magnified on subjects like physical humour – something the French were keen on but that the British disliked – and it was up to Thorogood and his creative team to devise a script that pleased both parties, conceding just enough on all sides to please everyone involved.

In a similar vein, British Primeval actor Ben Miller was cast as the lead detective, while French film star Sara Martins was brought in following roles in Little White Lies and Tell No One.

Lost in Paradise airs in more than 200 countries
Death in Paradise airs in more than 200 countries

The balancing act continues today, but Thorogood now has the ominous task of pleasing viewers across the world. He admits characters are now developed at the start of a series with hundreds of potential buyers in mind, meaning the show’s scope has become much more global. “At a strategic level, when we create the characters we absolutely have that international outlook,” he says. “When we replaced Ben Miller, who was playing an uptight Brit in a suit, we wanted another archetypal Englishman, a Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral figure – someone a bit posh, lanky and middle class, because that plays around the world.”

The answer to that particular conundrum came in the form of Kris Marshall, of Love Actually fame, whose arrival in the third season had the desired effect. The show was able to continue where it had left off, playing to some of the stereotypes attached to an Englishman living a tropical country.

Commercial needs have also shaped the format of Death in Paradise, which consists of self-contained episodes that “reset” at the end. It’s a key facet of the show’s “ongoing financial health,” Thorogood says, and is one of the reasons why the series can, to an extent, be shown in any order, anywhere in the world.

Thorogood admits the show has had to deal with “revolving doors with actors,” but insists the changes have injected a freshness into the whodunit, which is now 32 episodes old and counting. The forthcoming exit of another (currently unnamed) star, however, is leading Thorogood to adapt the show’s structure, with a focus on producing episodes that are even more “standalone” in nature, centring on one main character each week. “It’s the sort of challenge I hope will make it a richer and more rewarding experience,” he says.

Despite the show’s global success, its creator – like many creatives – remains cautious about the long term and eager to work out where he’s going next. There haven’t been any huge dips in ratings from viewers, and BBC Worldwide, which sells the show abroad, has found buyers ranging from PBS in the US to AXN Mystery in Japan.

But much of Thorogood’s wariness is born from the same sort of concerns held by the production companies that repeatedly shut the door on him five years or so ago. And that’s led to a “mad bollock, kick, scramble,” he admits, as he ensures that once the boat sails away from Death in Paradise for the last time, he’s not left alone on the island. “As far as I’m concerned, the financing of the shoot – which takes place in Guadeloupe – makes it inherently unstable. We have to sell in those 200 countries because we have to earn so much money to break even,” he says.

“So when the show was greenlit and it became successful, I got a publishing deal to write a Death in Paradise novel. I love the murder mystery genre and I was aware that one day the show will be cancelled – not because it gets bad but because it’ll just become too expensive to make.”

The show’s success made last year one of the busiest of Thorogood’s life, as he juggled writing the novel with his existing responsibilities on the TV show that made him. “If you’re a writer, or any sort of creative, you really need to keep moving forward. So I’m also doing what I’ve always done: I come up with ideas and pitch them, but now I’m lucky enough to have some production companies coming to pitch ideas.”

Several of his projects are already placed at the BBC and ITV in the UK, and he is currently waiting for their notes and decisions. Other than that, it’s “hustle, hustle, hustle,” he says, with future ideas being noted, developed and ultimately pitched.

“I don’t actively have any other shows that have been greenlit,” he adds, providing an insight into the temporary world that a TV writer inhabits.

“We greenlight very few new shows here in the UK each year because, luckily, the schedules are filled up with returning series like mine. Trying to get the next thing off the ground is still just as hard as getting that first thing of the ground.”

The difference this time, though, will be that Thorogood has that all-important first credit to his name to not only open doors out but also attract producers and broadcasters alike.

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