Tag Archives: Sally Wainwright

Jack and Jones

Sally Wainwright writes and directs Gentleman Jack, which sees Suranne Jones play Anne Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian.’ DQ visits the set of the BBC and HBO period drama.

The entrance to Shibden Hall is marked by imposing black iron gates and stone walls, with a large stone lion making its presence felt. The grand house, which dates back to 1420, is noticeable for its black and white Tudor frontage and large Gothic-style tower.

Generations of residents have seen the building and its grounds undergo an extensive transformation over the years, though its biggest evolution came during the ownership of its most famous resident. Anne Lister added the tower for use as a library where she could write, while also installing terraced gardens and a boating lake, with views from the grounds overlooking the stunning Shibden Valley scenery.

It’s here at the house near the English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where the majority of filming took place for an eight-part miniseries about the life of Lister – landowner, industrialist, traveller, diarist and the woman described as the first modern lesbian. The way she dressed and conducted herself saw her given the nickname – and the show’s title – Gentleman Jack.

The BBC1 and HBO series opens in 1832, when Lister (played by Suranne Jones) returns from Hastings to Shibden Hall after discovering that her would-be companion and lover, the aristocratic Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), has accepted a marriage proposal from a man.

Sally Wainwright

Despite her affection for her elderly aunt (Gemma Jones), Anne is frustrated by the shabbiness of her ancestral home and finds her father (Timothy West) and long-suffering sister (Gemma Whelan) difficult to live with.

However, when Anne discovers that her land is rich in coal, her plans to transform the estate provide a welcome distraction from her broken heart. On the neighbouring estate, Crow Nest, shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is quietly delighted to hear that the charismatic Lister is back.

On a bright but extremely blustery September day last year at Shibden Hall, filming is continuing inside the dark, constricted rooms, presenting a significant task for the lighting crew. Only the small bedrooms have been recreated in a studio, giving Gentleman Jack the remarkable authenticity of filming in Lister’s real-life home.

The historic house is usually open to members of the public, though filming between April and November has seen visitor numbers restricted. Each room has been dressed immaculately for the series, with the kitchen displaying a table laid with cutlery and glasses while pans and tankards hang above the open stove. A shotgun sits above the door.

The series comes from writer and lead director Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), who has long been fascinated by Lister. “What made me want to write about her primarily was just her character, just what an extraordinarily huge personality she was and the outrageous brilliant bold things she did,” she explains on set.

“I couldn’t imagine who could play Anne Lister because there are so many facets to her personality. She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions, she’s very bold and brilliant and she did so many fantastic, extraordinary things. It was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that. I think the number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them – we got her.”

Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

The actor in question is Jones, who first teamed up with Wainwright on TV movie Dead Clever in 2007 before they were reunited on dramas Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.

“I have a vague memory of [Wainwright] talking about this project because she’s written scripts before on this, but it wasn’t this,” says Jones, wearing a dressing gown in between takes but still sporting Lister’s unique hairstyle. She was asked to audition for the role and read the scripts, and admits she was intrigued to work with Wainwright the director, having previously only worked with her as a writer.

“The work started when I got the call to say yes. A year ago, I then said give me everything. So I got five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through, some of Sally’s notes sent through. Then we came here and walked all the way round Shibden and stomped over to the coal mines. We even fed some pigs on the way.”

Rehearsals started just before Christmas 2017, with Wainwright keen to afford Jones time to allow her performance to “germinate” as the actor tried to soak up the Bafta-winning writer’s years of research into Lister’s life. “It was very thorough and it was really brilliant. We got the right person,” Wainwright notes.

The production also employed an “intimacy director,” Ita O’Brien, to ensure the actors felt comfortable during the sex scenes between Lister and Walker. Jones would run through scenes in full costume so she could practice carrying herself as the top hat-wearing Lister before the cameras started rolling. “If I hadn’t had all of that, I don’t think I’d have been able to do the part,” the actor says.

Some 320,000 words of Lister’s coded diary entries were translated to inform the drama

Jones says playing Lister has been the most demanding role of her career, becoming totally invested in playing the character through painstaking research and preparation with Wainwright. In fact, her work on BBC drama Doctor Foster, in which Jones played the central character, proved to be valuable preparation for Gentleman Jack, as she was already used to working through every beat of a series. “So when I got to this, it wasn’t a shock because I’m in a lot of it,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Doctor Foster, this might have been a shock in a way – going, ‘Oh, is it me again?’ So I was prepared for it.

“There’s so much to love [about Lister]. She is noble, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, and harsh to herself and to others. She’s a perfectionist, she’s a self-educator, she is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken – and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer, she is funny, and a bit mean. And she’s very blokeish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything. And getting to play all those things yet finding a constant was the difficult thing.”

Wainwright describes Lister as “a mass of contradictions,” which made the character incredibly hard to realise on screen. “As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you can think of several things that contradict,” she says. “Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama – that there’s a lot of conflict within her – and I hope the kind of choices we made give it an edginess.”

Central to the scriptwriting process has been Wainwright’s use of the extensive diaries Lister wrote throughout her life. Between 1806 and 1840, she filled 7,500-plus pages with around five million words, as well as writing hundreds of letters, account books and other papers that offer a fascinating insight into her life and the 19th century experience in general. But what makes the diaries unique is that her more personal thoughts – ranging from her relationships with other women and financial information to scathing comments about other residents in Halifax – were all written in code, a mixture of symbols, numbers and Greek letters that Lister appeared to switch into effortlessly.

For the series, Wainwright and advisor Anne Choma, who has written a book about Lister, translated 340,000 coded words for the first time.

Gemma Whelan (left) and Gemma Jones (right) also star in the series

“Sections of the diary have been transcribed before but never all of it,” explains Faith Penhale, executive producer on Gentlemen Jack and CEO of producer Lookout Point. “The section we were looking at, we knew elements but we didn’t know the whole thing. One of the joys that Sally’s found with this is every time you transcribe a new section of the diaries, something new arises that you didn’t know, so it does feel like we’re uncovering something. Anne Lister was a natural dramatist. She loved the drama of her own life.”

Choma consulted on the scripts from the beginning of development to help ensure Lister’s authentic voice could be heard through the series. “Sally would say Anne would write far more exciting things than she could ever dramatise,” she recalls. “We had two major themes, the affair with Ann Walker and the business rivalry with the Rawsons.

“Sally’s scripts are so strong. The big challenge was staying true to Anne Lister and making sure we were producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself. Some bits are very difficult to get your head around, so some of the dialogue had to be adapted for modern audiences.”

Despite her extensive writing credits, Wainwright has only previously helmed episodes of crime series Happy Valley and single drama To Walk Invisible. Here, she directs the  series alongside Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott.

Wainwright says her approach behind the camera puts authenticity above everything else in an attempt to reflect the real Lister and the world around her. “We’re trying to make it for a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe the authenticity and accuracy about the amount of research that’s gone in but equally find it entertaining as well,” she says. “It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling our story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past, but [in a way that] that will entertain people as well in the here and now and has a resonance now and has things to say, which it clearly does.”

Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) plays Lister’s partner, Ann Walker

The director went against standard period drama convention by making extensive use of a steadicam on set, enabling her to capture sweeping shots of the landscape around Shibden Hall while trying to keep up with Jones.

“It’s in the diaries that Anne worked out she walked at four miles an hour. I got the electric bike out and pushed it so I got up to four miles an hour just to see how fast it was, and I was thinking, ‘That’s fucking fast.’ But I think Suranne walks faster than four miles.”

But it’s those moments at Shibden and in the surrounding countryside where Jones says she truly valued being part of the production. “Every day, even when it’s tough and there are long hours and I can’t remember my lines or whatever, you have to take a step back and breathe and go, I can’t actually believe they let us in this house because it’s her house.”

Though ostensibly a period drama, the series is thrilling from the outset, and while there are elements of it being a domestic drama, it is never dull. Lister, as played by Jones, is a whirlwind of energy, charging around the countryside, driving horse-drawn carriages or climbing walls. Most notable is the fact that the character often breaks the fourth wall to look directly into the camera, while Lister’s inner thoughts are sometimes narrated.

“I always aim to entertain, that’s my big thing,” Wainwright adds. “I always want to make people laugh. It’s got to be true and there’s got to be drama but I do find Anne Lister very funny. I think she was funny. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do.”

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All in The Detail

Angela Griffin and Shenae Grimes-Beech team up to star in Canadian detective drama The Detail. They tell DQ about playing cops and the chance to join a female-led production.

The Detail could not be more timely. As the fallout from Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandal continues, alongside the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns and the row over gender pay inequality, this Canadian crime series stands apart as a female-led production.

Starring Angela Griffin, Shenae Grimes-Beech and Wendy Crewson, the story details the messy realities of cop life – both on and off the job – for detectives who work tirelessly to solve cases while navigating the complicated demands of their personal lives.

Behind the camera, female writers, directors, producers and consultants drive the series, which is described as depicting topical stories through a distinctly and unapologetically female lens. Key personnel include executive producer and co-showrunner Ley Lukins, who also developed the series; executive producers Ilana Frank, Linda Pope, Sally Wainwright, Nicola Shindler and Jocelyn Hamilton; co-executive producer Sonia Hosko; consulting producer Kathy Avrich Johnson; and writers Naledi Jackson, Sandra Chwialkowska, Katrina Saville and Sarah Goodman. Directors on the series, produced by ICF Films and distributed by Entertainment One, include Jordan Canning and Sara St Onge.

Other creative talent includes co-showrunner Adam Pettle and co-executive producer director Gregory Smith, writers Graeme Stewart, Joe Bernice and Matt Doyle, and directors Kelly Makin, Grant Harvey, John Fawcett and James Genn.

Shenae Grimes-Beech (left) and Angela Griffin in The Detail, which is led by women in front of and behind the camera

When DQ sits down with Griffin and Grimes-Beech, it is seven months since filming wrapped on the eight-part series, which launches on Canada’s CTV on March 25 and will air on ION TV in the US. But Griffin explicitly remembers her excitement at the first read-through for the show.

“It felt like the start of something really special,” she says. “There was such a good vibe about the whole job, which stayed for the entire job. There was such a good energy about it. It’s exciting being in a room full of women, I’ve got to say. Being sat around a table where I’m not the girlfriend or the wife was super cool. And then you’ve got all these great female directors and producers.

“I think it’s amazing but I also think, ‘Yes, it should be.’ I almost don’t want to big it up too much because that should just be the norm, but I’m really proud to be part of the show and part of something that is getting it right.”

Grimes-Beech picks up: “That’s one of the things I think we all loved about the show so much. It’s never, like, the female boss. It’s never something that is punctuated. It just ‘is,’ because why the fuck wouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t women be treated as complete equals? It’s a laughable concept to think that’s not a reality for a lot of people.”

Griffin, best known for her long-running role on UK soap Coronation Street, plays Detective Stevie Hall, an experienced interrogator dealing with a thorny family life. Grimes-Beech, meanwhile, is Detective Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Cooper, a street-smart rookie with a personal life that threatens to eclipse her day job.

The Detail will debut on Canada’s CTV later this month

That work-life balance is a key element of the series, which sees procedural crime-of-the-week storylines play out against the backdrop of the detectives’ individual family lives and examines how the cases they face impact their home life.

It’s what makes The Detail stand out for Griffin, who says she wants to see characters on screen juggle the daily demands she faces in her own life. “And I actually really like it when people don’t handle it, because it is impossible,” she admits. “I thoroughly enjoy watching imperfect lives because it makes me feel better about my own. It makes me feel like I’m not a complete failure. Certainly for Stevie, she doesn’t get it right all the time when it comes to that balance. Going forward, I’d like to see her struggle more with it, because sometimes she does manage to pull it out of the bag. I’d like to up that ante a bit more.”

Grimes-Beech, meanwhile, prefers the crime element of the series, which she says she finds fascinating. “I don’t often watch dramas that are strictly about people’s personal lives but when I watched our preview back, I enjoyed the personal stuff because it really gives you something to fall in love with your character for. People are going to fall in love with the characters as well and that will keep them hooked.”

That’s not to say that the police element wasn’t important too. “I loved it,” Grimes-Beech says about the opportunity to play a cop. “One of my favourite moments was where we were busting into a trailer and we had our army dude on set with us and he was walking us through how to do it properly. It was so cool, it makes you feel so official.”

For Griffin, the opportunity was amped up by the chance to have a gun, something British crime dramas notably lack in comparison to their North American counterparts.

UK viewers will recognise British actor Griffin from such shows as Coronation Street and Lewis

“I have wanted to be a cop with a gun for ever,” the actor says, noting that the only props she was allowed as DS Lizzy Mannox in ITV drama Lewis were a notepad and pencil. “As an actor, it doesn’t get much better for me. I’ve got personal stuff, I get to cry in a corner, I get to shoot people, I get to shout at people, I get to be a mum. Some people don’t want to do that; for me as an actor, it’s everything I have ever wanted.”

That wasn’t the only difference on set for Griffin, who is used to a vastly different production schedule on British shows such as Brief Encounters and Ordinary Lies. “It’s bizarre that two countries that speak the same language, that have similar-sized industries, could work in such different ways,” she muses. “The unionisation of the industry in North America as a whole makes it massively different. So certain people can’t do other jobs or double up on things – even the drivers have to be from the drivers’ union. You can’t just nip in a car with an AD [assistant director]. And they have hair and make-up – two people. In the UK, the make-up does the hair and that’s just really normal. It differs on so many different levels but I like both ways of working.”

In contrast, it was a much shorter shoot than usual for Grimes-Beech, who is more used to the year-long effort needed to produce a 22-episode season of a US network drama, such as The CW’s 90210. After five years on that show, and a five-year stint before that on DeGrassi, she’s since mixed things up with a range of feature and TV films. But with the small screen stronger than ever, the actor is happy to return to a potentially long-running series that affords her some security and the chance to pick up other projects on the side.

“While there’s no stability for an actor, I feel like a TV show is as close as it gets and I have so much appreciation and gratitude for a job like this that I didn’t have when I was young,” she says. “When you fall in love with a character and a show as much as I have with this one, you wish it will run forever. That’s not often the case.

Shenae Grimes-Beech starred in The CW’s 90210 for five years

“Back in the day, like five years ago, we all wanted to break out and do movies so badly that an Oscar was the ultimate dream. Now you’ve got Oscar winners on TV shows all the time – look at the cast of Big Little Lies. Are you kidding me! It’s mind-boggling and that’s not something anybody in the industry would have said would happen five years ago. With film, unless it’s a Marvel movie or whatever, no one’s making any money. Those are passion projects and TV allows you to fulfil those passions on the side without having to worry. It’s a different climate in the industry.”

For Griffin, it’s not lost on her that she has had to cross the Atlantic to find a leading role, following in the footsteps of other black British talent such as Damson Idris, Idris Elba and Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. “There’s some great stuff being made [in North America] and a lot of our British, particularly black British, talent is scoring really well out there,” she says, adding that there’s a simple way to ensure more black and ethnic minority talent can pick up leading roles. “Just see people for the parts,” the actor concludes. “It doesn’t have to have the word ‘black’ before it to have someone audition for it. You just open up your casting for everybody and you let everybody come.

“I love the fact I’m doing this show, I absolutely love it and it’s so exciting to be in Canada and I feel really lucky to have it. It would be quite nice to do a series in the UK where I can be one of the leads and see my children every single night and have the same depth, and I’m slightly sad I’ve had to go across the pond to do it.”

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Brits dominate Rose D’Or scripted

Mum
Big Talk Productions’ Mum aired on BBC2

The Rose D’Or Awards were dominated by the UK last year with wins in nine out of 11 available categories – and following this week’s release of the Rose D’Or shortlists for 2016, it looks like the UK stands an extremely good chance of repeating its success.

One thing is for sure, the UK will win both the sitcom and the newly created drama series categories. In sitcom, the three shows slugging it out are Episodes from Hat Trick Productions, Mum and Raised by Wolves, the latter two from Big Talk Productions.

In drama, the contest is between Happy Valley, River and This Is England ’90. The winners will be revealed in Berlin on September 13.

Looking first at the dramas, Happy Valley (written by Sally Wainwright) and This Is England ’90 (Shane Meadows/Jack Thorne) have already received plenty of plaudits. River, a six-part drama for the BBC, is probably the least-known of the three, despite being written by one of the UK’s top talents, Abi Morgan.

Having started out writing for theatre, Morgan’s earliest credits were in TV (Peak Practice, My Fragile Heart), but more recently she has moved effortlessly back and forth between film and TV. Her best-known films include Brick Lane, The Iron Lady and Suffragette, while stand-out TV credits include novel adaptation Birdsong, The Hour and River.

River
Six-part drama River earned positive critical notices in the UK press

Regardless of whether River triumphs in Berlin, Morgan certainly got the thumbs up from critics. In the UK, The Daily Telegraph critic Michael Hogan said the series was “beautifully written by Abi Morgan, stylishly directed and superbly acted. [Lead actor] Stellan Skarsgård delivered a powerhouse performance: sad and soulful in one scene, sardonically spiky and manically energetic in the next. With his craggy face and crumpled demeanour, the haunted detective prowled the streets of London like a wounded bear. I’m torn between wanting River to get recommissioned and wanting this series to stand alone as six near-perfect episodes.”

Aside from its UK screening on the BBC, River has also been available via Netflix internationally. In Canada, Globe and Mail critic John Doyle added his voice to Hogan’s, calling the show a masterpiece of melancholy crime drama: “It is the sort of drama critics rejoice in seeing. It is a stunningly successful hybrid of Nordic noir and the traditional, gloomy British police procedural. It is about solving a murder, but mainly about the intricacies of the human mind dealing with loss and terrible grief.”

The Rose D’Or sitcom category, meanwhile, brings international recognition for Stefan Golaszewski, writer of BBC2’s Mum. Golaszewski previously wrote Bafta-winning sitcom Him & Her for BBC2. In Mum, he tells the story of a woman seeking to rebuild her life following the death of her husband.

Catastrophe
Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is set for third and fourth seasons

When the show was commissioned, Shane Allen, controller of comedy commissioning, said: “Commissioning Mum was a delightfully easy decision after seeing the sure-footed pilot. Stefan is a unique author and this is a very confident next chapter in what promises to be a distinguished career in comedy. All his hallmarks are there – painful authenticity, comedy grotesques, emotional tenderness, revelation and depth – it’s a class act. I think it will connect with a lot of people as a refreshing take on an overlooked stage in life.”

Conveniently for the sake of narrative flow, last year’s Rose D’Or-winning sitcom Catastrophe is also in the news this week, with Channel 4 commissioning a third and fourth season of the critically acclaimed show. Created by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the second season of Catastrophe was C4’s second-highest performing comedy of the year. The show has also been streamed in the US by Amazon Prime and picked up for adaptation for French-speaking Canada.

Announcing the news, Phil Clarke, C4’s head of comedy, said: “I am thrilled to commission a third and fourth season. It’s a welcome return for the brave, razor-edged, excruciatingly honest and painfully funny portrayal of a modern, long-term relationship.”

Raised by Wolves
Big Talk Productions’ Raised by Wolves

Critics have also been effusive in their praise of the show. The Guardian’s Will Dean said it “inverts the classic romcom with sexual honesty, a barrage of swearing and a wonderfully dysfunctional support cast. Catastrophe is a modern great. All 12 episodes [the first two seasons] were superb in pretty much almost every aspect. At its heart it’s an ordinary love story, couched in some first-class swearing, about sexual honesty, served with a side-plate of adultery, lust, elderly parents, flirtatious colleagues, money worries and a dead dog. The love story we deserve.”

The Times’ Hugh Rifkind added that it is “the funniest British comedy of the past five years. I shan’t say more, because it is so funny that me telling you the funny bits would be considerably less funny than you actually watching it, which is definitely what you should do. It’s tight and sparse and there’s never a wasted moment. In a nutshell, the best bits are about all the terrible things you never quite say to your friends, family and significant other, and what would happen if everybody just said them.”

Announcing the recommission, Horgan and Delaney said: “We are thrilled to be making a third season of Catastrophe. Rob and Sharon are a blast to spend time with. And we’re not talking about ourselves in the third person, we’re talking about the characters. We’re eager to breathe life back into Rob and Sharon. Okay, now we are talking about us. In the first season Rob and Sharon went through a lot (us) and even more in the second season (back to the characters). We’re looking forward to putting Rob and Sharon (both us and the characters) through further pain for your enjoyment (now we’re talking about you).”

This is England '90
This Is England ’90, written by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne, is up for a Rose D’Or

Delaney recently took part in a panel session at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, during which he talked about the challenges of delivering great comedy. He talked about the need to keep ego under control, even when the world is telling you how great you are. “I had this fear of becoming this walled-off guy who wouldn’t listen. So I’m a real believer in humility,” he said.

Explaining why he persisted with comedy as a career, Delaney said: “I realised after the global financial collapse that no career is safe, that everyone else knows how comedians feel. So I thought I might as well do exactly what I want to do.”

He was also very refreshing on the subject of encouraging diversity, observing that it is “insane” not to draw on diverse voices. “My advice is to be selfish, make money by embracing diversity,” he quipped.

Finally, in the UK, there are reports that the new season of BBC period drama Poldark will go head-to-head on Sunday night with ITV’s new period drama Victoria (September 4, 21.00). Fortunately, most of us have time-shifting technology these days, so my guess is that people will store Victoria so they can avoid the ad breaks.

Poldark is written by Debbie Horsfield while Victoria is created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in her screenwriting debut. Alongside the likes of Sally Wainwright, Sarah Phelps and Abi Morgan, these shows may be indicators that female writers are starting to hold more sway in primetime – a section of the schedule that, from a writer’s point of view, can sometimes resemble a London gentleman’s club. Or Muirfield Golf Club.

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Fox keeps faith in Gotham

Gotham stars McKenzie (right) as the young James Gordon
Batman prequel series Gotham stars Ben McKenzie (right) as the young James Gordon

In September 2014, Fox in the US introduced a new scripted series set against the backdrop of DC Comics’ Batman mythology. Gotham takes the death of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman)’s parents as its starting point and effectively positions the show as a Batman prequel, with detective James Gordon (later Commissioner Gordon) as its central character and introducing Bruce/Batman as a teenage boy (looked after by a youthful version of manservant Alfred).

The show had a strong start, with the very first episode generating 8.21 million viewers at launch, rising to 14.15 million once the time-shifted audience was factored in. Season one stayed solid until around episode 18, whereupon the live audience dropped to around the 4.5 million mark. This might have been low enough to justify cancellation, but with time-shifted viewing taking the show up to around 7-7.5 million, Fox decided there was enough in the show to give it a second run.

The second season started in September 2015 and drew roughly the same numbers as the end of the first. There has been some further slippage, but the show has settled into a relatively stable pattern. After 14 episodes of a 22-episode run, it is attracting a loyal audience of 4-4.5 million (6.5-7 million after adding in time-shifted viewing).

At this point, Fox has decided to greenlight a third season of the show. Commenting on the decision, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “It takes a very special team to tell the tales of Gotham. For the past two seasons, Bruno Heller, Danny Cannon and John Stephens (the chief creatives) have masterfully honoured the mythology of Gotham and brought it to life with depth, emotion and memorable high drama.”

Better Caul Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk, will return for a third season
Better Caul Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk, will return for a third season

The headline ratings don’t especially justify Fox’s confidence in the show. Airing on Monday nights at 20.00, it is outgunned by The Voice, The Bachelor and Supergirl. However, it does perform strongly among men aged 18 to 49. And it has sold pretty well internationally, with clients including Channel 5 UK, CTV Canada, TVNZ New Zealand and TF1 France (though this is of more significance to Warner Bros, owner of DC Comics, which distributes the show).

Possibly, Fox is hoping that young Bruce’s gradual transformation into the formidable Batman will energise future seasons. Or maybe it is hoping all the current background Batman noise provided by the forthcoming Batman vs Superman movie will help boost Gotham’s performance. Either way, Fox is clearly still committed to the show for the foreseeable future.

An easier call in terms of renewal is AMC’s Better Call Saul, which has just been greenlit for a third season. The Breaking Bad prequel is currently five episodes into its 10-part second season and averaging 2.2 million (same-day ratings). That’s a solid performance for AMC, supported by the fact it is also getting good reviews from critics and audiences. The current IMDb rating of 8.8 puts it at the upper end of new drama.

An enthusiastic AMC president Charlie Collier said: “What (the team) has accomplished with Better Call Saul is truly rare and remarkable. They have taken one of the most iconic, immersive and fan-obsessive (in the best possible way) shows in television history and created a prequel that stands on its own. Watching Jimmy McGill’s thoughtful, melodic and morally flexible transformation into Saul Goodman is entertaining and delighting millions of fans, whether their starting point was Breaking Bad or not. This series has its own feel, pace and sensibility and we can’t wait to see what this incredibly talented group comes up with in season three.”

Gomorrah
Gomorrah is the latest foreign-language series to head to SundanceTV, which previously took Deutschland 83

In another of the week’s standout stories, Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been picked up by AMC’s sister channel SundanceTV for broadcast in the US. Sundance previously acquired the German drama Deutschland 83 – making it a pioneer in bringing foreign-language drama to the US.

The first season of Gomorrah was a surprise hit around the world and the second is due to be launched at MipTV by German distributor Beta Film. Commenting on the pickup, Joel Stillerman, president of original programming and development for AMC and SundanceTV, said his channel “prides itself on presenting distinctive stories from unique points of view, and Gomorrah’s gritty exploration of the Comorra mob families in Naples is no exception.” Other channels to pick up Gomorrah include Sky Germany, HBO Nordic and HBO Latin America.

Last week, much of this column was dedicated to the excellent performance of the BBC’s 2016 drama output. Since then, Happy Valley season two has come to a conclusion with super-strong ratings of 7.5 million (a figure that will rise once time-shifted viewing has been factored in).

Happy Valley has been a strong performer on BBC1
Happy Valley has been a strong performer on BBC1

On the whole, season two was very good, though not quite as explosive or gripping as season one. The key story arc, which centres on Catherine Cawood, Tommy Lee Royce and Ryan Cawood, seemed to be put on hold for another day, while the resolution of the main criminal case (involving the murders of four women) was relatively understated. There was also a sense that some strands didn’t fully develop (Ann Gallagher’s alcoholism and the trafficking of Eastern European women by a gang, involving another murder).

Nevertheless, Happy Valley is still superior to most things on TV and the audience is now clamouring for a third season. Writer Sally Wainwright has said she would like to pen a third instalment, though didn’t put a timeframe on it.

Elsewhere, Turkish drama continues to be in strong demand around the world. This week Eccho Rights picked up the Aka Film drama Black Heart (Oyunbozan) for global distribution. The series, which will debut in Turkey at the start of April on Show TV, tells the story of a brother seeking justice for the murder of his journalist sister who exposed a powerful media tycoon as a gangster. To get his revenge, the brother enlists an orphaned girl who needs his help in order to save her dying sister.

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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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NBC still feeling Grimm

Grimm has been given a fifth season
Grimm has been given a fifth season

NBC has generated a lot of headlines in the last few weeks for culling so many of its “freshman” shows – those that have only aired for one season. But one NBC show that has built up decent momentum is Grimm, a police procedural fantasy hybrid now in its fourth season. With ratings currently on a high, it was an easy decision for NBC to greenlight a fifth series in February this year.

Grimm’s success is not really surprising when you realise that one of the show’s co-creators, David Greenwalt, has a credit list that includes iconic series such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series Angel. Working with Buffy creator Joss Whedon, Greenwalt wrote, directed and produced large chunks of the first three seasons of Buffy before working with Whedon on Angel. At this point, he brought in Jim Kouf, an old screenwriting buddy whose credits up until that point included the movie Stakeout.

Angel ran for five seasons (110 episodes) on WB Network before being killed off in 2004, much to the shock of its adoring fans. Whedon himself was mortified, comparing the cancellation of the show to a “healthy guy falling dead from a heart attack.”

Roll forward a few years and the idea of a Brothers Grimm-based contemporary drama was first mooted by Todd Milliner (co-founder of production company Hazy Mills). Milliner met with Greenwalt to discuss the idea and Greenwalt immediately called up Kouf. Along with Stephen Carpenter, they devised what would become Grimm. Carpenter was credited on the first episode of season one, but since then Grimm has very much been a Greenwalt/Kouf enterprise. Although other writers have penned episodes, Greenwalt and Kouf tend to write the early and late episodes of each season and also an episode somewhere in the middle.

Grimm isn’t Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but it does a stalwart job for NBC on Friday evenings while also getting positive reviews from critics. During season three, The New York Times said: “Grimm is not a profound show, but few are more purely entertaining, engaging, clever, tense, funny and well-paced…”

Angel was abruptly cancelled
Angel was abruptly cancelled

Not to be overlooked is the fact it also does well in markets like Germany, France and Australia. The earlier series have also just been picked by Amazon for use in markets like the US and UK.

So what morals can we draw from Grimm? Well, there’s clearly a message here about the power of screenwriting partnerships, and also about the enduring nature of certain story archetypes (Grimm is, in some ways, an upgrade on Angel). And it’s interesting that Greenwalt and Kouf are 65 and 63 respectively – age clearly hasn’t prevented them from writing a show that is proving a regular ratings success among 18- to 49-year-olds.

Last week, we looked at British screenwriter Sally Wainwright and the way her mature works have focused on her home county of Yorkshire. Until now, Wainwright has focused on contemporary drama. So this week it’s worth noting that she is to write a two-hour special about 19th century novelists the Bronte Sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and their troubled brother Branwell.

Operating under the slightly unwieldy title To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters, the production will be filmed in and around Yorkshire, where the sisters lived their brief lives (Anne and Emily were dead by 30 – and there were actually two more sisters who died as children). Commenting, Wainwright said: “I am thrilled beyond measure that I’ve been asked by the BBC to bring to life these three fascinating, talented, ingenious Yorkshire women.”

The project was commissioned by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore, who added: “The Bronte sisters have always been enigmatic but Sally Wainwright’s brilliantly authentic new BBC1 drama brings the women behind some of our greatest literary masterpieces to life. It’s an extraordinary tale of family tragedy and their passion and determination, against the odds, to have their genius recognised in a male 19th century world.”

The BBC’s broadcasting rival ITV has also decided to delve into the 19th century, commissioning an eight-part series on the life of Queen Victoria from Mammoth Screen. Based on Victoria’s diaries, the series will focus on her early life as she ascends the throne at age 18. Given that Victoria lived until the age of 82 and her diaries run to a total of 62 million words, there’s plenty of potential for this project to run and run if it appeals to audiences.

Daisy Goodwin is writing ITV's Queen Victoria drama
Daisy Goodwin is writing ITV’s Queen Victoria drama

The writing task has been handed to Daisy Goodwin, best known within the TV business as a producer, having run indie company Silver River until last year. The Victoria project is Goodwin’s screenwriting debut – though she has carved out a successful career as a novelist in recent years.

Explaining the appeal, she says: “I’ve been fascinated by Victoria since I started reading her diaries at university. She’s a woman whose personality leaps off the page – a tiny 4’11” teenager who overnight became the most powerful woman in the world, and her candour and spirit makes for an irresistible heroine.

“Victoria was the first woman to have it all; she had a passionate marriage, nine children and was grandmother to most of Europe’s royalty. But she also had a job, being Queen of the most important nation in the world. It wasn’t easy; her reign was beset by scandal and sleaze, and it was only by sheer force of personality that she prevailed. Her diaries give an astonishingly vivid picture of her transformation from rebellious teenager into, to my mind, our greatest queen.”

Oscar-winning writer Paulo Sorrentino is working on The Young Pope
Oscar-winning writer Paulo Sorrentino is working on The Young Pope

Another standout project revealed this week is The Young Pope, an HBO/Sky/Canal+ coproduction about a fictional Pope starring Jude Law. Production on The Young Pope will begin this summer and continue into 2016, with filming predominantly in Italy. The eight-part series will be directed by Italian Paulo Sorrentino, who will also write in collaboration with Tony Grisoni, Umberto Contarello and Stefano Rulli.

Sorrentino is quite a catch. His career to date has primarily been focused on feature films. His film The Consequences Of Love was nominated for the Palme d’Or in 2004 and he went on to win the 2008 Prix du Jury with Il Divo. More success followed when his film The Great Beauty won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 2014. Sorrentino has recently started to work in English. His film Youth, starring Michael Caine, is currently competing for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival (winner to be announced on Sunday May 24).

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