Tag Archives: Sally Woodward-Gentle

Killing time

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer engage in a game of cat and mouse in spy thriller Killing Eve, from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. DQ visits the windswept English countryside to see them in action.

Sandra Oh is staring out of the window of a production trailer lodged on an exposed hillside overlooking miles of beautiful English countryside. It’s a typical British autumnal day as grey clouds jostle with blue skies. “Look at this location,” she says while wrapped up amid the blustery conditions. “It’s like the most beautiful, fantastic location. And it’s raining – it’s so romantic.”

More used to the never-ending sunshine enjoyed in LA, it’s here at Ivinghoe Beacon, which stands tall among the Chiltern Hills, that Oh chats to DQ as she prepares to film scenes from BBC America spy thriller Killing Eve.

Oh plays the eponymous Eve, a bored MI5 security officer whose desk job does not fulfil her fantasies of being a spy. When she is tasked with tracking down fearsome Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), working on behalf of a shadowy organisation, the two women are thrown into a cat-and-mouse game set over eight episodes and several stunning European locations, including Tuscany, Berlin, London and Russia.

Based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, the series was created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer and star of BBC comedy Fleabag, who is the head writer and executive producer. It is produced by Sid Gentle, with Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris also exec producing and Colin Wratten as producer. Endeavor Content distributes the show, which debuted in the US this month and has already been sold to the BBC in the UK. Other buyers include France’s Canal+, HBO Europe, HOT in Israel and TVNZ in New Zealand.

Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh as Eve

“When we meet her, the surface of her life is that it is a happy and complete one,” Oh says of her character. “But she’s unfulfilled in ways that are mysterious to her. Her relationship with this assassin really awakens something deep in her that she’s willing to sacrifice many things for.”

Later on set, the crew is fully exposed to the elements as firearms experts prepare a number of weapons between takes. One is then handed over to Comer, who runs through a rehearsal before filming a scene from episode four, in which Villanelle, gun raised, approaches a battered and broken 4×4 that has been brought to a stop along a dirt track by what appears to have been a tremendous volley of bullets.

Liverpudlian Comer – who sports a Russian accent in the series – agrees Villanelle is a complicated character. “When you first meet her, she’s mystical in the sense that you don’t really know much about her. She lives in Paris, she has this very luxurious lifestyle but seems to have nobody around her. The only real relationship she has is with Konstantin [her handler, played by The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia]. She very much wants to be in control of every aspect of her life – and when Eve comes into the picture, things start to slip up.”

But is she also a psychopath? “Essentially she is, yes. She kills people. She enjoys it. Killing is like an art to her,” Comer explains. “She really thinks about how she’s going to execute it. She takes on personas to do that, whether it be dressing up as a different person, [speaking a] different language… all these different things she goes at with full speed. She’s not to be trusted but I think she’s very likeable, in a weird way. I hope she is, anyway.”

Comer has risen to fame on the back of starring roles in BBC dramas Thirteen and Doctor Foster. And after heading the cast of Starz period drama The White Princess, the actor was looking for something more contemporary when Killing Eve came along. “Phoebe’s script was probably the only one that came through and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this,’” she recalls. “You get scripts that you love but this was so much fun to read on the page. Also, [I had to take] the chance to work with Phoebe, because I loved Fleabag and I thought with episode one, where is this story going to go?

Oh comes up against Jodie Comer’s Villanelle

“As for Villanelle as a character, I feel like assassins can be so one-dimensional and unrelatable. They can be very cold. But I felt that people would relate to her in some way. It’s quite original what Phoebe has done – going from quite a dark moment to laughter is the perfect balance.”

The role also afforded Comer the chance to do some stunts. “But I’m so uncoordinated,” she admits. “There will be a close-up of me flicking a knife and I’m, like, butterfingers, so we have to do it eight times. I’m so bad at this. But it’s fun and it’s something I’ve never done before.”

However, the actor adds: “Villanelle gets so close to the people she kills that not an awful lot of it is super physical. It’s very interesting how she gets so close to these people and how comfortable people feel around her. She can so easily be the girl next door. She can do all these different things and I think that’s what she enjoys the most.”

By contrast, what makes Eve stand out is that when she enters the spy game, she doesn’t suddenly know her way around a machine gun or become an expert at going undercover. “She’s not being an idiot, but everything is new,” Oh says. “She’s just a middle-aged lady who works at MI5 and makes sure everyone’s security is in order. There’s a difference between someone who picks up a gun that is believable and someone who is really picking up a gun for the first time.

“I remember one time I was going to do a movie where I had to shoot a big gun. I went into training and I looked at myself and thought, ‘I just look like a middle-aged Korean lady holding a big gun. This is not believable.’ I feel like in a lot of shows and movies, people seem to know how to do shit and that’s just not true.”

Killing Eve launched in the US last weekend

Sid Gentle had picked up the Villanelle novellas for adaptation when founder Woodward Gentle first met with Waller-Bridge. The latter was then still relatively unknown, as Fleabag, based on her play of the same name, had yet to air. “I’d read the play and I just loved the idea of putting her voice with that material,” Woodward Gentle says. “She really liked [the Villanelle IP] as well and was really excited by it. We actually developed it for another broadcaster, but BBC America took the script away and completely loved it even before Fleabag had gone out, so they totally got the tone and the ambition of it and weren’t just jumping on the Fleabag bandwagon. When it was greenlit, they asked if there could be one American character, so at least there would be some access point for an American audience.”

Eve was cast first, with the producers seeking a 40-something American to play the part. Canadian-born Oh, whose parents are Korean, fitted the bill. “She’s an extraordinary, serious, compelling, compassionate actor,” Woodward Gentle says. “You also believe her to be married to a Brit and to have been here [in the UK] for a while.”

For Villanelle, “we didn’t want a kick-ass sexy female,” she continues. “We wanted somebody who feels real, who feels like you could sit next to her on the Tube and she would just mix in. She needs to be a chameleon.

“Jodie’s an extraordinary actress. She chemistry-read with Sandra and that was amazing. She can have many different looks, she’s got amazing intensity and she’s also really naughty and spontaneous, so that worked well.”

Oh says she was drawn to the project by the mixture of wit and drama in Waller-Bridge’s scripts – and early trailers for the series suggest there will be large doses of humour throughout the drama.

“I thought it was unique and I really hope that’s what comes across,” says the actor, best known for her long-running role in US medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. “The English do dark detective series very well but it’s not just that, and it’s not just a character piece or thriller piece. It’s unique and it absolutely has to do with Phoebe’s voice as a writer and her choices.

“I really appreciate the way the show handles its wit specifically to each character. It’s not just like everyone’s funny – I can’t stand that, when everyone has the same type of humour. That’s just not true in life.”

The show’s comedic elements are never cartoony, however, with Woodward Gentle highlighting the production team’s extensive research aimed at bringing realism to the scripts and the world in which the series is set. “We’ve done a lot of research into who this organisation [that controls Villanelle] could be, who they might be killing off and what their ultimate ends might be,” she says.

“As you go further on with the show, you realise they’re actually mad and their scheme is quite terrifying, but that won’t get revealed until we’re into later seasons. We’re trying to ground it as much as we possibly can – it’s not James Bond, it should feel more grounded than that. But there is this black wit that you get in real life anyway.”

For Oh, meanwhile, the chance to lead a series has been a “30-year wait” – but she believes there is still plenty to be done to increase diversity in the industry. “You have a face like mine who is the face of the show and it’s two lead women, it’s produced and created by a woman. But I still feel there’s a lot of work for us to do to encourage women and actors of colour and crew of colour both in front of and behind the camera.”

“When was the last time you saw an Asian woman as the lead of a show? It’s very important to me and that is not lost on me at all. Having said that, it is 30 years in the making. But I’m happy to be here to do it.”

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Rewriting history

James Bond screenwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis imagine a world in which the Nazis occupy Britain in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative-history novel SS-GB. DQ visits the set.

At first glance, the set of the 1940s-era London police station looks unassuming and inconspicuous. A map of the River Thames hangs on one wall, beside a board displaying the details of ongoing murder investigations. A telephone switchboard stands in another part of the office, while adjacent tables are laden with an assortment of maps, newspaper cuttings, mugshots and used ashtrays.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

‘Wanted’ posters show the faces and details of eight people sought for a train robbery, while a steam train calendar displays the dates of November 1941.

Yet look a little closer and unusual details start to emerge – notepaper headed with the word ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ sticks out from the top of a typewriter sitting on one desk, next to notebooks embossed with Nazi insignia.

Stepping outside the office belonging to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, ‘Metropolitanpolizei’ appears again, this time on a sign hanging over the doorway, while Nazi banners hang in the stairwell of a nearby spiral staircase. The scene is jarred further by the sight of soldiers standing in khaki SS uniforms.

This is the setting for SS-GB, the forthcoming BBC1 drama based on Len Deighton’s 1976 alternative-history novel that imagines the Nazis won the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Set in Nazi-occupied London, the story follows DS Archer (Sam Riley) who is working under the brutal SS regime. But while investigating what appears to be a simple black market murder, he is dragged into a much darker and treacherous world where the stakes are as high as they were during the war.

US actress Kate Bosworth stars alongside Riley as American journalist Barbara Barga, who becomes inextricably linked with the murder case Archer is investigating. The cast also includes Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard, Maeve Dermody and Rainer Bock.

The five-part series, produced by Sid Gentle Films, has been adapted from Deighton’s novel by Bafta-winning writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – most famous for writing five James Bond features, including Spectre, Skyfall and Casino Royale.

The drama received its world premiere this week at the Berlin Film Festival, ahead of its UK debut on Sunday February 19. Distributor BBC Worldwide has also sold the series to broadcasters in Germany (RTL), Croatia (Pickbox), Sweden (SVT), Greece (Cosmote), Israel (HOT/Cellcom), Iceland (RUV) and Poland (Showmax), while it will also air on BBC First channels in Africa, Australia, Benelux and the Middle East, as well as UKTV in New Zealand.

It is directed by German director Philipp Kadelbach, whose credits include Naked Among Wolves and Generation War. Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Purvis, Wade and Lucy Richer are executive producers. The series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer.

As fans of Deighton, Purvis and Wade were instantly drawn to the series, which marks their first move into television, when they were approached about the project by Woodward Gentle.

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

“It’s a pretty faithful adaptation,” says Purvis of the screen version. “The biggest challenge was [in the book] we were following Archer from his point of view. The fact he can’t trust people means it’s very difficult to talk to other people about what he’s thinking, so it was all about making it comprehensible because it’s quite a complex plot and nothing’s straightforward. The Resistance has got in-fighting and the German army and SS are opposed to each other, so it’s just finding a way to navigate through the story in an intriguing but understandable way.”

Wade picks up: “I think I understand it now – but we had to simplify it. Since Len wrote the book, there’s a bit more now known about what was going on in Britain to prepare for an invasion, so we were able to access those sources and that gave us background for the British Resistance and the real mechanisms that were set up in event of an invasion. But really our main job was to make the most of the drama within the story and, for that reason, we made a few changes that kept certain characters alive longer than they were in the book.”

Already an established genre in the world of fiction, alternative history is becoming a hot topic in television, with SS-GB following hot on the heels of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, which plays out in a world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and America has been split between Japanese and Nazi rule, with a buffer zone separating the two.

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

Wade draws a distinction between the two series, in particular describing the Amazon drama as closer to science-fiction because the events it portrays weren’t ever close to happening. SS-GB, however, was within the realms of possibility.

“With The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, you’re talking about the consequences [of the Second World War]. But in this you are actually living through the Occupation and the game isn’t necessarily over. It’s not a historical result, history is alive.”

Wade and Purvis co-wrote films Let Him Have It (1991) and Plunkett & Macleane (1999) before being asked to write Bond movies The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and the super-spy’s four most recent outings starring Daniel Craig. Other credits include 2003’s Johnny English, a spoof of the espionage genre starring Rowan Atkinson.

“We’ve written together for a very long time,” Purvis says. “We do that because we enjoy it. There’s more to it than just writing; you’ve got to go abroad and it can be quite pressured. So having two people has always been good because when things are going well, you can always go down the pub together – and when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together! It gets the job done well to be able to discuss things.”

With scripts approved by Deighton, the writers say they haven’t felt the need to be on set every day, but have kept in touch by watching the daily rushes. They were also consulted during casting and say they were very pleased by the decision to put Riley in the lead role. “We wanted someone who was a film actor – this is his first television job so it’s just that thing of trying to keep it like a big movie,” Purvis notes. “It gave it a bit more oomph to have someone like Sam.”

If Riley’s DS Archer is akin to Sam Spade, the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller The Maltese Falcon, then US actress Kate Bosworth is firmly in the femme fatale role.

“She’s an American journalist who has just arrived on the inaugural New York-London Lufthansa flight, which is one of Len’s nice touches,” Wade offers. “She’s a femme fatale. She might be working for the Resistance, she might be a spy for the Germans, she might be an agent for the Americans – you don’t know. She’s someone who’s attractive to Archer and attracted by Archer. So it’s a dance. He’s trying to figure out whether she’s involved in this murder and she’s trying to figure out what she can get out of this guy.

“We balance her with Maeve Dermody, who plays a girl caught up in the Resistance and who is quite messed up. She’s an English girl and her parents were killed during the invasion. But she’s actually spying on Archer.”

But how did their experience on SS-GB compare to scripting a Bond movie? “It’s easier in the sense that there’s a book and you don’t have massive expectations,” Wade admits. “We’re very proud of this but we were able to write it in a free way. Hopefully there are some real surprises in this.

“With a Bond film, people are expecting certain things. The other aspect for us, as it’s our first TV series, was that having that large canvas to be able to tell a story with twists and turns over five hours is great fun, and you get the freedom you don’t have in an hour-and-a-half movie.”

Purvis adds: “We have been approached by TV a lot but we’ve always said no to everything. This was the first time we said yes. It’s a genre one can feel comfortable with. Len’s a great writer. It just seemed to be appealing and something we could do.”

For locations manager Antonia Grant, the toughest part of her job on SS-GB was finding appropriate exteriors around London for the show’s wartime setting. “It’s always a challenge for a locations department to remove the modern world,” she says. “We rely on the art department as well to help us so it’s very much a combined effort.

“There will be some things that are quite obvious [locations] as per the script that you have to go and look for. But then otherwise it’s coming up with different options to put to the director and designer and it’s a lot of driving around, photographing different places, chatting to people, persuading people to let us film.

“It’s always lovely looking for new locations but, on period dramas, there’s a limited amount because more things are changing and being modernised. I’ve shot on several new locations in this. Also, the nature of SS-GB, being alternative history, means you’re looking for quite different locations compared with those used for The Hour and certainly Call the Midwife [both also period dramas on which Grant has worked].”

After piecing together a 300-page script and bringing Deighton’s story to the screen, Wade and Purvis have one eye on their next big-screen feature – but tease that this might not be the end of the story for SS-GB.

“History is still in play, it’s not ended,” adds Wade. “Some characters have died, some have grown. I’m very pleased with the way it ends and there could be more.”

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Writers block

Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.

If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.

And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.

Belinda Campbell
Belinda Campbell

Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.

“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”

There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”

The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.

This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.

The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.

UnREAL
UnREAL is written by Marti Noxon, who cut her teen working on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”

From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”

This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.

So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”

Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.

Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel
The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.

Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.

Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.

It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”

German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world
German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world

The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.

“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”

Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”

French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”

Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”

Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”

Stefan Baron
Stefan Baron

Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”

Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”

Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”

Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.

There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.

Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”

A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”

Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.

With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.

Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”

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The Durrells delight on Sunday night

The opening episodes of The Durrells have won over critics and viewers alike
The opening episodes of The Durrells have won over critics and viewers alike

These days, a lot of emphasis is placed on the audience’s ability to time-shift TV. But there’s no question there is still an important role for dramas that can do a job in a particular slot.

Right now, for example, The Durrells (based on Gerald Durrell’s classic Corfu Trilogy of novels) is doing a brilliant job for ITV in the UK at 20.00 on Sunday evenings.

Although the show is only three episodes old at time of writing, it already feels like it has been sitting in ITV’s schedule forever – offering exactly the kind of escapism many of us crave the day before the working week kicks in again (depending, of course, on the country where you reside).

Not that The Durrells should be regarded simply as popcorn TV. It is beautifully adapted by Simon Nye and the acting is really, really good. Keeley Hawes, who plays the mother (Louisa) of author Lawrence Durrell, naturalist Gerald Durrell and their two siblings, is superb, displaying immaculate comic timing and eye-watering sensitivity. Also impressive is Daisy Waterstone as Gerald’s sister, Margo (none of which is to disparage the other cast members).

The show is currently scoring a rating of 8.0 on IMDb, which is pretty good – and it is proving popular with critics. Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph applauds it for its “warmth, nostalgia, beautiful locations” and calls it a “gem.” Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail gives it five stars, adding: “Perfect Sunday night viewing requires period costume, exotic locations, a dash of sex (but nothing explicit) and lashings of laughs. Sounds simple on paper… but it’s pretty near impossible to achieve on screen. But The Durrells was a masterclass in ideal Sunday telly – never too demanding, and yet completely satisfying.”

Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has been given a third season on AMC
Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has been given a third season on AMC

All of this positive feeling is backed by great audience figures. The first episode launched with 6.4 million viewers, making it ITV’s best-performing new drama since Cilla in September 2014. It has since consolidated to 8.2 million viewers (33% share) – showing that it is also possible to transfer the Sunday night feeling to other times of the week.

ITV knows it’s on to a good thing and has commissioned a second season from producer Sid Gentle Films. Sid Gentle CEO Sally Woodward-Gentle said: “The combination of Gerald Durrell’s warm, witty stories and Simon Nye’s brilliance at adapting them meant we knew that we had created something special. The reaction has been fantastic and I am delighted we are able to continue the story and reunite the fantastic cast and crew who have become a close-knit ‘family’ on and off screen.”

Filming on season two will take place later this year in Corfu. In other news, the show has been picked up by SVT Sweden, which may have been tempted by the fact that one of the central characters is a hunky Swede called Sven (Ulric von der Esch).

In the US, AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul finished season two on April 18 with a season average of 2.16 million viewers across 10 episodes. The show stayed pretty solid around the two million mark for the whole season and has been rewarded with a third season during which Breaking Bad’s urbane drug dealer Gus Fring will return.

In terms of comparative performance, the show rates better than Mad Men (which ran for seven seasons) and Hell On Wheels (five). It also has an impressive 8.8 rating on IMDb.

The Night Manager's US debut was somewhat disappointing
The Night Manager’s US debut was disappointing

Last week, we looked at the success of John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager on BBC1 in the UK and asked how it would fare when it switched to AMC in the US. The show has now started airing stateside, where the same-day showing of episode one attracted 0.93 million.

This is a fairly modest opening that suggests it isn’t going to make much impact with US audiences. As a comparison, Humans debuted with 1.73 million on AMC after a strong showing on Channel 4 in the UK. It then fell to around the 1.1 million mark for episode two and stayed there for the rest of its run.

In other words, its retrenched position was stronger than The Night Manager’s opener. The Night Manager also scored quite low with the 18-49 demographic on its AMC debut.

Of course, a modest US opening shouldn’t detract from the quality of the show. It may just be that AMC’s audience is attuned to a different style of scripted content.

It’s also worth noting that The Night Manager has been sold to networks all around the world. The latest deals for the show include agreements with Chinese streaming service Youku Tudou and French public broadcaster France Télévisions. The drama has previously been sold to the likes of Tele München Gruppe for German-speaking Europe, C More and TV4 for the Nordic territories, DR for Denmark, Sky Italia for Italy, BBC First and SBS for Australia, TV3 for New Zealand and AMC International for Iberia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The Shannara Chronicles
The Shannara Chronicles has been renewed despite middling performance

This week has also seen MTV in the US renew its fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, despite the fact that the series has not achieved especially high ratings. The first run of 10 episodes came in at about 890,000 on average, with the back end occasionally falling below the 800,000 mark.

Mina Lefevre, executive VP and head of scripted development at MTV, said the production team “delivered a beautiful, ground-breaking show with compelling stories and character journeys, which brought in new viewers.”

Further underlining Lefevre’s ‘new viewer’ argument, part of the reason MTV is sticking with the show is its performance on digital platforms, “where it garnered 16.6 million streams across all MTV’s digital properties and brought significant traffic growth to the MTV app,” according to the company. “The series also ranks as the highest-grossing digital download for a single season on MTV ever.”

As we’ve reported in previous weeks, a number of shows see their performance improve dramatically when time-shifting and digital viewing are added to the total. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson on FX had a huge three-day ratings gain for its finale episode (up by 2.91 million viewers to 6.18 million).

In the UK, it was a similar story for new Sky1 crime drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, starring James Nesbitt. Episode one of the 10-part series launched in January and delivered an overnight audience of 600,000. But the total figure for the episode rose to 1.74 million as the audience took the opportunity to watch via Sky+ recordings, On Demand and Sky Go.

This increase of 1.14 million was the biggest growth in viewing figures that the first episode of any Sky original drama series has ever achieved in the week after transmission. It also made it the best performing original drama series launch on Sky1 for nearly four years. This underlines the point that, in the new TV economy, there are some shows that are perfect for certain slots (such as The Durrells) but others seem to work well as schedule-neutral programming.

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