Mark Strong’s veteran spy comes out of retirement in Deep State, a globetrotting espionage thriller that marks the first original commission for Fox Networks Group Europe & Africa. DQ visited the set.
While comedians and satirists currently find themselves swimming in fresh material as Donald Trump’s presidency and the ongoing Brexit negotiations lurch from crisis to crisis, what’s a drama screenwriter to do when real-world events threaten to overtake and overshadow their next storyline?
That was the dilemma facing showrunner Matthew Parkhill and the producers of Deep State, the first original series commissioned by Fox Networks Group Europe and Africa. “When we were in the writers room, we were constantly talking about what was in the news – the new administration in the US, stories coming out of the UK – and we felt it was very important to reflect that,” producer Tom Nash explains.
“But in drama, we try to stay away from the absolute front line of politics. We were a little more interested with what was going on behind the curtain, so obviously that’s not necessarily as well documented, which I think is actually helpful because events can’t overtake you as much.”
Set in the UK, the US, Iran, Lebanon and France, Deep State is a globetrotting thriller that tackles the world of espionage. Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Zero Dark Thirty) plays ex-spy Max Easton, who is brought back into the game to avenge the death of his son, Harry (Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie), only to find himself at the heart of a covert intelligence war and a conspiracy to profit from the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East.
Running parallel to the espionage storyline is a domestic plot that sees Max’s wife (Lyne Renée) discover he is a spy with an ex-wife and a son from a previous marriage.
It’s day 71 of production, in sunny mid-August, when DQ arrives on the London set to see filming of the eighth and final episode. A branch of US steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky is being prepared for shooting as, suitably, the restaurant is doubling for an establishment in Washington DC. American flags have been placed on the bar between table lamps, while a large model of the Statue of Liberty is standing in front of a wall mirror.
When the cameras start rolling, extras seated at tables are served plates of fruit and pastries and glasses of orange juice as Strong’s Max (pictured top) strides into the venue and sits down opposite a US senator before presenting him with a video containing evidence that lays out the show’s central conspiracy. Between takes, Strong hovers by his starting point, fixing his jacket as he waits for Parkhill, who is directing this final episode, to call action once again.
In a later scene, two cars pull up in the middle of a road, again set in Washington but in reality only a stone’s throw from the River Thames. Max is with fellow spy Leila (Karima McAdams) and one of their American fixers, an old friend who helps them during their covert trip to the US.
As befits a series set around the world, the production spent 10 weeks filming in Morocco, which doubled as Beirut, Tehran and the Pyrenees, before switching to London for another 10 weeks to complete scenes set in the UK and US capitals.
Creator and showrunner Parkhill, who directs the final four episodes, says he was inspired to write the series after reading an article about a construction company that made US$39.5bn from the Iraq war.
“It got me thinking, ‘That’s a lot of money. How do you try to engineer the continuation of those good profits?’” he says. “There’s that line from the Sex Pistols about cash from chaos, so that was one of the inspirations.”
Originally called The Nine, the show was renamed Deep State when Parkhill traced the origins of the term to the attempted assassination of a Turkish politician in the 1990s, believed to have been orchestrated by a group of high-level elements within the intelligence and defence services.
“When it became Deep State, it opened the show up a lot for me politically and it has become more interesting because of what we’re living through at the moment,” he explains. “Then, personally, it was always about the idea of whether you can start again. Can you make up for your mistakes in the past? That’s Max’s story. What I think is fascinating about the show is the juxtaposition of the thriller and the political elements with the domestic storyline, and they’re both as compelling as each other. You’ve got your action sequences, car chases and explosions but then it’s a show that’s not afraid to breathe and stop and exhale and be with the characters.”
Morocco was identified as a potential filming location quite early in the 16-week pre-production process, presenting the production team with the challenge of plotting shooting schedules in Casablanca and London while also determining when directors Parkhill and Robert Connolly would be in each location.
“A big question for us was where we were going to use for France when we were shooting in Morocco and the UK,” producer Nash says. “Nothing really doubles with France, but there was this village in the Moroccan mountains that had been built by the Swiss in the 1920s, and it looked like a Pyrenean town – we couldn’t believe it. So we were also able to shoot all of our French section in Morocco. That was a big factor in making our choice.”
The producer recalls one particular day on set when the crew were tasked with filming the detonation of a car bomb. Located in the Iranian capital of Tehran, the set piece was actually filmed on a roundabout on the outskirts of Casablanca. “The locals were just so excited by the prospect of filming that we had hundreds of people surrounding us and cheering,” Nash says. “The roundabout was built up with flats all around it and we asked people to come down, but some of them locked themselves in and said they wanted to stay to get the best view of it.”
Hilary Bevan Jones, co-founder of producer Endor Productions, continues: “They’re cheering, banging metal and whooping and we’re trying to concentrate on the absolute split-second precision timing of blowing up a car, with a motorbike in shot, stunt riders falling out, people riding into shot. It has to be done to the millisecond. I spent a lot of time in Morocco with fingers in my ears because we were blowing up cars or having gun fights, but it worked really well.”
Fox boarded Deep State after being swayed by its mix of action and espionage. The show marks the first regional drama commission for the network and is due to air in 50 countries across Europe and Africa early this year. Fox Networks Group Content Distribution is selling the series worldwide.
“It’s a perfect fit for our channel,” says Jeff Ford, FNG’s outgoing UK MD and senior VP for original content, Europe and Africa, who is retiring at the end of this year. “It has that edginess and emotion – it is quite an emotional story but it’s also intelligent. It satisfies on so many levels and I don’t think anybody who’s looking for an emotional response, or just a visceral response or an intellectual response, will be disappointed. It delivers equally in all those areas and it will absolutely be a joy to watch.”
Sara Johnson, FNG’s VP of scripted development, adds: “What makes it a great, globally appealing show is that there are human beings at the heart of the story – there’s a beautiful emotional aspect that lies beneath an absolutely thrilling and quite exhausting story. It’s really pacey and exciting and we’re telling a great story.”
If Mark Strong and the character he plays in Deep State have one thing in common, it’s that they’re both back doing jobs they’ve not done for a while. So while Max Easton returns to his former life as a spy, the series marks the actor’s return to television.
Strong’s last small-screen series was 2013’s Low Winter Sun, AMC’s crime drama based on the British miniseries of the same name. Since then, he’s appeared in movies such as Before I Go to Sleep, The Imitation Game and Miss Sloane.
“We’re all beginning to realise that television gives you the opportunity to tell stories in a much more interesting and complicated way than you can achieve on film,” he says during a break from filming Deep State’s final episode. “That’s not to say film doesn’t have its own merits but, over an eight- or 10-hour period, you can really explore character; you can take a narrative wherever you want to take it and open people’s imaginations to much more complicated stories.”
Strong is also no stranger to spy stories, having appeared in Zero Dark Thirty, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Grimsby and Kingsman: The Secret Service. A sequel to the latter, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, was released last September.
“A lot of spy stuff gets written because the arena is perfect for drama,” the actor notes. “It’s got everything – betrayal, trust, danger, secrets. It’s the stuff of drama. It’s complicated enough and intriguing enough to have lots of different strands that make it very watchable.”
So what was it about Deep State that called him back to television? “There’s a school of thought that says you embark on a script and if by page 20 it hasn’t grabbed you, the chances are it won’t,” Strong says. “That’s a massive generalisation, but I can honestly say the thing about Matthew [Parkhill]’s script that I thought was amazing was the scope of it. You’re dealing with two time frames in the first episode straight away, you’re dealing with four different locations – Tehran, Beirut, London and France. French scenes are played in French with subtitles, Arabic scenes are played in Arabic with subtitles.
“There’s a real exotic flavour to it and, more than anything, I really wanted to read it and I didn’t feel like I was being spoon-fed the traditional TV fare,” the actor adds. “I felt like it was an attempt to make something really engaging. If it plays as well as it reads, we’re going to do well.”
Whether it’s acquiring a finished show, going it alone, adapting a format or coproducing with international partners, there’s a multitude of options when it comes to buying and selling quality drama. DQ asks the experts what works best for their business.
Scripted content is in strong demand around the world. Premium pay TV broadcasters, SVoD platforms and mainstream free-to-air channels are all on the hunt for signature shows that can define and uplift their services. And so are international programme distributors, which are battling it out to secure the rights to piping-hot global drama properties.
One broadcaster in the midst of this frenetic activity is Canal+. Explaining the way the French pay TV broadcaster works, Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, head of acquisitions, foreign fiction, says: “Canal+ is a premium channel. Our subscribers come to us to find something they can’t find anywhere else in the landscape, so we give them a mix of original programming and shows acquired from the US and Europe.”
On the originals front, Canal+ has backed an eclectic mix of titles including Braquo, Les Revenants, The Tunnel, Barbarella and Versailles. If there’s a point worth making about this group of shows, it’s that they are all capable of playing well on Canal+ or in the international markets. Braquo and Les Revenants, although French-language, have the kind of style and pacing that appeals to international audiences. The Tunnel is an Anglo-French copro with Sky Atlantic that neatly bridges the two cultures. The remaining two productions, both epic in scale, are being produced in English to appeal to the global drama market.
As for Canal+’s acquisition slate, Marrache-Tesseraud has picked up a wide range of top titles including Wayward Pines, House of Cards, The Honourable Woman, Game of Thrones and True Detective. “We are looking for modern, unique shows, preferably serialised,” she says. “We generally get involved at an early stage by pre-buying the rights.”
Pre-buying, as opposed to waiting for shows to be completed, generally costs more. But it has two advantages. First, it allows a broadcaster to get to a hot property ahead of rivals. Second, it means they can air the production as quickly as possible, thus minimising the risk of people pirating the content.
Earlier this year, for example, Marrache-Tesseraud acquired Wayward Pines from Fox International Channels, a move that gives it exclusive first-window rights in France and enables it to air episodes on the same day as they go out in the US. Explaining the show’s appeal, she says: “It brings together highly talented signature cast and crew, and is headed by Oscar-nominated director and producer M Night Shyamalan.”
Drama is also a critical consideration for Stephen Mowbray, head of SVT International, the commercial arm of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. Echoing Marrache-Tesseraud, Mowbray says: “There is a big appetite for drama on TV. But there is a limit to how much we can make ourselves. We generally have two nights a week for originals and support that with acquisitions, hand-picking the best drama from around the world.”
Although SVT is a free-to-air pubcaster, Mowbray says he is buying similar dramas to pay TV broadcaster Canal+. But he is not enthusiastic about everything on offer: “When people say this is the golden age of drama, they are talking about short-run serials and miniseries, which are very flavoured in tone. We’re seeing a nichification of drama that can create a mismatch with what channels want. For example, the growth of niche products can be at odds with the need for procedural dramas.”
But Mowbray stresses that free channels must also take risks if they are to keep their audiences happy. “In our region, HBO Nordic acquired Penny Dreadful and Viaplay acquired Transparent, neither of which would fit on free TV. But we also need to make sure we challenge our audience. We can’t give them Downton Abbey every night.”
A key issue for Mowbray is that the amount of good content on the international market is perhaps not as voluminous as observers might imagine: “We have six primetime slots a week, which makes our channel a very hungry monster. But not all of the content coming out of the US is good enough. The top 10% can blow your mind, but the rest is dross.”
The kind of factors facing Canal+ and SVT are mirrored within the acquisition and development divisions of leading drama distributors. While they are not the end-users of scripted content, they have to make similar judgement calls when investing in projects that they hope to sell on to broadcasters and digital platforms at a profit. Is it possible, for example, to make shows that work for both the nichified world of pay TV and the mainstream tastes found on free TV? Or does it make more sense to run a broader development slate that caters to both camps?
Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, was brought in last spring to do two things. “Firstly, to head internal drama development at our three main drama producers (Touchpaper, Yellowbird and Marathon), and secondly to look for drama to acquire,” she says.
Torrance’s assessment is that there are “huge opportunities for all kinds of drama. On the origination side, Marathon is involved in the Versailles project, while Yellowbird has been working on Occupied, a 10-part series about a Russian “silk glove” invasion of Norway, based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbo. On the acquisitions side, we have had a lot of success selling French shows Braquo and Les Revenants right around the world.”
Zodiak’s slate, all of which is originated in Europe, is interesting because it goes some way towards answering Mowbray’s concerns about the volume of quality US content available. It also suggests that the market is more open to challenging content. A few years ago, there would have been limited interest in a show like Occupied, which seeks to tell a political story in three languages (Russian and Norwegian characters speak in their own language and in English when talking to each other). But after the success of Lilyhammer and The Bridge/The Tunnel, it looks like a real prospect.
Similarly, a French-language show like Les Revenants would not have fared as well a few years back. However, Torrance says: “I’ve heard it described as niche, but it has sold around the world. Selling Les Revenants to Channel 4 in the UK was significant in terms of the kind of prices it is possible to charge for non-English-language content.”
Notwithstanding the new appetite for risk in the drama sector, Torrance says “distributors have to offer all types of product.” Addressing Mowbray’s point, she adds: “There is still a role for procedurals, which is why we acquired Canadian series The Pinkertons (a 22-parter about the activities of the famous detective agency in 1860s America). That has procedural-style stories-of-the-week coupled with serial elements.”
Drama acquisitions are also a key objective for Noel Hedges, SVP and head of acquisitions at Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG. “Eighteen months to two years into the new MTG ownership, there is a real desire to grow a diverse slate of drama. We think our strategy really started bearing fruit with what we launched at Mipcom.”
One of DRG’s biggest investments to date is in Babylon, a comedic look at the people and politics associated with the frontline of modern policing. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle and written by Bafta winners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show), the six-part commission for Channel 4 aired between November and December last year.
Echoing points raised earlier, there is an edgy tone to the drama that won’t make it suitable for all broadcasters. But that is something Hedges is comfortable with: “We’ve worked with Sam and Jesse before so we knew the show would have a challenging tone that wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But you have to balance the prescriptive commercial elements you’re looking for with surprise, originality, and uniqueness. As with all shows, we went through a checklist of what we were looking for and ticked enough boxes. What you can’t afford to invest in is boring TV – you wouldn’t get anywhere with that.”
Hedges doesn’t mind if a drama’s “wrapping” is unusual as long as it has strong stories and characters. Other titles DRG has picked up this year include Strange Empire, a 13×60’ series from Canada that focuses on three women living on the Canadian border in the 1860s who are brought together by a spate of brutal murders. DRG also has a first-look deal with NRK in Norway, which has brought it such titles as Mammon and Eyewitness. The latter is a six-part thriller series about two teenage boys, secretly in love, who are key witnesses to an underworld murder. Terrified for their lives and fearful about bringing their relationship into the open, they agree never to reveal what they saw.
Of course, distributing drama isn’t always about battling to place shows with reluctant buyers. Some of the time it’s about trying to make careful commercial judgements about who to licence content to. A big trend in the market right now is for channels or platforms to offer big sums of money up front to try to secure exclusivity on a show. But while this may seem attractive, Hedges advises caution: “It’s not always about upfront cash. The decision you make on the first window can affect the life cycle of the show. You may be better off accepting a lower offer at the beginning because of the valuable windows to come later, as opposed to cashing in straight away.”
SVT’s Mowbray makes a similar point, arguing that free-to-air channels can play a role in building a brand: “I think it’s difficult to build a brand from Netflix. They had The Fall and no one knew it existed. It’s hard for them to launch a lot of first-run content. With us, we create value.”
While all of the above agree there is a healthy market for acquired drama, they also acknowledge that most audiences prefer homegrown stories. Hedges sums this point up neatly: “Local production can define a channel much better than acquisitions. Audiences like to see domestic faces in domestic situations.”
The reason why there isn’t more original production is, understandably, cost, but there are a couple of ways broadcasters can narrow the price differential between origination and acquisition. One, says Hedges, is acquiring drama formats, since this allows a broadcaster to create an original show without having to invest as much in development or production. “We represent Doc Martin, which sells well in some markets as a finished British show. But, where it doesn’t, we can still make money by licensing the remake rights,” he explains. “It’s another opportunity.”
Zodiak’s Torrance agrees: “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for scripted formats. Broadcasters want local shows but local production is a risk. So in formats they are looking for a measure of success. They want to learn from what has been done – things that worked and things that didn’t.”
The formatting business is now a big part of the international drama scene and has opened the door to a wider pool of content suppliers. Israel’s Keshet Media Group, for example, had a huge breakthrough when its drama series Prisoners of War was adapted by Showtime in the US as the acclaimed Homeland. In November 2014, Keshet UK executive producer and head of scripted coproductions Sara Johnson revealed that another of its titles, The A Word, was to be remade by the BBC.
A very different proposition from political thriller Homeland, The A Word is a comedy drama that focuses on a young couple who learn that their son is autistic. The UK version will be written by Peter Bowker (Viva Blackpool) and coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet UK, with plans for the six-part show to appear on BBC1 in early 2016.
The decision to make a UK version first, as opposed to going to the US, is about giving the property plenty of time to establish itself in the international market. “Keshet looks at the slate as a whole and makes decisions about where we should go and what should we do with each property. With The A Word, we had real interest from the UK and a fantastic writer, so we decided to give it time to develop in this market.”
In terms of the long-term sustainability of The A Word, Johnson says it is important to stay closely connected to the remake process: “We’re very flexible in how we look at deals because it has got to make sense financially for everyone. And we love working with local professionals like Patrick Spence at Fifty Fathoms. But it also matters to us that we are creatively involved because we care deeply about our shows.”
Creating a formatted version of a show can have a positive impact on the commercial appeal of the original. In the case of Keshet’s Prisoners of War, the success of the US adaptation Homeland boosted sales of the original show and helped it realise further format deals in Russia, Turkey and Mexico. And sometimes formatting is the only viable option for getting a show away in a market. In Turkey, for example, channels are only interested in acquiring remake rights to shows (which then can have a renewed life selling on in the Balkans and Middle East).
But it’s not always advisable for rights holders to rush into the format market, says DRG’s Hedges. “It depends on the investment you’ve made. If you need to recoup quickly, then a format isn’t necessarily the right idea because it can be a long time before you see a financial return.”
Torrance agrees: “There are always strategic decisions about whether to sell or hold back format rights. It’s almost like another window. Generally, though, format deals come when there are lots of episodes.”
The other middle ground between origination and acquisition is to pursue a shared-risk scenario such as coproduction. As with formats, this model has become prevalent in recent years as the scale and ambition of drama has increased.
Unquestionably, copros have enabled some superb shows to get made. But with most high-profile projects involving a minimum of two broadcasters, two producers and a distributor, they come with a number of creative and commercial challenges. For a start, copros need to have ideas that will travel internationally and casts that are acceptable to everybody involved. A decision also needs to be made about editorial tone and series structure, because this will determine whether it is more suitable for free TV or pay TV (or, ideally, both).
The issue of writers/showrunners is also a sensitive one, because not all writers are trusted to deliver the goods – even if they are talented enough to do so, says Donna Wiffen, the former FremantleMedia head of worldwide drama who is now MD at indie Duchess Street Productions. “There is a practical problem with authored pieces,” she says, “which is that there are only so many writers that broadcasters will commission. It’s difficult to get a show over the line with new talent, which means you can end up with a bottleneck.”
Wiffen joined her current company four months ago. It is backed by investment firm Bob & Co, which is well established in film but wants to extend into TV (echoing a broader shift in the business). “We have a diverse slate at the early stages of development,” she says. “One of our major projects at the moment is an epic saga about two families based on a popular book series by Jeffrey Archer called The Clifton Chronicles.”
Broadcasters familiar with the copro process say the best scenarios are where the partners engage in a strong, balanced dialogue. Explaining how his company became involved in the world of scripted coproduction, Nacho Manubens, senior VP of drama at Atresmedia in Spain, says: “A3 Media has two of the main channels in Spain, Antena3 and La Sexta. Most of our drama is produced for A3, and in the last few years some of our bigger productions have started to travel well internationally. Recently, we started thinking about building a solid brand for La Sexta but we had tighter budget limitations. So we decided to go to the international market in search of coproduction partners.”
This resulted in a partnership with BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) on The Refugees, a drama series produced by Spanish production company Bambu about a group of people who travel back to the present time from the future. “We identified the show we wanted to do and then tried to create a fair partnership,” says Manubens. “BBCWW brought 50% of the budget and is selling the show internationally while La Sexta has premier rights.”
Key to the success of the project, says Manubens, was starting the copro dialogue early and maintaining a good working relationship throughout. “Everyone always had a say and BBCWW was very involved with the writing. We made a lot more versions than on a regular Spanish show.”
Manubens says it was important to be clear from the outset about La Sexta’s requirements. “There is a trend towards miniseries but that is hard for us because of the economics of production and marketing. So we are more focused on creating returning series.”
Budgets also played their part in the way the story was written, adds Manubens. Although The Refugees is “a big premise,” costs were controlled by telling the story told through the eyes of one particular family.
Ulrich Krüger, senior editor in international coproduction and documentaries at Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1, agrees with Manubens about the importance of having an equal partnership in copros. But he says his company has had bad experiences with US firms: “Our experience of US companies is that the moment they have a part of a project, they think it is their show. Their response to European partners wanting creative input is ‘we know what we are doing,’ which is not a conversation we want. My advice in dealing with US studios and broadcasters is to go as late as possible because they are not used to discussing ideas.”
Pro7Sat1’s general policy is to go for acquisitions rather than copros because “acquiring is simple,” says Krüger. Having said that, the broadcaster has a good relationship with Tandem Communications, coming in as a copro partner on projects like The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and Labyrinth.
Most recently, it acquired season one of Tandem’s cross-border crime thriller Crossing Lines, and then stepped up as a copro partner for seasons two and three. “We didn’t coproduce the first series because it felt too expensive, but we acquired it. It went well for us so we decided to get more involved. We only go for coproduction when we see an opportunity for editorial input that will help a show in our territory. By paying more, we have greater say about scripts and casting.”
Like Manubens, Krüger says the key to coproduction is to “start early and choose your partner wisely.”
A final word of wisdom comes from Keshet’s Johnson: “Make sure to leave your ego at the door.”
Creative Europe funding
Raising money to make a drama coproduction isn’t easy. But there is some welcome support from the European Union’s funding programme Creative Europe, which offers grants worth up to €1m (US$1.08m).
Agnieszka Moody, director of Creative Europe’s UK desk, says the EU’s TV Programming scheme aims to help European independent producers create shows that have the potential to circulate within the EU and beyond. The total programme budget for 2015 (across all genres) is around €11.8m. Drama producers have two options: either they can apply for up to 12.5% of their production budget (capped at €500,000); or, if the project in question is a drama series coproduction (minimum duration 6×45’) with a production budget of at least €10m, they can apply for a grantof up to €1m.
To qualify as a coproduction, Moody says the project needs to involve at least three partners from different states. The latest point at which producers can apply is the first day of principal photography. At the time of submission, 50% of the estimated total financing of the production budget must be guaranteed from third-party sources of finance. In addition, 50% of the total financing must come from European sources.
A number of projects have been successful in securing funding down the years. These include Wallander, Millennium, Jamaica Inn, Occupied and Hinterland. The €1m upper limit has only recently been introduced, but projects to have secured this figure include Warp Films’ The Last Panthers, The Returned and The Bridge. The latter two productions received awards for their second series, says Moody. Drama series is the only genre for which sequels or second and third seasons are eligible.
According to Moody, last year saw 135 applications, of which 53 were selected. Of these, 11 were TV dramas, with four receiving €1m. For 2015 there are two deadlines in January and May. Worth noting, says Moody, is that an unsuccessful project can be resubmitted (once).
Sara Johnson is executive producer and head of coproductions, scripted, at Keshet International UK. Opting to give DQ a whopping 10 shows instead of the usual six, Sara adds Keshet titles Prisoners of War and The A Word to her ‘nostalgic’ list of top dramas.
My list is nostalgic, dominated by series from the beginning of my career and others that have, in recent years, managed to persuade me to come back repeatedly after my habitual ‘one-episode watch.’
Cracker unnerved me, opening my eyes to the possibilities of a returning series drama and how it could grab me week by week, stretching across my timeline as an English student considering a career in TV drama and a producer’s secretary who was newly on her way. Growing up in a BBC household, this was ITV showing all it had to offer and it opened my eyes to how to portray darkness without causing people to look away.
Our Friends In the North inspired me. Back in 1996, as a reader at the drama series department at the BBC, this show empowered me to pursue my ambition of being a script editor. I still remember how obsessed I was by the characters and how the names involved in its making became a beacon for me going forwards.
Cardiac Arrest gripped me. I loved the darkness and how very different this was from Casualty or any other medical series I had watched or worked on. I also liked that it wasn’t softened for our TV screens.
This Life hooked me. My friends and I would watch it religiously, with the characters and their lives echoing our own yet pushing boundaries that we would never dare to. I stayed with these characters across the series and felt both bereft and relieved when the last episode finally came.
Queer As Folk shocked me. I needed TV drama to do that for me at that time, and I loved how it showed my native Manchester in ways I’d never seen it before, throwing away the rule book on who and what could be seen on screen, and how it could be shown.
Pride and Prejudice romanced me, taking one of my favourite books that I had studied for both my GCSEs and my A-levels and bringing it to life on screen. Unlike many other programmes I was watching at the time, I could share this with my mum and aunties, and we all got to disappear into the world of Jane Austen together.
ER was a series I followed weekly for its entire run. It took over from the Hill St Blues and St Elsewhere favourites of my childhood and continued my love of American TV drama formats. I watched it as a student, a secretary, a script editor, a commissioner and an exec producer; as a single woman, a married one and a mum. It crossed over my life and had George Clooney in it. Perfect TV.
Mad Men is another show of which I’ve seen every episode and one of the first series, post kids, that became addictive viewing that my husband and I could enjoy together. It is still an appointment-to-view for us, even though other shows have found their way into our together TV time. The style and single vision behind the series carry us through some of the weaker episodes and seasons.
Sherlock delighted me because it found me slightly jaded, languishing in development hell. It made me smile, think and enjoy TV drama all over again. Stylish and modern but with traditional and expert storytelling, it caught a nerve and grabbed its audience with verve and confidence.
Hatufim (Prisoners of War)/The A Word (pictured) continue to inspire me. Both telling stories from another country, with nuances, characters and stories that belong to their own time and place, but also with huge global appeal, crossing borders and opening eyes. These series are impossible to choose between and are the reason I came to work in my current job. Written and directed by two very different genius talents, I could watch them again and again.