Tag Archives: Sarah Brown

Victim complex

Creator and writer Rob Williams, executive producer Sarah Brown and star James Harkness talk to DQ about making BBC four-parter The Victim, a thriller that aims to make its viewers ask themselves difficult questions.

“Just remember who the victim is,” John Hannah’s dour Detective Inspector Steven Grover calls out across a quiet police office. It’s a throwaway line, the final sentence in a row between two colleagues. Yet it sums up the riddle at the heart of four-part BBC drama The Victim – just who should have our sympathies?

Should viewers stand by Anna Dean (played by Kelly Macdonald) – a mother who, still grieving the loss of her son who was brutally murdered 15 years ago, stands accused of posting an image and the address of his alleged killer online – or Craig Myers (James Harkness), who is left for dead by a masked attacker after being identified as notorious child murderer Eddie J Turner.

Sarah Brown

The story plays out in the present as Anna stands trial for incitement to murder, while flashbacks recall the aftermath of the attack and how the lives of Craig and his wife Rebecca (Karla Crome) are turned upside down by gossip and rumour, with Anna attempting to prove Craig is not who he says he is.

The drama, which is inspired by real-life cases but is not based on any in particular, comes from creator and writer Rob Williams and is produced by STV Productions. It’s a series that proves to be compelling and thought-provoking in equal measure. While viewers will want to know whether Craig really is Eddie, the bigger question is does that really matter? At every stage, the drama comes back to the question posed by DI Grover. Just who is the victim here?

“The Victim has the potential to be a really talked-about show because of the subject matter and the way Rob has told the story from two points of view,” says exec producer Sarah Brown, STV’s head of drama. “Hopefully, it’s not black and white and there’s a lot of grey in there. It has the potential to get people discussing not just the genre questions – Is Craig really Eddie? – but also the bigger moral questions.”

Williams picks up: “The kind of dramas I love are the ones where I don’t know where I stand and I’ve got to ask questions of myself. That was definitely where I felt we were on to something, because I don’t quite know who I stand with.”

Kelly Macdonald plays Anna, who stands trial for incitement to murder

However, Williams says he always knew how the story would conclude. “I was very up for changing it if the characters and the story demanded it, but it does feel like the only ending for me, which is a really nice place to be. There’s a courtroom verdict, but is that enough? That’s very much part of the question. Hopefully the last episode delivers a series of verdicts but in different ways.”

Williams, whose credits include Killing Eve and The Man in the High Castle, had been talking to Brown about working together when they struck on the idea of how people can become polarised over an issue despite being presented with the same evidence. The writer was also intrigued by a documentary about the Scottish court system, which was presented as a less stuffy, more informal environment than its English counterpart.

Rob Williams

“The idea that you could tell a story in a courtroom but, instead of seeing the evidence presented by lawyers, you could actually see what happened and then twist people’s sympathy for the plaintiff and the accused – that was the beginning,” he recalls. The case at the heart of The Victim then emerged through real-life examples of people being accused of something on social media. “It’s just a fascinating area that the law is struggling to keep up with,” Williams adds. “But this is entirely fictional. There’s any number of cases where people could find parallels with different aspects of the drama, but it’s not based on any one case. It has to be [this way] really, otherwise your characters don’t have freedom to do and say things they need to.”

Williams says it is integral to the show that viewers are able to put themselves in the shoes of both Anna and Craig and imagine what they would do if they were in the same position.

However, the intention was never to make a traditional courtroom drama, with scenes in front of the judge only serving to provide a spine to the series. Over the four episodes, the flashbacks slowly catch up to the present, meaning every strand of the story comes together by the end.

“In the editing process, we stripped away quite a lot of procedure because we felt it became too procedural,” Brown reveals. “What we really wanted the audience to be interested in was the human interactions and the stakes for each character.”

When it came to casting, Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) was first through the door, followed by Hannah (Spartacus, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). But for Craig, the production team decided someone relatively unknown would be best. Harkness (Macbeth, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) auditioned and landed the part.

James Harkness as Craig, who may or may not be a murderer living under a new identity

“I’m in awe of them, particularly James and Kelly,” Williams says. “They have to play these characters with the sense they could be lying. We don’t know. But they play it with such integrity – they’re not moustache-twirling at any point.”

On casting Harkness, Brown notes: “We saw quite a few people but there was something about him. I just find his performance so raw and real. He’s quite extraordinary. He really held his end up, particularly when you see the latter episodes and the two-handers with him and Kelly.

“You want the audience to believe he’s capable of being Eddie J Turner but equally capable of not being him because you don’t want the audience to know the answer until the end. That’s quite a tricky balance.”

For Harkness himself, he describes his first leading role as an “amazing, brilliant learning experience.” As a young father, he says he feels very lucky to be involved in a drama about such a sensitive subject, noting that the theme of whether people should be given a second chance even caused him to stop and think about what he would do in a similar situation.

“It’s definitely a subject that should be talked about, so hopefully people do talk about it,” he says. “It can be a very stigmatised subject. I don’t just mean in a court of law – everybody’s got a past. You’re not defined by who you were, you’re defined by who you are, and you get to decide who you get to be. It’s not for everybody else to define you.”

John Hannah also features in The Victim’s cast

Revealing that many of the plot twists were kept under wraps before filming began, Harkness continues: “For me, it didn’t matter if Craig was Eddie or not. I was just looking to tell this story of a hard-working guy who’s a family man. That’s what I want to be, a hard-working family man. That’s the story I was interested in, rather than the reveal and the drama of it.

“I’d love people to pay attention and try to look at it as a whole and make a judgement at the end, rather than jump straight into a judgement we all make automatically, very easily and very quickly. Give yourself a second chance while watching it.”

Striking the right balance with the series, which is sold internationally by Sky Vision, proved to be the biggest challenge, with Brown and Williams adamant that the story should never be manipulative in any way. In essence, the show had to hold up to repeated viewings, where the audience wouldn’t feel cheated at any point even after they knew the conclusion.

“Everything you’ve witnessed when you look back was true in its moment,” Brown says. “That was a real challenge. There were a couple of scenes in the early drafts that felt like brilliant genre moments but we ended up taking them out because they felt like we were leaning on genre rather than the truth of the characters. There was one cliffhanger in particular we held on to until the bitter end. In the end, we just thought be brave and believe we’re sufficiently invested in these characters now that we want to know what happens to them. That was an interesting process, getting the balance between the genre storytelling and character storytelling. It was a very fine balance all the way through.”

The four-parter comes from STV Productions

Snowstorms in Scotland last March hampered location scouting during pre-production, while the biggest practical challenge came in finding a courtroom. The crew ended up building one that mimicked the size and style of Edinburgh High Court, an old building filled with modern trappings. Shooting also took place on location in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Port Glasgow and Gourock.

Brown says she’s proud of the fact the drama features so many young Scottish actors alongside the well-established Macdonald and Hannah. “You don’t see many dramas with an almost entirely Scottish cast. That showcases what amazing talent we have in Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Brown and Williams both believe they have achieved their ambition of creating an entertaining piece of television that will also cause viewers to stop and think about the events that play out on screen.

“We have delivered something that works as a piece of drama that you want to come back for, and characters you empathise with and want to find out what happens to them, but hopefully, at the end, it’s done more than just fill your time. There is something to chew on,” Williams says. “I’m grateful to have worked with the people I’ve worked with. You write a character on a page called Anna Dean but it’s only when somebody like Kelly comes and inhabits it that you just think, ‘Wow.’”

Their attention is now turning to a potential second season of The Victim. “The plan is for more,” Brown adds. “We’re already thinking about season two. What was designed into the format was the court case and the shape and structure of the storytelling. What I hope the next season would do would be a new cast of characters and a new story but told in the same format and, hopefully, with an equally contemporary, thought-provoking subject.”

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Less is more

The rampant demand for long-running series is seemingly unstoppable, yet TV movies and one-off dramas are becoming a powerful tool in addressing single issues or themes. They’re also evidence that not every story needs to run to multiple episodes and seasons.

TV movies come in many forms, whether they’re single dramas with a feature-length running time or topical one-offs that dramatise a contemporary or historical theme or event. And while it might seem logical that the current demand for binge-worthy series would temper the desire for small-screen movies, in truth they are as sought-after as ever as viewers seek a quick storytelling fix before starting the next must-watch 10- or 13-episode show.

“They have their place, for sure,” says Ian Whitehead, a producer at Canada’s Incendo Films. “But subscription-based firms are always looking for newness. Yes, they might have Breaking Bad to attract viewers, but they’re trying to broaden out and have something new.”

Europe has long been keen on TV movies, with schedules built around 90-minute dramas. This remains the case in Germany, where Rowboat Film und Fernsehproduktion is behind Die Toten vom Bodensee (Murder by the Lake), a series of small-screen movies produced twice a year, following two cops as they investigate murders at a lake that borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Distributor Beta Film has sold the series, produced for Germany’s ZDF and Austria’s ORF, into more than 50 territories.

Brain Power Studio’s After the Storm

“Every market’s different but Germany somehow kept the 90-minute timeslots in abundance,” says Rowboat producer Sam Davis. “We produce two or three a year with the same cops and the audience responds to it because it’s a cinematic experience in a serial context. We find there’s still a big audience for that.

“We can’t ignore the fact the audience has become more serialised. And because they’ve become more serialised, we’ve adapted to more serialised TV movies, as we know the audience can keep a lot of subplots and complex characters in the air at the same time.”

Ontario-based Brain Power Studio has a slate of family movies, Christmas-themed films and romantic comedies, and also has a deal with Harlequin Books to adapt some of its novels for television. Titles include After the Storm and Christmas With a Prince, while My Perfect Romance, Christmas Wedding Planner and Christmas With a View have all been sold to Netflix.

“As well as higher expectations from viewers, there is also greater sophistication to those films than there was in the past,” says Beth Stevenson, Brain Power founder and executive producer. “There are great concepts you can do with standalone films, and when you adapt a novel, there’s a whole backstory that’s been created within that book that you can actually utilise during the storytelling. That makes a really big difference. It may not attract the same audience that’s watching complicated and complex dramas, but those viewers still have very high expectations of not only being entertained but also being carried along with the story.”

Japanese biopic Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter (pictured top) tells the story of O-Ei, who lived in the shadow of her father, celebrated artist Katsushika Hokusai, before creating a name for herself with her own style of painting. The film emerged when Taku Kato, a senior producer in Japanese pubcaster NHK’s drama production department, sought a local story that would create interest abroad. A Hokusai exhibit at the British Museum coincided with his discovery of a book about Kurara, leading him to believe the story would appeal to viewers at home and around the world.

Christmas with a Prince, one of a number of Christmas-focused films on Brain Power’s slate

The decision to make a TV movie, as opposed to a series, came from Kato’s preference to focus on the core theme of the story. “In real life, Hokusai and O-Ei had debt problems and a complicated relationship. By making a one-off drama, I was able to focus on their affection for each other in the context of art,” he says. However, this approach was not without its challenges. “Summarising the life of a great artist in a single story is difficult because diverse elements of the circumstances, motivations and processes behind the artworks are interwoven in complex ways,” Kato adds.

The power of TV movies to shine a spotlight on topical or weighty subjects is one of the best uses of the format, with the BBC a particular champion of this type of TV drama. Films such as Murdered by my Boyfriend, Murdered by my Father and Killed by my Debt have told fact-based stories via dramatic reconstructions, while others have dramatised sensitive and often invisible issues.

Upcoming BBC single Care stars Sheridan Smith as Jenny, a single mum-of-two whose world comes crashing down when her beloved mother Mary (Alison Steadman) suffers a devastating stroke, leading to dementia. Written by Jimmy McGovern (Broken, The Accused) and Gillian Juckes, it is produced by LA Productions and distributed by Kew Media Distribution.

Producer Colin McKeown says the story, based on Juckes’ real-life experiences, was always destined to be a single drama. “It had a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “To me, a series is designed as a series. It’s about knowing when to stop and also what animal you’ve got. If it’s a single one-off, it shouts at you and says, ‘This is more poignant if you treat it not as some sort of commercial exercise but as a piece of storytelling that’s got maximum impact by being what it is in the first place – a unique story.’”

Japanese biopic Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter

LA Productions has good form with singles, having produced Common, another McGovern film, which explored the UK’s Joint Enterprise law when a young man gives friends an impromptu lift to a pizza parlour and ends up being charged with murder. The film helped change British law. “We’re very proud of what it achieved. Would it have achieved that if it was a series? I don’t think so,” McKeown says. “What Care will achieve in flagging up the problems that families are subjected to when a member of the family unfortunately contracts Alzheimer’s will be that much more rewarding because it’s a single film. It’s always the films that touch people’s hearts a lot more and have a bigger impact.”

Dementia is also key to another upcoming BBC feature-length drama, an adaptation of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing, about a woman struggling with the illness as she sets out to discover the truth about her friend’s disappearance. Shooting is set to begin in March 2019.

“It deals with an incredibly current and relevant issue to a lot of people but did it in such a fresh and accessible way,” producer Sarah Brown, head of drama at STV Productions, says of the source material. “There hadn’t been many dramas about dementia and it is such a huge issue of our time. We were very keen it should be on a mainstream channel for a mainstream audience because it’s an issue that touches so many people’s lives.”

The book’s unique viewpoint – the story is told from the perspective of someone with dementia – meant Elizabeth is Missing suited a 90-minute format, rather than the three-parter that was originally discussed. “There was no agenda, we just all felt creatively and editorially that a single was the best form for this story,” Brown says. “Some stories are designed and meant to be told as a multi-part show, and we all love those long-running stories that unfold slowly. But not every story is suited to that format, and we felt this story was best told in a single immersive experience.”

Sheridan Smith in BBC one-off drama Care

Whitehead says that, like serialised dramas, TV movies are introducing more flawed characters and complex situations. “In our movies, we go in different areas and have villains we enjoy as much as the heroes. Some broadcasters invest because the film is about a controversial subject or it’s a historical piece. We try to have interesting characters, and don’t believe we have to go big budget or big name. What I hope to do is more a mix of characters and languages. People are more open to that, so I hope it translates with movies.”

TV movies also allow stories to be told more directly, without becoming consumed by the side plots and peripheral characters needed to flesh out multi-episode series.

“Movies allow you to tell a story in a very condensed way. As you have only about 90 minutes of runtime, you can’t allow yourself to explore too many facets of a character’s life – even if it would be interesting,” says Caroline Labrèche, the director of Incendo thriller Second Opinion and the forthcoming Thicker than Water. “So everything in the film, be it story beats or character beats, needs to be very precise. You need to watch a scene and know exactly why you’ve just watched it. It can’t be too vague or subtle. There’s just no time for that, especially in plot-heavy thrillers. But that’s the challenge.”

Brown laments the way quieter single stories have been squeezed out in favour of multi-part dramas. “So the ones that tend to be commissioned are either big, topical, campaigning issue pieces or based on a really big well-loved book or with a bit of talent attached,” she notes. “In our case, it’s a combination of the subject matter and the book. Hopefully the way we make that and cast it will further enhance its visibility.”

With the trend for serialised stories showing no signs of stopping, TV movies can offer themselves up as a bitesized drama that can be watched in the time it takes to watch two episodes of a series. Meanwhile, investments in the genre made by Netflix, Amazon and other streaming platforms continue to blur the boundaries between TV movies and feature films on TV.

Incendo thriller Second Opinion

NHK’s Kato believes that as creators cross the boundaries between film and television, stories will too. “Given that TV movies allow suppliers and buyers to have informed negotiations after watching the programmes in their entirety and are generally cheaper than drama series, I believe there will be further growth in the market,” he says. “So it’s very likely I will stay involved.”

Stevenson adds that in the current political climate, feel-good TV movies that offer viewers something wholesome and heartwarming can be a tasty antidote to the turbulent and tempestuous news cycle.

“For anybody who grew up in the 70s and early 80s, that was a time of a lot of political upheaval. So Happy Days and The Waltons started, and that’s when television movies really took hold,” she says. “It feels like viewers are seeking out TV movies right now to be able to take a break and enjoy a beautiful Christmas story or be wrapped up in a cosy mystery or suspense tale that’s not as awful as the news coming into everybody’s house every day. That’s what’s making the difference. It feels like there’s a little resurgence of the television movie genre.”

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