Tag Archives: Sarah Phelps

Reading between the lines

A trio of the world’s hottest television writers – Bill Gallagher, Victoria Madden and Sarah Phelps – discuss their latest projects and reveal how they find their voice for the small screen.


Bill Gallagher
Starting his career on British dramas such as Casualty, Soldier Soldier and a TV movie based on French detective Maigret, Bill Gallagher is best known for credits including Lark Rise to Candleford, Conviction, The Prisoner, The Paradise and Paranoid. His next project is frontier drama Jamestown (pictured above), which charts the early days of the first British settlers as they begin their new lives in America. It is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.

Bill Gallagher

Gareth Neame [Carnival’s MD] asked if I would look at this period of the very first settlers who went to America from England. I said, “Ok, I’ll read some books.” So I was reading this stuff and it was terrific but I couldn’t see a show. Then I was reading one book, I was on page 300-and-something and suddenly it said, ‘And in 1619, when the men had been there for 12 years, the Virginia Company sent over a ship with 100 women on it’ – maids to make wives. And I fell in love with the whole notion of doing this. You have to fall in love with it.
That became the defining aspect of the show – to see the whole experience though the eyes of women. I was brought up on westerns on the TV so it really was my mythology as a kid, and I got to write for Native American actors. It was absolutely fantastic.
I wrote the whole thing myself. It’s not always the case but often is. I was instantly very clear about who the characters were and what the stories were. I wrote the pilot very quickly and Gareth gave it to Sky very quickly. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and that speed is a rarity rather than commonplace. Things just fell into place at the right time. Sky makes shows with scale, with issues driving them. It fitted what they wanted and they had a pilot script.
I worked with [exec producer] Richard Fell at Carnival and we went to Virginia together. One of the most joyful parts of being a writer is to find a simpatico partner to work with, somebody who challenged me all the time, who was as passionate as I was about it and who got me as a writer.
I allow myself to be clumsy. I love my craft, I love the craft of making a TV show but I work quickly and sometimes that’s clumsy – but I don’t mind that. I used to beat myself up about it when I was younger, I used to get in a real mess and then I had this realisation at some point that this was just my job and it’s my job to be better – so how do I make it better? I don’t mind being clumsy but I have to find someone who’s not panicked by that, and Richard was terrific. I love the craft of it. I work very hard at the composition and architecture of it all but I also give myself permission to get things wrong.
It’s a great time to be a writer because to write something like Jamestown now, which has Native American characters and slaves and English people who have been transported around the world, we can write anything and it’s doable.



Victoria Madden
Australian writer Victoria Madden’s early credits include The Flying Doctors and Heartbreak High, before she moved to the UK and worked on dramas including The Bill, Trial & Retribution and Irish series The Clinic. She then returned home to Tasmania to write and produce The Kettering Incident (pictured above), an eight-part mystery with supernatural overtones for pay TV broadcaster Foxtel that centres on a doctor who finds herself linked to the disappearance of two girls, 15 years apart. It is produced by Porchlight Films in association with Sweet Potato Films and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

Victoria Madden

I’ve written a lot of crime in my career and I love it as a base to work from. I was looking for other angles and when I was living in the UK, Life On Mars was being shot. I was hugely influenced by that show, the way they managed to make a fantastic crime show but with supernatural overtones that didn’t get in the way. It started to make me think that I wanted to explore the supernatural genre as well and to marry together some ideas.
Tasmania is a deeply gothic place with a horrific past – it’s right at the bottom of the world, it’s very isolated, very alone and suffers a lot from huge environmental wars – and I wanted to explore that, adding in the fact that Tasmania also has an abnormally high percentage of people who go missing. I was always fascinated by that.
That started the idea – then something else, something out there. That was the hardest part for me. I hadn’t done supernatural before. I didn’t want it to be a sci-fi show; I wanted it to be a metaphor and to build the supernatural into the story in a natural way. It’s also about a small town on the brink of destruction and that world I grew up in and that desperation. Also, in small worlds, what I find fascinating is the way you have to get on with your neighbours because it’s so small but everybody hates everybody. It builds this maelstrom of deceit and duplicity.
Anna Macy, the lead character [played by Elizabeth Debicki], is a girl who comes back, realises she doesn’t belong and so starts a journey. It really is a journey of unwinding a character and seeing why we need connection and why we need to call somewhere home. She’s a bit of an anti-hero – you don’t know whether to believe her, so that was fun to play with. Is she lying, is she connected to the missing girl story?
I was very influenced by Scandinavian drama and the importance of place. I wanted a story with a big landscape, so that meant a big budget and universal themes so it could travel. We were really lucky, it was a perfect storm. Foxtel was looking for something really different for Australia so it all came together for a world stage.
I don’t like dialogue a lot and I do anything to try not to write a lot of dialogue, but I knew the themes we were exploring were about disconnection, and so every character – even the smaller secondary characters – had a full journey through the show. When I know the themes I am exploring, I like to work in a mosaic way. I do small scenes between people, taking them out of the drama, and then I weave it together afterwards. I don’t like to do it linearly, I just like to do these moments and think about what these people would talk about. At the end, you hopefully get this coherent episode of characters who are lost and trying to find their way through their circumstances.



Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps started her writing career on long-running UK soap EastEnders and has since worked on shows including The Crimson Field, Dickensian and Hooten & The Lady. She is best known, however, for her skill at adaptations, among them Great Expectations and The Casual Vacancy. She is now reinventing Agatha Christie for the BBC, first with And Then There Were None and most recently with The Witness for the Prosecution (pictured above and at the top of this page). The two-part story about a man put on trial for the murder of a wealthy heiress is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions, with A+E Networks distributing.

Sarah Phelps

I never read any Agatha Christie at all and I never watched any – I just thought it wasn’t for me. It was cosy, over there somewhere, just not what I’m interested in. But then Damien Timmer from Mammoth told me to read And Then There Were None and I was absolutely knocked sideways. It’s one of the most brutal, savage things I’ve ever read. It’s rather extraordinary. It just took fire in my head.
These 10 people on an island – a salt-scoured rock – in the middle of the sea, unable to reach the mainland and here comes this thing towards them, this bloody reckoning of all the things they’ve done, the lies they’ve told. You watch the veneer of etiquette, politesse, society, gender and status being stripped away from them to reveal the craven, brutish animals they are. They are all people who have perpetrated the most terrible crime – they’re all murderers.
That to me felt like, ‘Well, if this isn’t a story about what it’s like to live in 1939 as the world tips over again and the absolute cataclysm of the Second World War, then what the hell is?’ So that really excited me.
Then I came to The Witness for the Prosecution. It’s 20-odd pages, this story with a great twist, but it’s also the 1920s. We associate the period with people dancing on tables and drinking champagne; flappers and rackety, hedonistic, sexual and social excess, but it’s also a time of extreme depression. People came back from the First World War with terrible injuries, both seen and unseen, and terrible deformities.
In the middle of this is a story about sex, money and murder, about an older, very wealthy woman buying favours from a young man who is completely penniless, and you get a really different feeling from the story. Added to that is one of the main characters is a woman who is absolutely the epitome of alterity – she is a foreigner, an actress from Vienna. What we’re talking about is someone from somewhere else and Christie takes all those great icons of what we believe English and privilege are and just smashes them to absolute pieces. That feels so wildly subversive to me.
There’s always a key that unlocks the story and makes the whole thing explode. Suddenly there’s a tiny detail, it might even be a sub-clause in some long sentence, and it just unlocks everything and that’s when you start running wildly round your house with your jumper over your head like a kid. You know you’ve found your story.
From writing EastEnders to anything else, I’m the audience. Does the story excite me? Do I want to find out what happens next? Am I interested in this story? But if you want it to be universal, you have to be really specific because that’s where you get this emotional connection. Being able to write something that absolutely punches you in the heart from my ridiculously tiny study somewhere in England – if it can punch you in the heart there, it can punch you in the heart around the world.

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And Then There Was Sarah Phelps

From Dickensian and The Crimson Field to adaptations of Great Expectations, The Casual Vacancy, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution, Sarah Phelps is one of the UK’s most vibrant screenwriters. She tells DQ how she brings a novel to life on the small screen and reveals some of the most important writing lessons she has learned during her career.

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Cattrall bears Witness

The BBC’s Agatha Christie revival continues with two-part crime thriller The Witness for the Prosecution. Michael Pickard speaks to star Kim Cattrall about playing a murder victim and why she wants to give women a voice in television.

As far as Kim Cattrall is concerned, she had some unfinished business with Agatha Christie’s novel The Witness for the Prosecution (TWFTP).

Several years ago she had read for a role in a new Broadway production of the short story, only to learn that opening night would never arrive for that particular adaptation. But in a plot twist that might have come straight from the pages of one of Christie’s novels, the actor was last year invited to join the cast of new television drama based on the same novel.

“The script came in and it was drastically changed from the novel and the stage play that I knew, but I thought it was a terrific adaptation,” Cattrall recalls. “They said to me they’d like to offer me the role of Emily French and I thought it would be really fun to do it on film and play this character.

“I felt it was a real opportunity, especially as Agatha Christie has always written wonderful roles for women. The script was very different – it was very innovative but still had a lot of strength, with the female characters in particular. She definitely told very complex women’s stories and wrote those characters well.

“When I read the script, it was great and I could make this woman much more of a force than maybe she was originally in the story. By making her more involved in the suffragettes and more of a radical instead of just a stock character of an older woman pining and fawning over a younger man, we can tell a much more interesting story and create a much more interesting woman for her time.”

Set in 1920s London, TWFTP concerns the brutal murder of Cattrall’s glamorous and rich Emily French. All evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life – at least according to Emily’s housekeeper Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan).

Leonard, however, is adamant that his partner, chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence as solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig) defend him in court.

The two-parter, which airs in the UK on BBC1 this Christmas, is the second Christie story to be adapted by writer Sarah Phelps and produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions, following And Then There Were None (ATTWN) last Christmas. It is directed by Julian Jarrold and produced by Colin Wratten, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn Media, with Acorn TV streaming the thriller in the US.

The executive producers are Phelps, James Prichard, Hilary Strong, Karen Thrussell, Damien Timmer and Matthew Read.

Though she may play the murder victim at the heart of the story, Cattrall relished the opportunity to flesh out her character, who is frequently shown via flashbacks during the two-hour drama.

The Witness for the Prosecution centres on the investigation in the murder of Cattrall’s character Emily French

“It was a fun challenge playing her,” she says of the widowed heiress. “I saw her as someone who was a bit of a rebel, who was always testing the ropes and also as quite lonely and incredibly bored. I see her as being quite restless. She meets this young man in this restaurant and he’s not the cock of the walk, he’s a vulnerable young man and he catches her eye. She invites him home and has this moment of offering him five pounds a week to be her companion. I felt for this woman who is reduced to paying for company and attention to make her feel young and vital and visible again.

“I was really happy that Julian allowed me to have fun playing this character as multi-dimensional rather than just the rich, older woman who’s preying on a young man. She’s so much more complicated than that and I wanted to bring that to Emily.”

Best known for playing man-eater Samantha Jones in HBO’s romantic comedy Sex and the City (and its subsequent film spin-offs), Cattrall says she left that role behind long ago by steering away from playing similar characters, instead choosing parts she finds challenging.

“So I feel in a very fortunate position to still be challenged and create different characters in different scenarios,” she continues. “Something to bring forward in any part I play more about what it is to be a woman my age. That’s what I’m exploring myself in real life and is the purpose of the things I say yes to.

“In some ways, Emily French is a character we’ve seen many times before. So I thought, ‘How can I infuse her with something that Sarah’s given me that I can create with Julian to make a character like Emily French more understandable, more detailed and more nuanced?’”

The supporting cast includes Andrea Riseborough

Furthermore, Cattrall explains that Phelps and Jarrold combined to ensure TWFTP is a pure ‘whodunnit,’ rather than revealing who the murderer is partway through the story, which means viewers can look forward an engrossing and immersive thrill ride.

“What I love as an audience member is when the story is ahead of me because then I participate more,” she says. “You don’t know who did it and they keep you on the edge of your seat and you feel for these characters because they’re being more complexly drawn, they’re more human instead of just being archetypes. What Sarah’s done in writing it is given them more humanity. You feel for them even though you feel they could have done it, which I think is an interesting way to tell any kind of thriller.”

Filming took place in the English city of Liverpool, which allowed the actor the chance to return to her place of birth – she was subsequently raised in British Columbia, Canada – and also celebrate her 60th birthday there during the shoot in August.

“I’m a combination of British and Canadian,” she explains. “My parents are both British and I’m now spending more and more time there. My immediate family is in Canada and I also have my show Sensitive Skin [HBO Canada], which shoots in Toronto, so I can go between both countries and work and feel very much at home in both of them.”

But what is it about Christie’s original work that continues to fascinate audiences and inspire new adaptations year after year?

Toby Jones as solicitor John Mayhew

“There’s a real need for whodunnit – they delve into characters, character flaws and everybody is fascinated by a murder and what drives it, whether it’s madness or jealousy,” Cattrall says. “They speak to people’s fascination with stepping over that line. They’re blood-curdling and scary – and when they’re done well, they’re very exciting.”

Prior to TWFTP, Cattrall has been seen on screen in two seasons of comedy Sensitive Skin, which tells the story of a woman (Cattrall) and her longtime husband who are trying to reinvigorate their lives as they struggle to come to terms with middle age.

“I really enjoy telling stories about women, especially at the point in their life where I find myself now,” the actor says. “I just think it’s uncharted territory. It would just be boring to do the same thing over and over again.

“The exciting thing is telling stories people haven’t heard before. I don’t see enough of that on television. I see rip-offs of shows I’ve seen before, and some of them are very well done, but what I’m looking for is stories and women who need a voice. We’ve had enough ‘super women’ or ‘wonder women,’ literally, and superheroes – they’re fun and there’s a place for them. That doesn’t mean what I want to produce doesn’t have comedy involved with it or irony or vulnerability for the characters. I’m trying to figure out this time in my life and I’m very much attracted to stories, whether in film, theatre or television, that are telling that story in a way I can relate to.”

Cattrall’s involvement in Sensitive Skin isn’t limited just to her on-screen role, however. She is also an executive producer – a role she describes as “fulfilling” as she looks to bring more original projects into production.

“The thing I really enjoyed about being an executive producer on Sensitive Skin, and the thing that was also most terrifying, was how much say I have, not just to the actors or directors but how I wanted to tell the story and with whom,” she admits. “That’s a really exciting place to be because you start with a blank canvas and then you choose the colours with your collaborators that you want to use, and I’d like to do more of that. That’s why working with writers is so important and exciting because everything is possible, especially at the beginning of the process.

“I would like to do more of that and really continue to tell stories and give a voice to women who I don’t think have been heard in the past.”

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Phelps bears Witness

Writer Sarah Phelps reunites with Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions to adapt another classic Christie novel. Michael Pickard finds out more about The Witness for the Prosecution.

At just 23 pages long, Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel The Witness for the Prosecution might seem a fairly lightweight proposition for a television adaptation.

But after the success of 2015’s And Then There Were None, writer Sarah Phelps and coproducers Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions have combined once again to bring another Christie tale to BBC1. It is due to premiere later this year and will also air on Acorn TV in the US.

“In the world of Agatha Christie, in terms of her iconic titles, it’s absolutely up there,” executive producer Damien Timmer says of the source material. “Some of her novels cast a very long shadow but The Witness for the Prosecution is one of her best conceits. It’s a very dark, twisted love story that collides with a big courtroom drama. It’s irresistible.”

Set in 1920s London, the short story opens with the brutal murder of glamorous and rich Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall, pictured top). All the evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life, at least according to the housekeeper, Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan).

Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps

Leonard, however, is adamant that his partner, enigmatic chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence. Solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig) represent him in court.

“It is one of her absolute best stories,” exclaims James Prichard, chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd and the author’s great-grandson. “It’s got a phenomenal twist to it. Romaine is one of the best characters my great-grandmother wrote. It’s a great story and it deserves the Sarah [Phelps] treatment.”

The length of the original tale failed to faze Phelps, who was new to the story and has stuck to her rule of not seeing previous adaptations of a property she is working on. She also specifically wanted to adapt the original short story, rather than the 1953 play Christie wrote based on it.

“I wanted to do the short story because it was the one that grabbed my imagination,” she admits. “Even though it’s incredibly brief, it builds up to this extraordinary twist and it felt exciting, like there was a lot of room in it for extrapolation and interpretation and creative input.”

She adds of the adaptation process: “It’s always about finding the story. You can have a novel that’s 800 pages long or a 20-page short story, but it’s always about asking what the story is. Whether it’s finding the key line through it like with Great Expectations, or with Witness, it’s the tiny little mentions and suggestions that make me think of something and it just sort of breathes and grows. I really enjoyed working on it.”

Published in 1925, it was one of Christie’s earliest works, set during a fascinating period of British history in which society was polarised between the rich and glitzy society life and the poverty experienced by many people in London in the years after the First World War.

Aidan Turner in And Then There Were None
Aidan Turner in And Then There Were None

“We talk about the glamour of the 1920s but the champagne, the shingled hair and the dancing on tables was only present for the proportion of the population who had money,” says Phelps. “Everybody else was caught up in a terrible postwar depression where people were starving. People came back from the war and pawned their medals and begged on street corners. So within those two extremes of that world, you throw in a story about money, sex and murder and it feels really explosive.”

Prichard continues: “There is this extraordinary disparity between the rich world of Emily and her ilk and the poorer world of Leonard, Romaine and Mayhew. Whereas And Then There Were None played towards the fears of the Second World War, this harks back to the after-effects of the First World War and how it impacted on everyone.”

Filming for the two-part drama took place earlier this year in Liverpool, which Timmer explains was a good match for a foggy 1920s London. “But we also needed locations outside London – big theatre set pieces and scenes set in the south of France,” he reveals. “We scouted all over the place and found Liverpool had more to offer than anywhere else. It has some glorious exteriors that do a very good job of passing for period London, arguably better than London itself.”

Telling a story that spans several different locations also presented a challenge for Timmer and Mammoth Screen, with just 120 minutes of screen time to fill.

“It’s two hours of television but in that time you’ve got to recreate large-scale courtroom scenes, London exteriors, 1920s vaudeville, big lavish scenes in the south of France and scenes in First World War trenches,” he notes. “We’re lucky to have [director] Julian Jarrold, who is one of our best filmmakers, and a pretty amazing production team assembled around him. We haven’t stinted at any of these things; the sheer scale of it is pretty remarkable.”

Phelps picks up: “It’s claustrophobic as well. You do spend a lot of time in the courtroom but it became a set of staircases and small rooms full of dark corners. It felt like place was really important and it was about creating a city around the people in The Witness for the Prosecution, all of whom were carrying this trauma of the war with them.

Damien Timmer
Damien Timmer

Collaborating with Jarrold was also a positive experience for Phelps, though the writer admits her scripts can be quite detailed in how she sees the story being brought to life on screen.

“I’m very descriptive with stage directions and almost what you could smell or feel if you were really there,” she admits. “I explain how cold it is or whether the carpet’s thin or so plush that your foot sinks in and leaves a footprint like Robinson Crusoe seeing a footprint on the beach. So that’s all there for anybody reading it to feel the world the way I feel it.

“You always have these conversations with your directors and you can tell people get really into it. Our art designer fell in love with the Mayhew house and was incredibly proud of the set. You have those conversations and you understand each other. The director and director of photography will also have thoughts and ideas of how to realise what I’ve written in the script, so there’s always got to be a trust and you’ve got to give people their own artistic licence.”

Timmer says Phelps is “brilliant” at adapting classic material. “Sarah claims not to have read any Agatha Christie so by coming to her work fresh and simply treating it as a classic novel, it leads to something very fresh in the world of Christie adaptations,” he explains. “Having been on the journey with her for And Then There Were None, we all felt her sensibility applied to Agatha Christie’s best stories is a very fruitful one.

“Sometimes people see Agatha Christie as much lighter than the writing actually is. They think it’s a very chintzy, Cluedo murder mystery but actually she is almost always much more complex than that. And Then There Were None was partly an exercise in making people reassess her and see quite how stark and dark and psychologically complex her writing can be, and Sarah is well placed to get to grips with that.”

Prichard says of Phelps: “She seems to be able to get between the lines of Agatha’s writing in a way that is very special. One thing she says is it’s an adaptation, it’s not a translation, so she does adapt, but to adapt means you’re working from the original and it has to be based in the original. And she does have this ability to take my great-grandmother’s stories and make them very real and bring them into a modern sensibility in a way I haven’t seen for a while. She’s just a great writer, and great writers create fantastic television.”

Following the success of And Then There Were None might seem daunting, but while Prichard admits that show was “the best thing we’ve done on TV ever,” he adds that with Phelps and Mammoth back at the helm, The Witness for the Prosecution could be even better. A+E Networks is distributing the series around the world.

“What Sarah and everyone else has brought to this is a different insight,” he says. “Everything Sarah puts in the story is in the original works if you read them properly. Particularly with Witness, which is just a short story, she’s added bits and given backstories but actually it all feels as if it fits within that. She’s taken a cough that the solicitor Mayhew has and she’s built a complete backstory around this one line in the book. It’s extraordinary how she gets this feel from these stories.”

Mammoth and Phelps will be back together again for another Christie adaptation in 2017, this time taking on Ordeal by Innocence, which is the first of seven adaptations the BBC will air over the next four years. Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders will follow, with writers and producers to be confirmed.

“I’m in no way an aficionado of her work; all I can say is this is my take and this is what I think, what I see and what I think these stories are about,” Phelps explains. “But maybe because I’m unfamiliar with them, that unsettling quality perhaps comes across because I don’t have any prior relationship with them.

“I think she is an unsettling writer and she nails very succinctly and very forensically a sense of identity, a sense of Englishness where actually there’s a real tension to that identity – and there’s a tension to it because there’s a body on the floor and that body’s been murdered. They’re entertaining stories and deliciously plotted but there’s also something else going on, something quite worrying and dangerous.”

Having produced the long-running Poirot series for ITV, Timmer says he has a soft spot for the author and hopes to continue that relationship in the future.

“We’re relishing this chance to take some of the very best titles and treat them as standalone modern classics,” he adds. “As long as one can access those titles, we’re happy to continue as long as we’re wanted.”

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A busy August in Edinburgh

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame was among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.

One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.

The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.

Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”

The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”

The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.

Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.

There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries is being adapted for BBC2

Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.

Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”

Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.

Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”

Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.

Anna Friel in Marcella
Anna Friel in Marcella

While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.

Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”

Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.

The Kettering Incident
The Kettering Incident has been picked up by Amazon

In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.

The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.

In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.

“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”

The End has sold across the world
The End has sold across the world

In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.

The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.

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Brits dominate Rose D’Or scripted

Mum
Big Talk Productions’ Mum aired on BBC2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raised by Wolves
Big Talk Productions’ Raised by Wolves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Second to None: DQ on the darkest Agatha Christie adaptation yet

And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s seminal murder mystery – but just how was this story of 10 strangers stranded on an isolated island brought to the screen?

It was first published in 1939 as the world stood on the brink of war, but Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (ATTWN) remains the celebrated author’s most popular work.

More than 70 years after it was written, the chilling murder mystery is still the best-selling crime story of all time and was recently voted Christie’s most popular novel.

And now it’s been given the television treatment after BBC1 and US cable network Lifetime partnered to bring it to the small screen – but just how did Agatha Christie Ltd (ACL), producer Mammoth Screen and writer Sarah Phelps adapt the story?

And Then There Were None sees 10 strangers brought together on a mysterious island, but as they wait for their hosts, they find themselves cut off from civilisation. The guests then start to die, one by one, according to the rules of Ten Little Soldier Boys, a nursery rhyme that ends with the words: “… and then there were none.”

Aidan Turner of Poldark fame is among And Then There Were None's star-studded cast
Aidan Turner of Poldark fame is among And Then There Were None’s star-studded cast

The ensemble cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor and Aidan Turner.

Best known for her “cosy crime” stories featuring Miss Marple and Poirot, it was time for people to see the other side of Agatha Christie, says Hilary Strong, CEO of ACL. “And Then There Were None is probably Christie’s seminal book,” she says. “Sarah did an amazing adaptation but the book itself is very dark and brutal. We haven’t changed the tone of it. That’s how she wrote it.”

Mammoth’s executive producers Karen Thrussell and Damien Timmer have a long history with Christie, having previously produced Poirot for ITV. Thrussell says that with no detective at the centre of the plot, ATTWN immediately stands out as “amazingly different and inventive.”

She adds: “It’s a dark, dark book – the original slasher thriller – but it’s also very psychological. It was absolutely the one we most wanted to do. So we got in touch with Sarah, who’s one of our favourite writers. I don’t think she’d actually read Agatha Christie before and I think she was knocked over sideways actually reading this book because it’s not what you expect from Christie.”

Phelps describes the story as “remorseless. You thought you knew what this woman (Christie) was about,” she says. “Her mind was absolutely extraordinary. You kind of forget that. Agatha the writer and Agatha the brain get lost in Agatha the brand. I was profoundly shocked by it in a really exciting way. That’s what I really hope comes across. It’s brutal.”

When writing the book, Christie worked backwards, starting at the end when everyone is dead and the police arrive too late, penning it over two years. Phelps similarly approached the adaptation as a puzzle, trying to make sure all the characters’ whereabouts were known when another person died and yet ensuring that each remained a suspect.

Veteran British actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) also stars
Veteran British actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) also stars

“You have to build it inside your head and let the characters walk around it,” she says. “I took the dog on really long walks and stamped around to get the atmosphere of it and then I sat down and threw everything I had at it and hoped for the best. You can find yourself thinking, ‘Well, in the book you know this person’s there because you’re told.’

“When you put it in a three-dimensional setting, you need to make sure that when a murder happens, viewers know where everybody is and yet they could all legitimately be the murderer of the person that’s just died. You can bash your head against the walls a couple of times thinking about how to solve that. But that’s part of the fun. And if you can make those reasons characterful, then it’s dramatic.”

The reveal in the original text was also saved for two epilogues at the end of the story, meaning Phelps also had to find a way for the story to be resolved on screen – one of several changes she made to Christie’s novel.

“The two epilogues tell you everything that happened after the event and how it was all planned, giving insight into the process of doing it. But you don’t want to finish your drama and have a couple of epilogues, so you want to pull that into the structure of the drama itself,” she says.

“There are little things we changed slightly to facilitate bringing that stuff into the body of the drama. I changed one of the crimes just because I wanted the character to have a much closer connection to it; I wanted to actively make him a murder victim rather than somebody who did something and then death just happened. I wanted them to be active agents in the destruction of another life.”

Craig Viveiros was brought in to direct the series, while production designer Sophie Becher was often found trawling antique shops and junk markets to find props that were authentic to its 1939 setting.

And Then There Were None has been described as Agatha Christie's darkest work
And Then There Were None has been described as Agatha Christie’s darkest work

“Sophie very much wanted to keep the style as Sarah had written, with the house on the island very white and modern,” Thrussell says. “There’s a theme of deterioration as the show goes on because you start with a slightly more optimistic lighting set-up, the characters get to the house and it’s rather nice and the food’s excellent.

“Then gradually as it descends into chaos, it gets darker and their appearance becomes dishevelled and not so neat. There’s that progression that’s been carefully tracked throughout. We also did that that with the music – it got more experimental as we went through. It was a bit of a journey.”

Having aired in three-parts on BBC1 over Christmas, ATTWN will also appear as two 90-minute instalments on Lifetime in the US in spring.

Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at Lifetime parent A+E Networks, says joining forces with the BBC for the miniseries was a “no-brainer.”

“For Lifetime, it doesn’t get much better,” he says. “Sarah’s retelling of a book we all think we know but actually don’t quite know is extraordinary. For us, looking at a piece like this as an event and Agatha Christie as a brand, along with the great cast and two great storytellers, it was a no-brainer.

“We’re excited to be able to use the brand, which still means a lot in the States. Rob Sharenow (Lifetime’s executive VP of programming), who bought the show very early on before he’d seen anything from Sarah, knew the book well. He’d read the book as a child, loved it and they just needed some hooks – which are the cast as well as Agatha – to be able to market it to the audience in the US.”

Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong
Agatha Christie Ltd boss Hilary Strong

Strong says the show was always conceived as a coproduction in order to bring together the high-profile cast they wanted from the outset.

“It was never going to be a cheap thing to do so we started talking to America very early on in the process, even before Sarah had written the script,” she explains. “Working with Joel at A+E and Lifetime was a revelation because, at the same time as we were trying to ensure the world saw a different side to Agatha Christie’s work, Lifetime was also trying to move away from its very female audience, so it was a real brand match in terms of what we were trying to do.

“This is a BBC show written by Agatha Christie – it’s very inherently British. A+E and Lifetime needed a cast that resonated with their audience so we got them an extraordinary cast. Charles Dance, Aidan Turner looking very different to Poldark, Sam Neil, Burn Gorman – it’s just a fantastic team of people and they worked so well together. They loved it.”

With the story literally coming to a dead end, there’s no chance of a second season – so why was this adapted for television and not made into a movie?

“What I love about TV is you have time to explore things,” Thrussell says. “One of the things Sarah did beautifully was to really get to know these people and I don’t think you could do that in a two-hour film. What’s brilliant about TV is that you can explore the longevity of things. I don’t know how you’d do it justice as a film. TV is great for character development, that’s what makes it interesting.”

With a big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, due in November 2017, ACL is continuing to find ways to bring Christie to new and younger audiences.

“We would love to make more TV in the future but we will do it very carefully and very sparingly,” Strong adds. “We don’t want to have a thousand Christies in production. But I’d love to adapt Witness for the Prosecution next.”

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Great Expectations: On set with the BBC’s Dickensian

Tony Jordan has brought together some of literature’s best-known characters in a celebration of Charles Dickens. DQ went on the set while Dickensian was still filming to find out why those behind the show were sure of its success.

He’s the revered author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

But what would it be like to peer inside Charles Dickens’ mind and bring the characters from his novels – Fagin, Scrooge, Mrs Gamp, Miss Havisham et al – into the same world?

Red Planet Pictures' Tony Jordan
Red Planet Pictures’ Tony Jordan

Wonder no more, because that’s exactly what Tony Jordan has done with Dickensian, a 20-part, 10-hour drama now airing on BBC1.

Set within the fictional realms of the author’s novels, Dickensian brings together many of Dickens’ best-known characters as their paths cross in 19th century London.

It’s produced by Red Planet Pictures, with Red Planet MD Jordan acting as lead writer alongside Sarah Phelps, Simon Winstone, Julie Rutherford, Chloe Moss and Justin Young. Jordan and Belinda Campbell executive produce along with BBC1’s Polly Hill, with David Boulter producing.

Yet while viewers can enjoy spotting characters from different novels, another character that may receive less attention is the set itself. Described as a working set, its exteriors are joined to its interiors to create an all-encompassing world where The Old Curiosity Shop sits next to a fully functional Three Cripples pub.

The set was built inside a huge warehouse on a nondescript industrial estate in north-west London, inside which you are instantly transported into Victorian London. When DQ visits, it is dusk, with only the glow emanating from the Three Cripples providing light outside. Shops are painstakingly detailed along Market Street and as you walk across the cobbles, you can pick out such stores as Mantalini’s (Nicholas Nickleby) and The Old Curiosity Shop and the office of Scrooge and Marley (A Christmas Carol).

Inside Satis House – the town house belonging to Amelia Havisham and her half-brother Arthur (Great Expectations) – statues line the hallway and chandeliers hang from the ceilings, with a dining table laid for a feast. In contrast, Fagin’s den is dark and dingy, with barred windows keeping out the light.

Recreated locations
The Three Cripples pub is among the painstakingly realised locations

The scale and scope of the Market Street set is breathtaking – and it needed to be, says Jordan, who began working with production designer Michael Ralph before a script had even been written. “I had to build the world. That was key to making it work,” he explains. “I didn’t think it would work like a traditional show with a bit here and a location there. Dickens used atmosphere almost as a character – there’s always mist, smog and snow. So building the world became the only way to make this work. That’s what we’ve done.

“Satis House is in there, a church, the Three Cripples pub. I’ve got horses and carriages going round. It’s crazy beyond belief but that makes it a magical place to work and it’s created this family-company atmosphere among cast and crew.”

Jordan says that for Dickensian, which cost more than £1m (US$1.5m) an hour to produce, he tried to delve into Dickens’ imagination: “It’s all Dickens’ characters, all his stories, everything he’s ever written, but inside his head they’re allowed to mix up and to have slightly different outcomes. Timelines can mix, stories can mix, characters can mix. One story can affect another.”

The writer admits he’s not a Dickens scholar, joking that his starting point was The Muppet Christmas Carol. But by working with Dickens experts, Jordan ensured he remained faithful to the characters while bringing viewers stories never seen on screen before.

Cast
Dickensian’s ensemble cast includes Stephen Rea, Tuppence Middleton and Caroline Quentin

“Every time you’ve ever seen Miss Havisham, you’ve only ever seen this mad bird in a dress and a veil,” Jordan says. “But do you really need to see another adaptation of that? There’s a passage in the book where Pocket explains to Pip the history of Miss Havisham and how she had a half-brother who felt cheated after the death of their father and conspired with a man called Compeyson to steal her money. It’s still faithful to the story, the character and the spirit of what Dickens wrote but you haven’t seen that before. You haven’t seen the young Miss Havisham, falling in love, meeting that man. We see her on her wedding day – that’s exciting.

“As a writer, writing the scene between Ebenezer Scrooge and Fagin, that’s sexy stuff. I don’t care about broadcasters. Buy it or don’t buy it – I’m gonna write it anyway. I’ll do it on a Saturday morning. (Before I started) I thought somebody must have done this already, but they hadn’t. It was like Christmas. I felt like Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve.”

Jordan and Ralph previously worked together on Death in Paradise, Hustle and The Ark, so before the script stage of Dickensian, Ralph created some artwork and even built a model of the main Market Street set. Jordan was then able to use that in his writing while the full-size set was being built.

“There’s no way you would know this show is filmed entirely on a set,” Jordan says. “It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, you’re just wondering where the fuck it is because it looks stunning. There’s no way you’d know, and that was really important.”

Another
The BBC1 series comprises 20 parts and began airing at Christmas

Ralph describes Dickensian as the “biggest and most ambitious series” he has ever worked on, adding that he was thrilled to work on a set where every element of weather and lighting could be controlled. “I delight in delighting Tony, finding him what he wanted when he wrote it and what he envisaged,” he says. “I was totally released with my imagination and creativity. I had so much freedom to produce what I did, it was unbelievable.

“I dressed nearly every set individually, sometimes on my own, especially The Old Curiosity Shop. If you can spend long enough dressing a set, it feels like you’re invading someone else’s space and that’s what it was like. I won’t let anyone put anything on the set that doesn’t have something written on it that actually relates to the character. That detail does take a lot of time, but we were given the time.”

Ralph says his designs are always inspired by the script and reveals the final set was almost identical to his initial sketches and models. “With all productions these days, no one ever thinks they have enough money to do anything,” he notes. “For me, less money is what I want. It opens up a well of creativity and means people have to be more focused on what the camera is really seeing. I’m a great believer in using the camera. The camera lies like a bastard and I’m embracing the deceit. We’re making films; man-made dreams for people who are awake.”

With a starring role in fellow BBC period drama War & Peace, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Amelia Havisham, is no stranger to epic productions. But while she travelled across Europe for Andrew Davies’ retelling of Tolstoy’s classic, she says she “loved” filming Dickensian on the purpose-built set.

“As soon as we walk through the doors of the studio, you’re transported into this world,” she says. “It’s such a huge job to build an entire street. I don’t think that ever happens. I’ve never done anything that has been like this.”

Describing Miss Havisham as an “iconic character,” Middleton adds: “To a lot of people she’s this crazy old woman living in a house, who looks like a ghost and has lost her mind. Actually, she was a normal young woman once and I think that’s a really interesting thing to explore.”

Also in the cast is Joe Quinn, who plays Arthur Havisham. Quinn left drama school early to take his place in the cast and admits it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “The story gives me a lot of creative freedom to flesh out a character that hasn’t really been portrayed before but is still in existence. He is an entitled, spoiled little brat with a bit of an alcohol problem. So no acting required,” he jokes.

Quinn says his first day on the set was “daunting,” adding: “It’s enormous – it’s a whole world. And the detail is such a testament to the craftsmen and the creative team that built it. They’ve done an amazing job.”

Viewers also meet Bleak House character Captain James Hawdon (played by Ben Starr), in a storyline that serves as a prequel story to Dickens’ novel, in which he is the father to Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter.

Starr was equally impressed by the set, which he said helped him get into character: “We’re going into Mantilini’s and you can look in the drawers and there are 100 types of buttons and different kinds of fabrics. Looking around this set is so helpful as an actor. It’s a huge playground in which you get 30 actors to fool around and pretend to be Dickens characters.”

But would Dickens have ever created Dickensian? Jordan certainly thinks so. “With everything I know about him, I’m pretty sure he’d be doing this, and if not this, something very like this,” he says. “He was a showman. This is big, noisy and features all his characters – it’s a celebration of Dickens. So of course he would be doing this, and I like the thought of that.”

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Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

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Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong talks to DQ

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong explains why adaptations of the celebrated author’s stories, which remain popular across the world, will keep on coming.

The 125th anniversary of the birth of author Agatha Christie this year is being marked with two new television adaptations.

Sleuthing couple Tommy and Tuppence appeared in a new BBC1 series called Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, in July. A six-part drama placing the characters in the 1950s, it re-imagined the events of Christie novels The Secret Adversary and N or M? across two three-part stories produced by Endor Productions.

BBC1 has also partnered with US cable network Lifetime on a new adaptation of And Then There Were None, which was named the world’s favourite Christie novel in a survey published in September.

And Then There Were Non
And Then There Were None will air on BBC1 this Christmas

The classic thriller, which tells of 10 individuals invited to an isolated island where they are killed one by one by an unknown murderer, has been adapted by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations) and produced by Mammoth Screen. The cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens and Aidan Turner, and is due to air on BBC1 this Christmas.

These new adaptations serve as a fitting tribute to the prolific writer, dubbed the Queen of Crime. But they also represent the efforts of Agatha Christie Ltd to introduce her to a new generation of fans by becoming more proactive when exploiting the rights to the author’s vast library.

Hilary Strong (pictured top), CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, says: “The brief from Mathew Pritchard, Christie’s only grandchild and chairman of the company, was that we would work together to exploit the brand ourselves and that’s why he brought me in with my television background,” explains Strong. “We were coming to the end of our Poirot films series on ITV that first aired in 1989. David Suchet’s work as Poirot is iconic and no one else has played a leading drama role for 25 years. It’s an extraordinary thing to have done but we knew they were finishing and we knew then that we had to do something new and fresh.

“It gave us the opportunity to sit back and decide what we wanted to do. Did we want to carry on with Christie being the traditional, much-loved work that it is? People’s perception of it is ‘cosy crime.’ But for a brand to remain alive and resonate for a modern audience, it needs to do something new and give a different message.”

With a background in television and rights management, Strong is perfectly placed for this new challenge. She was previously MD of Acorn Productions, where she had responsibility for developing drama around the works of Christie and other properties, including Foyle’s War. She has also worked for Chorion (Enid Blyton, Paddington Bear) and was group business director at Hat Trick Productions.

Partners in Crime
Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine

With Partners in Crime, the company made its first move away from ‘cosy crime,’ setting the action in a more recent period and casting Walliams and Raine to attract a younger audience. And Then There Were None, while set in 1939, has a more contemporary tone and is, Strong says, “really fucking scary.”

She explains: “Sarah Phelps has done an amazing job and has been absolutely truthful to the story while giving us this deep dark tone. For me, it embodies what we’ve been trying to do – take something and retell it so it appeals to modern audiences. If we can achieve that, then we’ve done our job. I don’t want to shake off the cosy crime image but I want people to understand that Christie can be delivered in a different way.”

The company isn’t just interested in a new way of telling Christie – it is also shaking up the way its television adaptations are built. No longer simply licensing rights away, Agatha Christie Ltd is keeping its hand in the creative process and building direct relationships with broadcasters and suggesting potential projects before selecting the production partners they want to work with to bring the idea to the screen.

“It is quite unusual,” Strong says of the strategy. “It helps that there are relationships before that process. Damien Timmer, who runs Mammoth, was an executive producer at ITV on Poirot and Miss Marple, so he has a long relationship with the family and the company. When we sat down with him, he was extremely open to the benefits of collaboration because you get a different insight when you’ve got people who really know the brand involved. The script process is very collaborative but once production starts, they get on and make the programme. It works really well.

“The thing I was most keen to do was move away from the idea that the estate is there to approve or disapprove, which does happen with estates. So if we get it right and we’ve chosen the right writer and worked on the scripts, then once you get to production, those parts are in place. It would be quite unusual to hit a fundamental problem then.

“We also do a lot of the design stuff together because that’s really important to us. We need to make sure the imagery being used when you get to promotion works cross-platform. We had new book covers for Partners in Crime, with a logo that goes across the TV programmes.”

Les Petits Meutres
France 2’s Les Petits Meutres d’Agatha Christie

Christie isn’t just popular in Britain, however. Strong says the novelist’s works have been translated into more languages than those of any other author, while TV adaptations have been sold into more than 180 countries. Japanese network NHK aired a two-part version of Murder on the Orient Express in January this year, produced by Fuji TV. And French broadcaster France 2 is behind Les Petits Meutres d’Agatha Christie, which plants two detectives into Christie plots. Twenty-three episodes have been produced by Escazal Films since 2009.

“What’s been really interesting is just how big Christie is in other countries,” says Strong. “In South America, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, Christie is huge and they have their own indigenous productions in foreign languages.”

She also suggests a big deal for the German-language rights to Christie’s books is near completion, adding that the estate is very open to doing “very radical, avant garde, contemporary new things” with Christie’s stories.

“But we’re unlikely to muck about with the core plot because that’s what works,” she explains. “When people start trying to mess with it, that’s when it goes wrong. You can tell it in a new way, give it a contemporary tone or set it in a contemporary setting. And Then There Was None means there is no one left at the end. It’s not a returning series!”

Strong recognises the drama business is tougher now than at any point in her career: “The fact that budgets have come down and expectations in terms of quality are higher, together with the need to compete on the international market, means your vision and scale has had to go up.

“It’s a very good time for drama. There’s an awful lot out there but that’s because there’s an appetite for it. As people keep on watching it, people want more. And the fact there’s so much, if you’ve got a brand like Christie, you can put your head above the parapet a bit and people can find you in the schedules.

Murder on the Orient Express
The Japanese version of Murder on the Orient Express

“But one of the things we don’t do is work with people just because they think the brand will help them sell more shows. We will only work with people we know have a genuine love for the stories. We have tried developing a couple of smart ideas and then down the road realised the people we were working with didn’t have the depth of understanding of the brand, and in those circumstances it rarely works. If you work with people who understand Christie, it just works much better.”

Strong would love to see Witness for the Prosecution, a short story about a woman who gives evidence for the prosecution in her husband’s murder trial, made for television and says the global appeal of Christie’s stories is in the pure and simple language she uses.

In the meantime, fans can look forward to a new big-screen version of Murder on the Orient Express, which will be directed by Kenneth Branagh for 20th Century Fox. Branagh will also star as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who must investigate a murder on board the famous train – but there are a number of passengers who could have committed the crime.

Agatha Christie Ltd has also launched its own digital drama based upon Christie’s character Mr Quin, which launched as an app in November 2015.

But what is it about Christie’s work that means it has stood the test of time? “Her plot lines are just ingenious and her characters are lovable,” Strong adds. “People adore them. And the breadth – there are 33 Poirot novels to read. You’re not going to do it in a hurry.

“I don’t see any time when people don’t want to carry on reading her books. Our job is to retell those stories in a way that makes them accessible for people. What I’d love – and would tell me I’d done my job – is if people watched And Then There Were None and then went back and read some of the original books.”

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From stage to screen

Mike Bartlett's Doctor Foster
Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster

Despite the funding challenges associated with staging live performance, the UK has always been a nurturing home for playwrights. And that has been a blessing for British television, too. Over the years the likes of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett and Stephen Poliakoff have all proved very adept at moving between stage and small screen.

This traffic between theatre and TV now seems more intense than ever – and there are probably three reasons for this. First, of course, TV pays better. Second, the quality of 21st century TV is such that there is less reason for playwrights to feel like they are demeaning themselves by working for the small screen. And third, there is a well-documented shortage of screenwriters. Playwrights, having proved their ability to engage an audience, are thus an obvious resource for TV producers and broadcasters.

Historically, the risk in migrating playwrights to TV was that the kind of work they did in theatres was over-elaborate compared to the taut dialogue and visual storytelling TV audiences are used to. But the modern generation of playwrights has grown up with TV and, as such, seems able to move seamlessly between the demands of the two media (a similar dynamic has also brought more novelists to TV). It’s no longer necessary to tuck them away in rarified ‘play for today’ style slots, because they can actually deliver huge ratings.

River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air
River, by Abi Morgan, is currently on air

A case in point is Mike Bartlett, who has just written the BBC hit Doctor Foster. With an average weekly audience of 8.2 million, the five-part show about a female doctor confronted with her husband’s infidelity is an assured and compelling piece of TV. While it is sometimes guilty of implying there will be a Fatal Attraction-style conclusion, for the most part it is an engaging human drama about the destructive nature of deceit and the way it can poison the entire ecosystem in which we live.

Bartlett moves effortlessly backwards and forwards between theatre and TV. He won an Olivier Award for his play King Charles III and also wrote ITV three-parter The Town in 2012. The latter, which starred Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty), was Bartlett’s first foray into TV and dealt with some similar themes to Doctor Foster – namely the sense of threat that sits just below the surface of normal everyday life, and what it feels like to be an outsider in your own life. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Bartlett’s background, there is just a shade of Harold Pinter in this juxtaposition of menace and the mundane.

(Listen to this really informative interview with Bartlett).

Other TV writers who have shown prowess in the realm of theatre include Sarah Phelps (see our recent profile) and Abi Morgan. Morgan, now widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s top film and TV screenwriters, had her first successes in the theatre in the late 1990s with Skinned (1997), Sleeping Around (1998) and Fast Food (1999). Her transition to TV came in the early part of the last decade, though she really hit her stride at the start of this decade with an Emmy Award for period drama The Hour (2011). At the same time, Morgan’s film writing career took off with The Iron Lady and Shame (2011).

Lucy Prebble
Lucy Prebble

2015 promises to be another banner year for Morgan. Having just penned the movie Suffragette, her six-part TV series River is now airing on BBC1 and will soon be released internationally on Netflix. River tells the story of a London-based policeman who becomes mentally ill while in the midst of a murder investigation.

Interviewed for a BBC blog, Morgan said: “It’s about a man who struggles in all forms of intimacy and relates better to those no longer living, to those voices in his head. (It is) also about living in a city where very few people are actually from. London makes me feel connected and it also makes me feel very isolated and lonely at times. London is the best of the world and the worst of the world, so I wanted to write a character who was navigating their way through that.”

There full interview can be seen here.

Some noted playwrights, such as Jez Butterworth, have largely sidestepped TV in favour of film. But others to have heeded the call include Nick Payne, who is writing a TV adaptation of David Nicholls’ Us for the BBC, and Lucy Prebble, whose most notable foray into TV to date is The Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Tiger Aspect for ITV2). The author of acclaimed plays such as The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome, Prebble is currently developing another TV drama with Tiger Aspect.

Sometimes playwrights get to adapt their own stage work. Debbie Tucker Green, for example, won a Bafta for the TV version of her play Random. But more often they are called on to create originals or work on pre-existing series. Catherine Johnson, whose break into the business came courtesy of Bristol Old Vic, is probably best known for writing the script for the smash-hit movie Mamma Mia!. But a healthy body of TV work includes episodes of Casualty, Band of Gold and Byker Grove. She also created Dappers for the BBC in 2010, a comedy pilot about a couple of single mums living on a Bristol council estate.

Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2
Prebble worked on The Secret Diary of a Call Girl for ITV2

As a rule, playwrights seem to move backwards and forwards between the two media – rather than viewing theatre as a stepping stone on the way to screen success. Perhaps this explains why most of them appear to favour TV serials or miniseries, since this format interferes less with their stage writing.

While the injection of playwright creativity has undoubtedly been a boon for the British business, it’s worth noting that working with playwrights requires a degree of sensitivity to their way of thinking. It’s important to remember that they probably chose the world of theatre for reasons of artistic integrity that don’t always chime with the commercial demands of TV.

One of the UK’s leading playwrights, Joe Penhall, addressed this point in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Penhall, who wrote Moses Jones for the BBC and adapted his own play Birthday for Sky Arts this year (as well as writing the screenplay for the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), makes it clear he won’t write just any old tripe: “I know people who have made so much money taking every whoring, sluttish fucking rewrite job there is. And I don’t want to be like that. If it gets frustrating, I just walk away. Because I’ve already got a job in theatre.”

Read the full interview here. Also worth a look is this article, which talks about US playwrights working in TV.

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And then there was Sarah…

Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps

Sarah Phelps has been at Mipcom in Cannes this week, promoting And Then There Were None, her adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic thriller for the BBC and Lifetime.

Explaining the appeal of the project, she says: “Until I read this, I had never read any Agatha Christie before. I knew about Marple and Poirot so I thought of her work as a camp treat. When I read this book it took my breath away. It wasn’t anything like I expected. I was sideswiped by its coldness and savagery. It was surprising and shocking but also thrilling.”

For Phelps, the project seemed to both foreshadow the horrors of World War Two and, at the same time, echo a Greek Tragedy: “I kept thinking of Electra. It’s a story where there is nowhere to hide. You can make all the excuses you want, but it doesn’t make a difference. The characters have broken some pledge in their essential humanity and now they are before the ferocious eye of God. It’s a story that has a really ancient idea of judgement. There is no ambiguity, reasoning or mitigation.”

While a superb film adaptation of And Then There Were None was released in 1945, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Phelps says she has “a hard and fast rule” to not look at previous versions. “When adapting, I only look at the books – otherwise it is someone else’s interpretation. It has to be a pure response.”

On the set of And Then There Were None
The cast take a break from filming on the set of And Then There Were None

In terms of making the story relevant, the writer says it wasn’t too difficult to make an emotional connection between the sombre mood on the eve of WW2 and the current air of danger and despondency that exists in Europe. “We don’t change in our lusts and enmities and pettiness and jealousies – we just get wifi. What you have to do to stay relevant is invest your story with all the passions and complexities you’d expect from your characters. If you try too hard to be relevant, you’ll fail because the world around you is shifting all the time.”

Phelps laughs when she is referred to as an adapter of novels: “A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have expected to be talking about adaptations today. I was writing EastEnders, a production for which I have a massive passion. I then got a call from the BBC asking if I would consider adapting Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I said yes because I like writing about London and have a fruitiness of language that was right for the project. And I’m quick at writing scripts, which was important because this was a late call in terms of the production schedule. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading the book and then telling the story as it was in my head. It felt like something that came naturally, and it wasn’t that dissimilar to working on a show like EastEnders.”

Part of the excitement for Phelps is working with source material that many people don’t actually know quite as well as they might think. “People think they know Oliver Twist but not many have actually read the novel. And there is a lot of surprising stuff in there. It was the same when I adapted Great Expectations. For example, it has become the norm to present Miss Haversham as an old witch – but show me the page where it says she has to be like that. The story has always been regarded as having a fusty familiarity but it’s actually a brutal tale of failure that carries with it this plot centred on a corrupt, sexualised education.”

Great Expectations
Great Expectations

Phelps is at her most passionate when talking about EastEnders: “I was always devoted to it. I grew up watching it and was thrilled to bits to work on it. Some people are dismissive of soaps but it’s an incredibly important show – and when it hits its note, it sings. The show doesn’t shy away from doing incredibly serious stuff but it can also be lots of fun and really entertain the audience.

“It plays an important role in the early evening when people have just come home from work and are tired. It says, ‘Stick with me and I’ll tell you a story… you won’t be alone.’ It’s the fire in the cave and you’re the storyteller. And when people are moved by it, you walk on air.”

Phelps is not a writer who has a problem introducing diversity to her projects. She’s been doing it since she wrote radio drama Westway for the BBC World Service and always tries to avoid the easy option when shaping a character.

“I think things have changed in my time because so many good people have been challenging on this issue. We don’t have to automatically assume a character is white. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement when Sophie Okonedo was cast as Nancy in my adaptation of Oliver Twist. I really liked the recent drama Danny and the Human Zoo (from Red Productions) – and I also liked the fact it had a black female director.”

Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist

Phelps is very much in demand as a writer now. She tries to get back and pen an episode of EastEnders when she can but also has new projects coming through. She is, for example, one of a number of writers working on Red Planet’s Hooten and the Lady, an adventure series with a touch of Indiana Jones about it.

“It’s going to be an extravagantly fun romance/action adventure. I like darkness and brow-furrowing but I also really like shows with lots of gags and banter and swinging through the air finding treasure. We all need stuff that makes us laugh and makes us feel like we’re in the company of good mates.”

And Then There Were None will debut on BBC1 in the UK later this year to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth.

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ITV digs into Ancient Egypt

While US cable channel Spike gears up for the launch of its Ancient Egypt miniseries Tut (July 19), UK broadcaster ITV has announced that it too is planning a Tutankhamun-themed drama. ITV’s production, however, will focus on the discovery of the pharaoh’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon. Starting in 1905, four episodes will trace Carter’s early expeditions around Egypt, leading up to the big discovery in 1921.

Guy Burt's previous ITV credits include The Bletchley Circle
Guy Burt’s previous ITV credits include The Bletchley Circle

Tutankhamun will be written by Guy Burt, an ITV favourite who is also penning a reboot of classic horror story Jekyll and Hyde for the broadcaster. Previous collaborations between ITV and Burt include critically acclaimed scripted series The Bletchley Circle, which told the story of a group of female code-breakers during and after the Second World War. (See Burt talking about season two of that project here.)

Something of a writing prodigy, Burt first attracted attention when he published his debut novel After The Hole (later adapted into a movie called The Hole) aged 18. After writing two more novels and securing a first in English at Oxford University, his career moved in the direction of screenwriting. Aside from the above-mentioned projects, he worked on the likes of Murder In Mind, Wire In The Blood and Kingdom. Latterly, he collaborated with Neil Jordan and David Leland on period drama series The Borgias, joining the project at the end of season two and writing four episodes in the third and final season.

And Then There Were None scribe Sarah Phelps
And Then There Were None scribe Sarah Phelps

The new Tutankhamun drama was ordered by ITV director of drama Steve November and controller of drama Victoria Fea and will be filmed in South Africa next winter. Executive producers include ITV Studios’ creative director of drama Francis Hopkinson, who says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, whilst the adventurous and extrovert aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

In an unusual alliance, but one hinting at the future of content rights management, US cable network Lifetime has come onboard a BBC1 drama based on one of Agatha Christie’s best-known works, And Then There Were None. International sales of the three-part miniseries will be handled by A+E Studios International, which is keen to beef up its drama portfolio.

The writing job has gone to Sarah Phelps, whose early career took her via the Royal Shakespeare Company to BBC soap EastEnders, where she wrote more than 50 episodes. A prolific radio and theatre writer, her other TV credits include The Crimson Field, a short-lived drama about the lives of medics and patient at a First World War field hospital.

Jonathan Nolan
Jonathan Nolan has co-written screenplays such as The Dark Knight

 

Phelps has also proved her novel adaptation expertise with previous projects such as Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) and The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling). The latter was also an Anglo-American coproduction (BBC/HBO) and came in three parts, securing an audience of 8.8 million for episode one, dropping to 5.95 million for episode three. In all likelihood the new project will go into a similar Sunday evening slot with transmission intended for autumn or winter 2016.

The BBC’s decision to greenlight the miniseries is linked to the fact that this year is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth. It is also planning an adaptation of another of her novels, Partners in Crime, although there are no details as yet.

HBO’s star-studded remake of classic sci-fi movie Westworld is gradually moving forward. The project, which will feature the likes of Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton, has just added Borgen star Sidse Babbett Knudsen to the cast.

Lisa Joy broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies
Lisa Joy broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies

Scheduled to air in 2016, Westworld is from JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, plus Warner Bros TV and Jerry Weintraub Productions. Writing duties will be shared by husband-and-wife team Nolan and Joy.

Nolan, who will also direct the reboot, is the brother of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. He created crime drama Person of Interest and has co-written screenplays such as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar with his brother. Joy, meanwhile, broke through as a writer with Pushing Daisies, before going on to write some episodes of Burn Notice. Aside from Westworld, IMDB credits her as writer on an “untitled female superhero Spider-Man movie,” scheduled for 2017. There were also reports in 2013 that Legendary Pictures had paid US$1.75m to secure the rights to a sci-fi movie script by Joy entitled Reminiscence.

Still in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, there are reports that Luther creator Neil Cross is remaking Sapphire & Steel, a 1970s series about a pair of interdimensional crime fighters sent to Earth to investigate strange happenings. Speaking to the Nerdist Writers’ Panel podcast, Cross called the Sapphire & Steel characters a “proto” version of The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, and said the show was close to getting a commission from a UK broadcaster. Cross, whose other credits include Spooks and Doctor Who, said he is also working with Darren Aronofsky on HBO scripted pilot River View and on two new one-hour episodes of Luther.

Dan Franck created and wrote Marseille
Dan Franck created and wrote Marseille

Finally, Netflix has confirmed that Gérard Depardieu will take the lead role in its first original French drama. Depardieu will play the mayor of Marseille in a series of the same name. Produced by Paris-based Federation Entertainment, the drama will also star Benoît Magimel as a young politician aiming to depose Depardieu’s character.

Shot entirely in France, Marseille is created and written by Dan Franck, writer of La Separation and Les Hommes de l’Ombre and co-writer of Carlos, which won a Golden Globe for best miniseries. Explaining why he took on the project, Franck says: “Creating a series for an enormous audience and without any constraints will let us push to its limits a story about the Shakespearean theatre of politics, in a city where Alexandre Dumas and Jean-Claude Izzo, among others, have planted many spears.

“Netflix has given us a blank page to create a House of Cards in French that breaks through unspoken hypocrisy. This is a writer’s dream and a great opportunity for French producers and creators to enter a new world.”

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