Tag Archives: Seven Network

Biopic boom

True-life stories of the famous and infamous continue to win commissions in Australia – but for how long? DQ investigates.

Australian TV dramas inspired by real people, living and dead, have been consistently popular with audiences over the past four or five years – but is that boom about to bust?

Although four biographically based miniseries are in the can or due to go into production this year, and another has already gone to air, some producers and broadcasters believe the cycle is exhausting itself. Others still see plenty of potential for the genre.

Mark Fennessy

“The biopic genre is tired and the subject matter is running thin,” says Endemol Shine Australia (ESA) CEO Mark Fennessy, whose firm produced the top-rating minis Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS, Catching Milat and Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door for the Seven Network and Brock for Network Ten.

“In recent times we’ve seen a definite trend towards more contemporary subjects where the primary audience has an emotional connection – often to their younger days,” Fennessy continues. “As often happens in Australia, everyone quickly jumps on the bandwagon and so it’s largely eating itself now.”

Australia’s Nine Network has ridden the true-life wave with CJZ’s House of Hancock, Southern Star Entertainment’s Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War and, less successfully, the FremantleMedia Australia (FMA) telepic Schapelle, about the conviction of Schapelle Coby for drug trafficking – which came off second best against the INXS mini. Later this year Nine will launch CJZ’s House of Bond, the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond, the flamboyant English immigrant who helped engineer Australia’s famous America’s Cup yacht race victory, bought the Nine network from Kerry Packer and was later declared bankrupt, convicted of fraud
and imprisoned.

“The challenge with biopics is to find a subject matter with broad audience appeal, a riveting story and contemporary relevance,” says Andy Ryan, Nine’s co-head of drama. “But there is definitely a limit to the genre.”

CJZ MD Nick Murray contends shows such as House of Bond go much further than linear biopics. “It’s the rise and fall of the house of Bond – the influence of both wives, the business advisors and Bond’s ability to talk or con people and banks into doing what he wanted. What on earth motivated them all?” he says.

House of Bond tells the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of the late Alan Bond

Ryan concurs: “House of Bond is very much like the man himself – colourful, outrageous and always entertaining. Bond’s life was a roller coaster of excitement and emotion, and we think we’ve captured that in the drama.”

Rebecca Heap, head of programming and digital at Australian pubcaster the ABC, sees a bright future for drama based on real people: “Audiences love Australian stories, and bios have the ability to capture our imagination on two levels – telling the story of the subject and the story of our society at that point in time. There will continue to be room for well-written and well-executed stories about extraordinary Australians, both famous and infamous.”

The ABC has commissioned The Easybeats from Sony-owned Playmaker Media, the saga of five young immigrants who met in a Sydney migrant hostel in 1964 and went on to create Australia’s first truly international rock group. On paper, the project may have seemed more suited to a commercial network, but Heap says: “The Easybeats is a great Australian success story with a killer soundtrack. What’s not to love? It maps the beginning of a new Australian identity, one that places us on the world music stage and celebrates the role of diversity in getting us there, making it a perfect fit for
the ABC.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door centres on the Australian singer-songwriter and entertainer

FMA director of drama Jo Porter says: “We are in the midst of a cycle of biopics that reflects the appetite of audiences to celebrate significant individuals who have helped define how Australians feel about themselves both locally and globally. We would consider another biopic; the challenge is they need to also have international audience resonance to get the support of distribution.”

Porter oversaw the production of Hoges (pictured top), the saga of Paul Hogan, the former Sydney Harbour Bridge worker who found fame and fortune as the host of his own TV show and as the creator and star of the Crocodile Dundee movies. The two-parter, which featured Josh Lawson as Hogan, Ryan Corr as his manager/on-air sidekick John ‘Strop’ Cornell and Justine Clarke as Noelene Hogan, screened on Seven in February, winning its 21.00 and 20.30 timeslots, each drawing a consolidated audience of 1.5 million – but the broadcaster was hoping for more. “I don’t put the numbers in the fail category, more the underwhelming category. You can’t win them all,” says Angus Ross, Seven’s director of network programming.

Distributor FremantleMedia International is an investor in Hoges and will sell the project internationally. Porter says: “We’re so pleased international buyers who loved our larrikin hero in Crocodile Dundee will have the chance to see the story behind the man.”

Catching Milat focuses on backpacker murderer Ivan Milat

Perhaps reflecting a limited pool of subjects, Nine originally intended to commission minis on Hogan (from ESA) and Olivia Newton-John (Screentime), but Seven got in first on both occasions.

Seven’s Newton-John drama is produced by FMA and directed by Shawn Seet. It stars Delta Goodrem as the actor and singer who blazed a trail in Hollywood as the star of Grease and Xanadu, recording five number-one hits and winning four Grammy Awards.

“We are delighted with the strength of Shawn Seet’s creative vision and realisation of this story. It’s fantastic to celebrate a female Australian legend,” says Porter.

Seven has also commissioned Banijay-owned Screentime to produce Warnie, which will explore the paradox of former champion cricketer Shane Warne, widely regarded as the most admired, criticised and publicised Australian sportsman of the modern era.

Matt Ford (creator of Playmaker Media’s ABC drama Hiding) is writing the scripts and Kerrie Mainwaring will produce with investment from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

“Warnie’s story is not only the story of one of the world’s greatest cricketers but his off-field antics have kept tabloids in business for years. He is so compelling on and off the field, you can’t look away,” Ross says.

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder

In a similar vein, true-crime dramas have long been reliable ratings performers, most notably Screentime’s Underbelly franchise, which started on Nine in 2008. The latest iteration, Underbelly Files: Chopper, will tell the story of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, one of Australia’s most notorious gangsters. Read, whose exploits were dramatised in the 2000 Australian movie Chopper, starring Eric Bana, died from liver cancer in 2013, aged 58.

ESA, meanwhile, has produced Blue Murder: Killer Cop, which stars Richard Roxburgh as notorious former detective Roger Rogerson, now serving a life sentence for the murder of a drug dealer. A sequel to Blue Murder, which aired on the ABC in 1995, it will premiere on Seven this autumn.

Toni Collette, Matt Nable, Dan Wyllie, Emma Booth, Justin Smith, Damian Walshe-Howling, Steve Le Marquand, Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Jeffery co-star in the show. It has been directed by Michael Jenkins and executive produced by John Edwards, who collaborated on the original series.

Ross says: “The powerful performances will give a no-holds-barred look at the downfall of Roger Rogerson. It is not for the faint-hearted.”

Opinions are divided over whether producers need the co-operation of their subjects – an issue that flared when billionaire Gina Rinehart sued Nine and CJZ, claiming the 2015 drama House of Hancock defamed her.

The programme focused on the feud between the late Lang Hancock (played by Sam Neill), his wife Rose Lacson (Peta Sergeant) and his daughter Gina (Mandy McElhinney).

The case was settled out of court in February, with Nine agreeing not to rebroadcast or stream the show and the broadcaster and producers publicly apologising to Rinehart and her family for any hurt or offence caused by the broadcast and its promotion.

Despite that, Murray says: “Personally, I think these stories are told better without the co-operation of the subjects. Imagine how different House of Hancock would have been if Gina Rinehart had script approval.”

CJZ head of drama Paul Bennett adds: “We do a huge amount of research on these productions and talk to as many people as we can, including the subjects if they are open to it. However, it is not essential at all to have their co-operation; in fact, having them on board has the potential to skew the process, as it can tend to make the piece more of a love letter to the subject rather than a more honest and probing investigation of their lives and what makes them tick.”

Newton-John was supportive of FMA’s mini, while Hoges’ producers obtained permission from Hogan and Cornell to recreate scenes from their TV shows and films. Both savvy businessmen, they own all rights to their content.

ESA’s Fennessy says: “If the subject is still living, it’s absolutely preferable to have their endorsement and support. If the subject is deceased, it’s just as important to have such from immediate family or the estate.”

While subjects who are internationally known are an advantage for producers in securing international distribution, this isn’t critical to the funding process. According to Ross, having a name who can help offshore sales is a bonus but that does not make or break the viability of a project, based on the current funding model.

However, Endemol Shine International CEO Cathy Payne notes that bios’ international potential hinges on their relevance to international audiences.

Crime sagas such as Catching Milat often travel more successfully than generic stories, she says, while Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door struggled because Allen is not widely known outside Australia, despite his 1981 Academy Award for the theme song to the movie Arthur, his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli and the Broadway hit The Boy from Oz, which starred Hugh Jackman.

While biopics have the potential to be big hits at home and abroad, finding a star name or story worthy of the television treatment is the key to success – but the reliance on public awareness or curiosity over the topic may also prove to be the limitation for the genre.

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Songs and secrets: On location with The Secret Daughter

An Australian drama is breaking new ground with its cast and musical influences. DQ visits the set of The Secret Daughter.

Screentime CEO Rory Callaghan was watching House of Hancock, a miniseries about the troubled family dynasty of the late Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock, last year when he had an inspired idea for a TV drama.

Callaghan was impressed by scenes in the Nine Network drama that showed Hancock (Sam Neill) with Hilda Kickett (Leah Purcell), an Aboriginal woman who, in 2012, alleged DNA tests proved Hancock was her father, the result of an affair with a cook.

Wondering what might have happened to a woman like that, Callaghan came up with the idea of a series about an Aboriginal pub singer called Billie who claims to be the secret daughter of a wealthy publican. He had only one person in mind for the lead: Jessica Mauboy (pictured above), the singer-songwriter and actor who first came to fame as the runner-up in Australian Idol in 2006.

Darwin-born Mauboy had already proved her acting chops in Rachel Perkins’ 2009 feature Bran Nue Dae when she became part of the ensemble cast of The Sapphires, Wayne Blair’s 2012 movie based on Tony Briggs’ play about four young Indigenous singers who entertained the US troops in Vietnam.

Director Leah-Purcell-and-Jessica-Mauboy
Director Leah Purcell with star Jessica Mauboy

Callaghan met with Mauboy and her agent David Champion, she responded enthusiastically and, after months of script development, the Seven Network commissioned The Secret Daughter. The ground-breaking series is the first to feature an Indigenous actress in the lead and the first in Australia to weave the musical elements – a mix of original songs and covers – into the narrative.

“I loved the character, the riskiness, the danger, the mystery of it. That’s what attracted me. It was an exciting and bold script,” says Mauboy. “Billie is bold, she’s open-minded, has a kind heart and puts others before herself.”

It took Screentime executives some months to secure Seven’s support and to arrange financing from Screen Australia and state agency Screen NSW. Screentime parent Banijay put up a distribution advance for the international sales rights and the producers used the 20% producer tax offset.

Seven head of drama Julie McGauran says: “It all starts with story, and the original pitch felt fresh and different. Then you add Jessica Mauboy to the mix, so the big attraction was the combination of story and her incredible talent. Like every Seven drama, we had to ensure The Secret Daughter ticked all the boxes – broad appeal, good humour and a fantastic ensemble cast led by Jessica, David Field and Colin Friels. It’s a heartfelt and joyful drama full of warmth, humour and music.”

The timing was propitious because Mauboy was lined up to feature in the network’s coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, which in turn served as a launch pad for the series. It debuts on Wednesday, October 3.

Screentime head of drama Greg Haddrick, also the script producer and one of the show’s writers, says: “The network is committing millions of dollars and you have to prove your credentials before they are willing to commit those funds. This was stylistically new ground. On the one hand, it is bold and exciting; on the other, it was a little scary. We had to show enough evolution of the idea to prove that it would be fresh and new and exciting. The network came on board after reading the scripts of the first four episodes.”

From left: Matt Levett, Rachel Gordon, Jordan Hare, Jared Turner and Jessica Mauboy
From left: Matt Levett, Rachel Gordon, Jordan Hare, Jared Turner and Jessica Mauboy

According to a recent Screen Australia report, the average production budget across 16 Australian TV dramas produced in the past four years – including Cleverman, The Code, The Principal, Rake, Top of the Lake, Deadline Gallipoli, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, The Slap, Secrets & Lies and seasons one and two of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – was A$1.4m (US$1.05m) per hour. The federal agency contributes up to 40% of budgets, of which A$500,000 is a grant.

McGauran, drama consultant John Holmes and network script executive Louise Bowes worked closely with the producers on development, casting and scripts, and gave regular feedback on the rushes.

Mauboy plays Billie Carter, a part-time country pub singer who spends much of her time looking after her father Gus (David Field), who can’t stay out of trouble. Colin Friels plays Jack Norton, a self-made millionaire publican who is stricken with cancer and goes to Billie’s town to look for his long-lost daughter, born from an affair 26 years ago.

Billie and Jack spend one night talking under the stars, telling each other their dreams and regrets. The next morning Jack dies in a helicopter crash. His youngest son Jamie (Matt Levett) turns up, meets Billie and there is an instantaneous mutual attraction. That gets complicated when Jamie starts to believe Billie may be the daughter his dad was looking for.

To save Gus from town crook Bruno (Salvatore Coco), Billie poses as the secret daughter and drives to Sydney with Jamie. Rachel Gordon plays Susan, the ambitious, ruthless and younger wife of Jack Norton, and Bonnie Sveen is Billie’s best friend Layla.

At the outset, Callaghan and Haddrick spent several days brainstorming with multiple writers, including Justin Monjo, to flesh out the characters and main plot points. Subsequently Monjo wrote the first two episodes, Haddrick wrote two and Keith Thompson and Bowes each penned one.

“We chose writers who Rory or I had worked with and who we felt would suit the show,” explains Haddrick, speaking on the multi-level set in a converted north Sydney office building. “Yes, it’s a relationship show, but it’s operating in more traditional areas than standard, middle-class relationship shows. There is a lot of class imbalance, there is the music element and we weave the music into the drama in a fresh way. It took a few months to work through all that.

“We have the characters in Billie’s band to begin with, so you see the band playing some covers. You then see her in her normal life but, rather than break into a song like characters do in a musical, she often picks up on what is around her, phrases people say, sounds she hears in the street or from the pub. Before you know it, she is singing a few lines. Sometimes the emotional situation she finds herself in either sparks a memory of a song that was playing at a similar time earlier in her life, or it goes to a cover song, which actually informs the moment her character is thinking about. Her life is music, so that is the way she processes her emotions.”

The directors are Leah Purcell (lead director), Geoff Bennett and Paul Moloney. “The challenge for the directors is to keep an essentially dramatic storyline set up around loss and sorrow, but to maintain a sense of lightness and fun. It is a very delicate balancing act,” adds Haddrick.

The song-selection process entailed close collaboration between Mauboy, music producer Louis Schoorl – a Dutch-born songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist – Mauboy’s record label Sony Music, Screentime and Seven. Schoorl first worked with Mauboy when he co-wrote the song Gotcha with her and Ilan Kidron from Irish/Australian group The Potbelleez for The Sapphires soundtrack.

Most of the initial ideas for the songs came from the show’s creators and writers, the production team at Screentime, Mauboy, Sony Music and Seven. These suggestions were then evaluated and chosen by the network, Mauboy, Schoorl and Sony Music. There were at least two options for each scene because the cover songs had to be approved by the original songwriters and their publishers.

Using songs to drive the narrative differentiates The Secret Daughter from recent Australian music-based dramas such as Shine Australia’s Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door and the same prodco’s INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, both for the Seven Network.

“Jess is such a joy to work with,” says Schoorl. “The second she walks in the door you get a smile on your face from her brilliant energy. She’s motivated, hardworking, generous, fun and super talented. These sessions are always different; sometimes we start jamming on some beats I made, or sit behind the piano. Other times we listen to music that inspires us. Sometimes she walks in with a melody idea or a lyrical concept. We’ve done sessions with just the two of us, and we’ve worked on many with other co-writers involved. Either way we will find our way through many changes and unused ideas to a coherent song.”

The three original songs featured are Risk It, co-written by songwriting/production duo DNA; Closer, a collaboration between Emma Birdsall and Schoorl; and Home to Me (Mauboy, Birdsall and Schoorl).

Among more than a dozen covers performed by Mauboy are Rihanna’s Diamonds, Ed Sheeran’s Photograph, The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go and I Fought the Law, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love and Aussie artist Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees. Sony Music Enterprises Australia will release an album of music featured on the series.

While most of the music was pre-recorded, other songs were filmed live on set. “(Mauboy’s) voice and rhythm are so good that it works perfectly,” producer Karl Zwicky says. “Finding the time for her to write and record the music as well as being in nearly every scene is a stretch. Most actors would not dream of stretching themselves like this. It’s great working with Jess because she is so warm and giving.”

Asked about the importance of ensuring Australian dramas have international appeal, Zwicky says: “It is not the first thing we think about but it is going to look distinctive. Jess is a star. Having a lead actor who is Indigenous in a mainstream show on a commercial network is a new thing.”

Mauboy greatly enjoyed the experience of working in her first TV series, observing: “I learned so much from the directors, writers and the DOP. It excited me to do more television in the future.”

The network and producers are hopeful the show will resonate strongly enough to warrant a second season. McGauran says: “When we go into production on any show, it’s our job to do everything we can to ensure the audience will want another series.”

Piano
The show’s creators and writers were behind many of the initial song ideas

Haddrick concurs: “It’s designed to be a returning series. We hope that as the network sees completed episodes coming through, it will commit to script development for another series.”

Since Callaghan took the helm of Screentime last year after co-founder Bob Campbell was elevated to executive chairman, the former Shine Australia and Endemol Southern Star executive is increasing the focus on drama, hiring former Shine and Endemol colleague Kerrie Mainwaring as head of scripted production.

The firm coproduced the Wolf Creek TV series with Emu Creek Pictures, the production company from Greg McLean, who created the horror movies on which the show is based. Commissioned by Australian streaming service Stan, Wolf Creek stars John Jarratt (also the antagonist in the films) and Lucy Fry (11.22.63, Vampire Academy). It attracted a cumulative audience of more than 500,000, putting it among the most watched shows on the platform, which is co-owned by Nine Entertainment and Fairfax Media. The show has been acquired by Fox in the UK and Pop TV in the US. Meanwhile, the third season of Screentime’s Janet King, a legal drama starring Marta Dusseldorp, is in production for pubcaster ABC.

Callaghan says: “Dramas need to pass the truth test. If you have two or three unbelievable things happening, viewers just give up. That’s one of the reasons fantasy does not work here. We like our drama to be very real. Jessica liked the idea that it was going to be real and she had to play a character that had done some dodgy things in the past but was fundamentally honest and a good person. She went into it with gusto, spending hours and hours practicing, and the result is a really good, assured piece from a young, confident woman.”

Screentime parent Banijay merged with Zodiak Media earlier this year and the enlarged group has more expertise in producing and selling drama, which Callaghan sees as a plus for Screentime.

Zodiak Rights CEO Tim Mutimer and head of scripted Caroline Torrance are “extremely excited about the show; they have nothing like this,” Callaghan says. “The Secret Daughter has romance, humour, open skies and wide spaces. The day after this goes out in Australia, it will have a big (ratings) number beside it and the international buyers will have a look at it.”

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Film producers flock to TV

Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady
Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady

Number 9 Films is teaming up with Red Production Company on a TV adaptation of Henry James’ seminal 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. This is the third time the novel will have been adapted for the screen, following a 1968 BBC miniseries and a 1996 feature film directed by Jane Campion and starring Nicole Kidman.

The story focuses on Isabel Archer, a vivacious New World ingénue who leaves America for Old World Europe, keen to experience all that life has to offer. She rejects a series of marriage proposals from eager but safe lovers for a life of independence, but when she inherits an unexpected fortune that will grant her desires, she falls prey to two American ex-pat schemers, the elegant Madame Merle and the charming but cruel and calculating Gilbert Osmond. She is then lured into a marriage with unfortunate consequences.

Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films will executive produce alongside Red’s Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley). StudioCanal will handle worldwide distribution.

Elizabeth Karlsen
Elizabeth Karlsen

Karlsen said: “We have long been admirers of Nicola’s groundbreaking work in television. She has built an extraordinary company and creative team that we feel privileged to be collaborating with on our first outing into TV. We believe we share a sensibility with Nicola of being drawn towards material with complex and compelling female lead characters, which is one of the defining elements of Portrait of a Lady.”

Shindler added: “Elizabeth and Stephen have produced some of the most acclaimed and engaging feature films of recent years and I am delighted to be working with them on their first television project. Having been originally published as a monthly serial, and addressing themes of personal freedom, betrayal and modernisation, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady lends itself perfectly to the longform storytelling that only TV can offer.”

No broadcast partners have been named yet, but with the story set against the backdrop of New York, Boston, London, Florence and Rome, it lends itself to international coproduction.

James’ works have a track record of being adapted for TV and film – with The Bostonians, The Europeans, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw having also been reimagined for the screen. However, Turn of the Screw is the only one of his novels to have been adapted in recent times.

Maigret-Sets-A-Trap-3FEAT
Rowan Atkinson as Maigret

Also this week, UK broadcaster ITV commissioned two further Maigret films with Rowan Atkinson again in the title role.

ITV said: “Following huge audience appreciation and critical acclaim for Maigret Sets a Trap, which aired on ITV earlier this year and achieved a consolidated rating of 7.2 million viewers and a 28% share of the audience, writer Stewart Harcourt will adapt Night at the Crossroads from Georges Simenon’s novel. Simenon’s son, John, returns as an executive producer of the new films. The second of the new films will be Maigret in Montmartre – set, once again, against the backdrop of 1950s Paris.”

The 120-minute films will go into production in November 2016 until February 2017, and will be produced by Thompson & Thompson Productions and Georges Simenon Limited.

The films have been commissioned by controller of drama Victoria Fea, who said: “It’s an absolute privilege to commission two further Maigret films for ITV. We were thrilled to welcome Rowan Atkinson to the channel as Maigret. His superb performance, and the filmic execution from the production team ensured the audience greatly appreciated the first Maigret film which aired earlier this year.”

The two new films are actually the third and fourth in ITV’s Maigret series. Maigret’s Dead Man, based on Maigret et son mort, has already been filmed and will air on ITV later this year.

George Clooney (photo by Georges Biard)
George Clooney (photo by Georges Biard)

The recommission is also good news for BBC Worldwide, the show’s international distributor. Broadcasters including France 3, ARD Germany and TV4 Sweden have picked up the first two films.

In other news, Sonar Entertainment has entered into a first-look deal with Smokehouse Pictures, the independent production company founded by George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

The first project under the new arrangement is America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, based on a serialised Huffington Post article by Steven Brill. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Making a Murderer) will adapt alongside Nicki Paluga, with Ricciardi and Demos directing.

America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker is the true story of a venerable pharmaceutical company that created a powerful drug and marketed it aggressively to children and the elderly while allegedly manipulating and hiding data about its terrible side effects. The drug company was investigated and agreed to pay more than US$2bn in penalties and settlements, but made a reported US$30bn from sales of the drug worldwide.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be in business with George and Grant and their talented team at Smokehouse,” said Sonar Entertainment CEO Thomas Lesinski. “Smokehouse has a stellar track record of delivering commercial and critically acclaimed content. It will be a great partner for Sonar Entertainment, as the two companies align perfectly in our approaches to premium TV programming.”

The deal is another significant step into the TV business for Smokehouse Pictures, which is better-known for its movie output (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Monuments Men, Argo, Money Monster). Other television titles coming out of Smokehouse include Ms, a miniseries about Gloria Steinem and the founding of Ms Magazine, set up at HBO, and The Studio, an ongoing series about a movie studio in the 1990s, set up at Showtime.

Richard Roxburgh in the original Blue Murder
Richard Roxburgh in the original Blue Murder

The deal is also a coup for Sonar, which already has a number of hotly anticipated series coming through. Current series on air, in production or slated to commence production include season two of The Shannara Chronicles, for MTV; Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, for FX and BBC One; The Son, for AMC; and Mr Mercedes with AT&T’s Audience Network for DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.

Meanwhile, Seven Network in Australia has begun production on a sequel to Blue Murder, a miniseries that aired way back in 1995 on public broadcaster ABC.

The original miniseries starred Richard Roxburgh as real-life disgraced policeman Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson. Roxburgh will again play Rogerson, who was convicted of killing university student Jamie Gao just last week. That ruling is reported to have triggered production of the sequel, which had been sitting in development for two years.

In further interesting news this week, the BBC is poised to debut its supernatural drama The Living and the Dead on its on-demand platform iPlayer. All six episodes of the show, created by Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), have been available to watch since Friday (June 17). The episodes will then receive a weekly airing starting from Tuesday, June 28 at 21.00. The BBC has rolled out a similar release for Anthony Horowitz’s new drama New Blood, which became the first BBC primetime drama  to debut episodes online.

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TV drama faces dilemma down under

ABC miniseries success The Secret River
ABC miniseries success The Secret River

Each year, Screen Australia releases a detailed report that analyses feature film and TV production levels in Australia. Entitled Drama Report, the 2014/15 edition came out last week.

When all elements are combined, the market is in pretty good shape. Total expenditure for the year in question was A$837m (US$597m), down just 1% on the previous year’s record high, and there is a positive trend in terms of inward investment.

All told, 16 foreign projects came to the country in 2014/15, generating a record expenditure of A$418m. These included the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, underlining the fact that the country can be relied on to deliver superb quality.

But the situation in domestically produced TV drama isn’t looking so good. According to Screen Australia, total spend on TV drama in 2014/15 was down 13% year-on-year to A$299m. And the situation is worse if you strip out children’s drama, which actually saw an increase last year.

Nine Network's hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries
Nine’s hit House of Hancock was also a miniseries

Looking specifically at adult drama titles, the decline is 19% – from A$291m to A$235m. Onscreen, this translated into 34 adult titles and 401 hours of production, compared with 40 titles and 472 hours last year and a 2012/13 peak of 40 titles and 502 hours.

The figures are a reminder that the ‘golden age of drama’ doesn’t benefit everyone in the value chain equally.

Explaining the figures, Screen Australia chief executive Graeme Mason said domestic drama is “very expensive to produce, especially when weighed against the cost of cheap American imports. With competition in subscription VoD further fragmenting audiences, government incentives to produce local content will be more important than ever.”

An additional problem for Australian TV producers is that the “cheap American imports” referred to by Mason actually rate pretty well down under. One of the key consequences of this is that domestic broadcasters tend to look abroad for longer-running series and ask the local production community to focus more on miniseries and shorter runs.

Glitch has been renewed by ABC
Glitch has been renewed by ABC

There are exceptions, of course, such as long-running soaps Home & Away and Neighbours, but it’s notable that the most popular domestic dramas of the past year have been miniseries like Catching Milat, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, House of Hancock and The Secret River.

Even Glitch, recently renewed by ABC, comes in batches of only six. All of the above are excellent shows that may earn their producers awards and acclaim, but it’s not easy to run a drama production business on the back of miniseries and serials.

The extent of the problem for Aussie producers is further underlined when you look at how reliant domestic drama funding is on public sources. According to Screen Australia, a significant share of funding comes from public broadcaster ABC, Screen Australia itself, state agencies and a refundable tax rebate known as the Producer Offset.

Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman
Goalpost Pictures and Pukeko Pictures are coproducing Cleverman

Commercial free-to-air networks provided only A$93m (across 21 titles) during the year in question – “the group’s lowest contribution to the slate since 2005/06.”

In other words, the health of the domestic drama business going forward will require continued goodwill from politicians.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The fact that Australian writers and producers have the craft and creativity to make great drama is clearly a blessing. And there are new trends emerging that may support the sector.

While the ABC, Seven and Ten Networks have been the biggest supporters of scripted production, public network SBS recently aired its first home-grown drama in two years (four-parter The Principal). Nine Network also used its Upfront presentation last week to say that it will be increasing its spend on local content significantly in the next three years.

Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident
Pay TV hit The Kettering Incident

Having recently ended an output deal with Warner Bros, it has invested some of the freed-up money in titles like Hide & Seek, an espionage thriller from Matchbox Pictures, and House of Bond, a miniseries about the colourful entrepreneur Alan Bond. Produced by Paul Bennett (House of Hancock), House of Bond is exactly the kind of project that is likely to set Nine’s ratings alight (for a day or two).

Screen Australia also cites new areas of activity that might support Aussie drama producers into the future. “Subscription TV had a very strong year with The Kettering Incident, Open Slather and A Place To Call Home. This year’s slate also featured four series made for broadcaster catch-up or subscription VoD services: Fresh Blood Pilot Season, SBS Comedy Runway, No Activity and Plank.”

Not to be overlooked either is the contribution from foreign investors, which presumably includes international distributors looking to pick up global rights to shows. Although Screen Australia’s 2014/15 figure of A$54m was down on the previous year, it’s still a potent reminder that Aussie shows have the ability to work well in a number of foreign TV markets.

Similarly, the state-supported body also picked out a trend towards international coproduction, with activity up “on last year and the five-year average.” While a lot of this is down to kids’ drama coproduction, Screen Australia said this was “the fourth consecutive year with at least one adult TV drama coproduction in the slate,” in this case Cleverman, a partnership between Goalpost Pictures in Australia and Pukeko Pictures in New Zealand.

A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way
A new season of ABC thriller The Code is on its way

Cleverman, which will air on ABC in 2016, is an interesting project that was launched to the international market at Mipcom last month. A six-hour sci-fi genre series, it has been picked up in the US by Sundance TV and is being distributed worldwide by Red Arrow International. If it does well, it will provide the kind of creative and business model that may help Australian producers ease the financial pressures they currently face.

In the meantime, what have Aussie viewers got to look forward to? Aside from shows like Cleverman, Hide & Seek and the next run of Glitch, Seven has just unveiled plans for Molly, Wanted and The Secret Daughter. The first two are miniseries, but the latter is a 10-parter from Screentime that will be distributed by Banijay International.

Also coming up is a new series of ABC thriller The Code, which did well at home and overseas. Ten has struggled with drama recently, with titles like Wonderland and Party Tricks failing to hold on to viewers (it announced on October 26 that Wonderland has been cancelled after three seasons). Perhaps that is why it has announced a sixth season of Offspring, its most popular drama in recent years.

Offspring was rested for a year, with some fans fearing it might never come back. But with Ten anxious for a drama hit, reviving the show clearly makes sense. As yet it’s not clear what else Ten is planning in terms of drama.

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Australian drama: Short and sweet wins the day

Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.

In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.

Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.

Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network
Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network

Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.

The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.

Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.

Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”

Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.

ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.

Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.

Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.

Matchbox Pictures' Glitch aired on ABC
Matchbox Pictures’ Glitch aired on ABC

The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.

And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.

“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.

“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”

The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.

“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.

Shine Australia's Catching Milat
Shine Australia’s Catching Milat

“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”

Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.

At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.

Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.

Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”

However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan

ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.

The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.

“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.

“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.

“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.

“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”

Hiding, a 'bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama'
Hiding, a ‘bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama’

Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”

Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.

“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”

Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.

Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.

One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.

Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”

By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.

Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field
Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field

Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.

Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.

The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.

Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”

On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”

Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”

She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”

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Netflix senses second-season success

sense8-cast
Sense8 has been given a second run

As expected, SVoD giant Netflix has greenlit a second series of its acclaimed sci-fi series Sense8.

Fans were starting to get worried because of the long time the company seemed to be taking over an announcement. Usually, Netflix makes a decision within a month of a show’s completion – but this was a scary two-month gap.

Sense8 was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski, who are widely expected to come back on board for season two. The trio have previously said that they planned the series to run for five seasons, Netflix audience data analysis willing.

While much attention is paid to Netflix’s US originals, the company is also ordering an increasing number of international series to support its global roll-out. This week, for example, it ordered its first original series from Brazil, which is set to debut in 2016.

Produced by Boutique Filmes and directed by Cesar Charlone, 3% is billed as a “dramatic futuristic story set in a world divided between progress and devastation.” In 2011, Boutique Filmes released a three-episode pilot of 3% on YouTube that attracted more than 400,000 views.

Tiago Mello, the show’s executive producer, said: “Netflix’s willingness to invest in Brazilian content, local talent and creative storytelling is key for our growth as an industry. The story was created a few years ago and now I am thrilled that it will turn into a new original Netflix series.”

The second season of Fargo comes to FX in October
The second season of Fargo comes to FX in October

A lot of attention has been paid to the original commissions strategy at Netflix and Amazon, but there are a growing number of other on-demand/streaming services seeking to establish their credentials as sources of event drama.

Sony’s Crackle, for example, has just released a trailer for The Art of More, its first scripted drama. Starring Dennis Quaid (who is also an executive producer), Christian Cooke, Cary Elwes and Kate Bosworth, the 10-episode series will delve into “the surprisingly cutthroat and glamorous world of premium auction houses.”

The series follows Graham Connor (Cooke), a blue-collar upstart who leverages his way into this exclusive realm by exploiting connections to antiquities smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. Also inhabiting this rarified world is Sam Brukner (Quaid), a self-made billionaire who was somewhat ruthless on his way up the food chain in the real-estate world. Now he’s a tycoon with access to everything he desires and he wants everyone to know it – he’s a collector of both art and people.

The writers of The Art of More are Gardner Stern (NYPD Blue, Law and Order) and Chuck Rose. They are also executive producing alongside Quaid, Laurence Mark (Last Vegas, Julie & Julia, Dreamgirls), Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Shield) and Tamara Chestna.

This week has also seen a number of announcements from US cable channel FX. Chief among them was news that Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s thriller The Strain will return for a third season.

Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Guillermo and Carlton have delivered two thrilling seasons of The Strain that are captivating and visually arresting, doing justice to the original novel trilogy and meeting fans’ high expectations in the process.”

The Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter, which is being adapted into a series starring Ryan Phillippe
The Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter, which is being adapted into a series starring Ryan Phillippe

FX has also set the premiere dates for a number of its hotly anticipated new series. Kurt Sutter’s new drama The Bastard Executioner will start on September 15. The show is described as “a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.”

Other FX series coming up are American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts on October 7, and the new edition of Fargo, set to premiere on October 12. If that sounds like an exciting line-up of drama then you should probably enjoy it while you can.

At the recent TCA (Television Critics Association) event in the US, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf caused a stir when he said “there is simply too much television.” He predicted that the number of original scripted series will reach a peak in the next two years before starting to decline. FX currently has 20 original scripted series across FX and sister network FXX.

Economics dictate that it won’t go any higher, though Landgraf had originally hoped to take the total up to 24. One inference from his comments is that the scripted industry will soon experience a retraction, which may in turn lead to some company closures or consolidations.

Big news on the international coproduction front is that The Weinstein Company (TWC) and ITV Studios Global Entertainment have joined forces to make a 10-part gangster series set amid the fall of the Soviet Union. Called Mafiya, the series is being written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) and produced by Archery Pictures, the UK producer set up by Kris Thykier and former Scott Free UK chief Liza Marshall. Set in Moscow in the 1990s, the mob series will follow the rise of a street trader who becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.

ITV has commissioned a three-part Scott & Bailey special
ITV has commissioned a three-part Scott & Bailey special, to be produced by Red Production Company.

This week also brought news that the Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter is being reinvented as a TV series. The small-screen version of the 2007 Paramount film will star Ryan Phillippe and is being written by John Hlavin. Phillippe plays a former Marine sniper who is brought back into action to thwart the killing of the president.

Other greenlights this week include Wanted (working title), a thriller for Australia’s Seven Network. Scripted by Timothy Hobart, John Ridley and Kirsty Fisher, this story follows two strangers who intervene in a deadly carjacking and are swept up in a chase across Australia in a car full of money. Shooting starts in October in Brisbane, with Screen Queensland investing in the project.

In the UK, meanwhile, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a special three-part run of cop drama Scott & Bailey, featuring a single crime story to be produced by Red Production Company. Explaining the three-part format, ITV said it will “allow the story to unfold with scale and ambition as Scott and Bailey tackle one of the biggest and darkest cases they have ever had to face.”

The drama will be executive produced by Red’s Nicola Shindler and written by Lee Warburton and Paul Logan. “We’re delighted to be returning to Scott & Bailey with an investigation that will have everlasting consequences for the characters,” said Shindler. “This series is more ambitious and sinister than ever before and the concept of a three-part story allows us the opportunity to tackle a story of epic scale and ambition.”

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