Tag Archives: Showmax

Mysterious Girl

The creative team behind The Girl from St Agnes take DQ inside the making of the eight-part murder mystery, the first original drama from South African streamer Showmax.

From the overhead shots of foreboding forests to the large metal gates masked by fog, an unsettling, eerie feeling is established from the start. These stirring visuals don’t emerge from the latest Nordic noir series however, but the opening moments of murder mystery The Girl from St Agnes, the first original drama from South African streaming platform Showmax.

At St Agnes, a prestigious all-girls boarding school, police record the death of popular student Lexi Summerveld (Jane de Wet) as a tragic accident. However, drama teacher Kate Ballard (Nina Milner) is unconvinced by the official verdict and decides to start her own investigation. Discovering that she didn’t really know Lexi or the school at all, Kate attempts to put together a puzzle that threatens to unravel a myriad of secrets.

The eight-part series broke records on its release in January, with Showmax quick to announce it had drawn more unique viewers to the service in its first 24 hours than the previous record holder, its original comedy Tali’s Wedding Diary. The Girl from St Agnes’s debut also achieved more than double the views racked up by that of its most popular US series, though specific figures were not revealed.

The ratings provided evidence of the value of local content and showed that African productions can compete with the best in the US, Europe and around the world, said Showmax head of content Candice Fangueiro.

The Girl from St Agnes centres on the death of Lexi Summerveld (played by Jane de Wet)

For the makers of The Girl from St Agnes, which is produced by Quizzical Pictures and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, the intention from the outset was to make a series that reached the standards of the best global drama available on Showmax.

The drama is based on an idea Quizzical MD and producer Harriet Gayshon had been kicking around for a while. After inviting the company to pitch, Showmax bought it in the room.

Gayshon went to a private school similar to St Agnes, which she describes as a “pocket of England” in South Africa. “A good deal of them are Church of England-based and, because we’re an ex-colony, they feel like real English institutions,” she says. “So it just felt like a great premise to tell a story that’s authentic in South Africa but that other people could relate to.”

“It started with one line: A girl gets murdered in a private school in Pietermaritzburg,” head writer Gillian Breslin recalls. “And Harriet handed that off to me and let me run with it. With my team of writers, Sean Steinberg and Zoë Laband, we spent two months in the workshop figuring out the characters, the plot, did some research with kids who are currently in school and beat it out in the room. It’s very much Harriet’s baby. We started with a line and took it from there.”

Taking inspiration from international hits such as Top of the Lake and Broadchurch, co-producer Nimrod Geva says Showmax was keen to create something edgy that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. “So in terms of the sex, language and some of the issues we’ve dealt with that are very much hard-hitting and relevant in the #MeToo era, they wanted something that would go as far as it needed to in terms of story and tone and themes.”

Nina Milner as teacher Kate Ballard, who takes it upon herself to investigate Lexi’s death

Notably, Gayshon says one of the most unusual things about the series is that, coming from a country with 11 official languages, it’s filmed in English. That decision informed the setting for the drama, as it needed to be somewhere English was spoken naturally.

Beyond that, the creative team were keen to highlight the difference between the school’s prestigious facade and what was really going on behind the gates, while also contrasting tradition with sex and drugs.

The location was also key to the storytelling, placing St Agnes in a part of South Africa that Geva says isn’t often seen on television. “It’s this beautiful, rolling, misty countryside and it encompassed the intensity of this world, with this exclusive bubble dropped into this beautiful landscape. The place itself felt cinematically very attractive, and the misty hills resonate with a murder mystery.”

The drama was filmed in northern Kwazulu-Natal, a province on South Africa’s east coast, in a town called Ixopo. Breslin spent a few days there researching scenes and building characters, while focus groups of high-school teenagers were used to build authenticity and ensure the script captured the real world.

Gayshon says: “It was one of those charmed projects where it started to gel very quickly, because everyone was very passionate about it and saw it as something quite new and a new opportunity. We had a mad deadline, but the writers did it. Then we had a very quick production and editing process to get it up and running. Everyone was so invested and passionate about it. It felt like a huge departure from everything else we see on our screens.”

The series was filmed in northern Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa

One early challenge was finding the young English-speaking cast, with Geva praising casting director Moonyeenn Lee (Hotel Rwanda, Mandela: Long Road to Freedom) for piecing together a group that includes young unknowns like de Wet, Paige Bonnin (as Megan Clayton) and Shamilla Miller (Jenna Galloway) alongside established English-language veterans such as Robert Hobbs (Gary Clayton) and Graham Hopkins (Chris Whittaker).

The other dilemma was ensuring The Girl from St Agnes was modern enough for its younger-skewing target audience. “There’s something a little fusty about some of the English-language content that does exist here,” Geva notes. “But it felt like it really captured themes that were incredibly relevant about privilege, whiteness, race and gender relations. It captures where South Africa is, especially some of the more privileged members of society, trying to retreat into a world that is removed from the real South Africa and showing that, no matter how high your walls are, the dangers of human nature and lust and violence are always present.”

Behind the camera, it’s notable that the series has a largely female creative team, led by Gayshon, head writer Breslin and directors Catharine Cooke and Cindy Lee. Aluta Mlisana, Marcelle Mouton, Natalie Varoy, Melanie Jankes Golden and Mmapula Letsoalo were five of its six editors.

Geva says: “It was a really female-driven process and that infused the story with energy, passion and excitement. It’s a story of what happens to young girls in that pressure cooker, so it felt like women would get it and be able to draw those scenes out. I think it did very well.

“We were very lucky in our choice of directors. They were both women and both had incredible can-do attitudes, even though we were shooting very fast and often under uneasy conditions. They were quite remarkable in holding on to the vision but moving very fast and practically through it.”

Catharine Cooke

Cooke directed five episodes, while Lee helmed three. They would often be on the phone to Breslin to ask questions of her characters and work out how best to bring the writer’s vision to life. Their close collaboration also enabled them to tie up any loose ends, in an age when viewers unpick every little detail to find clues to the killer’s identity in murder-mystery shows.

“Writers have a tough time in this genre because more and more people are starting to enjoy murder mysteries,” Cooke says. “They expect a very high standard of mystery from you. For writers, it’s very difficult to get it right because there are lots of audience members who love that genre and want to be part of it. They want to figure it out.”

Breslin picks up: “I don’t think we were ever going to reinvent the wheel [in this genre]. What I was most influenced by in terms of the characters and the world was Broadchurch, particularly the first season. I won’t lie, I also watch Pretty Little Liars and grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But we knew what we were trying to do was something different, something I haven’t seen on South African television for an English audience. The world and the characters in Broadchurch were just fascinating; they were immersive, and that was something I really wanted to do with our world as well.”

Like Breslin, Lee went to a private boarding school and used her own experiences to shape the story treatment with Cooke. “Once we had that together, Catherine and I worked very closely,” she recalls. “We sat down together from the beginning and conceptualised and wrote the treatment and put it together. We did all our visual references together.

“What we wanted to try to do was create an undercurrent of unease, of something that wasn’t quite right. So the idea was to make it look pretty on the surface and have everyone look pretty and shoot it pretty but, because we shot handheld, there was this sense of unease and disquiet happening all the time. The handheld also gave it a sense of being quite loose in the way we shot it, with lots of close-ups and the camera moving around the actors a lot.”

Before shooting, Cooke and Lee would group together different actors so they could familiarise themselves with their characters and flesh out some of the dynamics. This also ensured they wouldn’t be strangers when it came to filming,

That established a shorthand between the actors that helped the production stay on schedule, with up to 12 script pages being filmed on some days during the 10-week shoot. Filming out of sequence across all eight episodes, with scenes scheduled by location, was complicated further by the numerous flashbacks that feature in the show, meaning the cast and directors were constantly having to adjust between scenes.

The Girl from St Agnes broke records for Showmax

Quizzical also had to bring in new infrastructure to improve communications on site, while many of the cast and crew had to stay an hour away from the set because of a lack of accommodation. In practice, the school was a composite of various locations, including schools across Johannesburg, though the main base was a former Trappist monastery. Blue-screen technology was used to tie everything together.

Cooke is buoyant about the shockwaves the series is sending through the industry. “It has proven to most of the broadcasters that South Africa can make fantastic things of international standard and people want to watch it,” she asserts. “With this show, it has proven there is a demand for [the genre] and people like it. South African audiences want to see themselves and want to watch some good stuff.”

While international productions have largely used South Africa for its service industry, with Black Sails and Troy: Fall of a City among the dramas filmed in the country, Breslin hopes that The Girl from St Agnes will mean “people will start to look to South Africa as more than an industry service centre,” adding: “Our crew get a lot of experience, but until now there haven’t been a lot of avenues for South African creators.”

With The Girl from St Agnes winning international backing and Netflix’s pushing into original South African content with upcoming secret agent series Queen Sono and teen drama Blood & Water, those roads are now opening up as creators find a way to bring their stories to viewers around the world.

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Rewriting history

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

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

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maeve Dermody plays a girl caught up in the British Resistance

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

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

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

SS-GB premiered this week at the Berlin Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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