Tag Archives: Sid Gentle Films

Sun, sea and animals

Writer Simon Nye talks to DQ about writing The Durrells, ITV’s hit family drama about a British family living on the idyllic Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s.

For a certain generation, Simon Nye will always be known as the creator of long-running comedy series Men Behaving Badly, a series that defined the ‘lad culture’ of the 1990s.

In fact, the writer and author has his roots firmly in the comedy genre, having written other series including Hardware, Wild West, Carrie & Barrie, Beast and Reggie Perrin.

More recently, he penned TV biopic Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This, and wrote a 2010 episode of Doctor Who, with Matt Smith then in the lead role.

Today he’s still writing comedy, but The Durrells is arguably more dramatic and certainly more exotic than anything he’s written before. In fact, he wrote a BBC TV movie based on Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical novel My Family and Other Animals in 2005, before returning to the novel and its two sequels – known as Durrell’s Corfu trilogy – for the ITV drama, which first aired in 2016.

Simon Nye

Now in its third season, the series continues to tell the story of Louisa Durrell (played by Keeley Hawes) and her four spirited but unruly children who have left England for a new life in Corfu in the 1930s. It is produced by Sid Gentle Films and Masterpiece in the US and distributed by BBC Worldwide.

“I think it is our best season – I wouldn’t say if it was worse – but we’re in that sweet spot where we know what we do best and there are lots of stories to tell,” Nye says. “Corfu is still looking gorgeous.”

Nye is no stranger to adaptation, having turned his own Men Behaving Badly and Wideboy novels into TV shows. The second was known on screen as Frank Stubbs Promotes, starring Timothy Spall. He also penned a TV movie version of The Railway Children for ITV, as well as his earlier Durrells effort.

“We always try to have a story from the book in each episode but it’s getting harder so we’re branching out a bit,” he says of The Durrells. “It’s a balance between not inventing so much that it’s nothing to do with the family in the books and the family we know lived on Corfu, and the need to create stories that last the course.”

That challenge has been extended further in season three, with the episode count rising from six to eight. “Eight episodes is actually very different from writing six episodes because it’s a different rhythm, but it’s been great,” Nye adds. “Not that a fourth season has been confirmed yet, but I’m already writing the first two episodes of the new season.”

Each episode presents the challenge of finding a story for the each of the large cast, which includes Louisa and her children Larry (Josh O’Connor), Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and Gerry (Milo Parker), not to mention the returning Greek characters and this season’s new arrivals.

“Initially you want to come up with a satisfying spine for the whole season,” says Nye, who adds while his storylines are informed by the books, he also has to do a lot of legwork himself. “Leslie has a long story that runs through it and we’ve got such great actors that you really want to give them something they can get their teeth into, other than just looking pretty on the terrace. That’s the real challenge, in 46 minutes, to get everyone firing. The stories do move along swiftly so it’s a question of cramming as much as we can in without making it look ridiculous. I tend to start slowly and later episodes are easier to write.

The Durrells’ cast is led by Keeley Hawes as matriarch Louisa

“We try to have a grand plan at the beginning but you find in the early episodes that your characters want to go in different directions. You just want to have an idea of what’s coming up because then you can build on what’s there and sow some seeds for later episodes. But a lot of people don’t watch the whole season, so you have to make it work on an episode-by-episode basis as well.”

At its heart, however, The Durrells is the story of a family loving one another but simultaneously at war with each other, an idea that has served as the framework for the entire series. The story opens with Louisa taking her brood to Corfu in an attempt to patch up their differences, but the Mediterranean landscape only serves to highlight their individual and collective eccentricities.

“Who wants to watch a functional family?” says Nye. “It’s got to go wrong. Not that we’re teaching lessons, but you do learn from seeing other people screw up. Although it’s set in the 1930s, they’re quite a modern family. We can’t swear, being on television pre-watershed, but their feistiness comes across. They’re quite a handful.”

While the British family’s place in Europe is at odds with the current political landscape, Nye is reluctant to pepper The Durrells with references to Britain’s vote to leave the Europe Union, despite his own staunch anti-Brexit position. But with war looming – season three is set in 1937 – the drama does serve as a reminder that Europe is not a place of harmony.

“In many ways, they’ve done it all wrong,” Nye says of the family’s efforts to integrate into their new surroundings. “They’ve got friends but they haven’t really learned the language. The real Laurence Durrell learned quite a lot of Greek, and Leslie a bit. But they’re not adverts for internationalism at all. That’s how your average Brit, me included, would be. I’ve learned very little Greek, appallingly; I should have worked harder at it. But they’ve gone for other reasons – they were falling apart as a family in Britain and are trying to heal that.”

The show is based on a real-life English family who moved to Corfu in the 1930s

Writing every episode of the series means Nye has little time to mix with the cast and crew, admitting that he spends most of his time trying to catch up with the production schedule instead of hanging around on set. “Especially with eight episodes, you’re trying to make sure you deliver them on time,” he says. But he hasn’t yet reached a point where he wants to bring other writers onto the series.

“Most writers, if they’ve got the energy and the time, would prefer to write everything themselves because it’s your own voice and, also, if somebody’s else’s episode goes wrong because they’re not as used to the characters as I am, you spend a lot of time fixing it. So as long as I can, I’ll try to write them all. But the principle of team writing is a good one and we want some of the American action and long-running series. We should be embracing that more because with a hit series, you want to be offered lots of episodes.”

Unsurprisingly, one of biggest challenges on the series is filming with the many animals that make up budding naturalist Gerry’s expanding menagerie, with the third season introducing a sloth and flamingos, which Nye says make pelicans look positively professional.

They’re the source of many jokes, however, which adds to the light-hearted nature of the series. “It’s got lots of jokes in it because that’s often the way families relate to each other, especially that family, which is full of lively minds,” Nye explains. “So humour is often the way they get through the day. When I first started doing comedy I thought you didn’t need to bother with a plot, and I quickly learned that that’s a very poor way of writing a sitcom. And it’s even more true of drama that you need to focus on it. If the plot’s working, it makes the dialogue so much easier. You just want it to be credible.”

As The Durrells heads into the sunset of its third season, Nye says there’s still more fun to be had with the eponymous family beyond a potential fourth season. “It feels like we’ve only just scratched the surface,” he says. “They were there for five years [in real life] and Milo, who plays Gerry, is growing. There is still quite a lot to say but I hope we won’t outstay our welcome. The war is looming in Corfu and Greece but certainly we want to get them home and get to know them a bit more.”

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Family matters

British period drama The Durrells returns for its third season with more fun in store for the eponymous family. DQ caught up with star Keeley Hawes and the production team on the set at the world-famous Ealing Studios.

In the green room at Ealing Studios, we are surrounded by the most unusual props: vintage bird cages, ancient posters of beetles and butterflies, old hamster cages, lots of pressed flowers, distressed wooden shutters, an antique garden bench covered in ‘lived-in’ throws and cushions, and a period microscope.

You do not have to be Sherlock Holmes’ long-lost Hellenic cousin to work out that we are on the set of The Durrells, ITV’s enormously popular adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s bestselling memoir, My Family and Other Animals.

Scripted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly), this easy-going series set in the 1930s follows the trials and tribulations of the Durrell family – long-suffering widowed mother Louisa (Keeley Hawes), struggling novelist Larry (Josh O’Connor), awkward, gun-obsessed Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), embryonic feminist Margo (Daisy Waterstone) and budding naturalist Gerry (Milo Parker) – as they move from stuffy Bournemouth and strive to carve out a new life for themselves in Corfu.

In the third season, which begins on March 18, Louisa has resolved to renounce her quest for romance and instead concentrate on her family. But with Larry battling to complete his third novel, Margo desperate to find a new vocation, Leslie careering between three different girlfriends and Gerry continuing to expand his menagerie, Louisa has an awful lot on her plate.

The Durrells stars Keeley Hawes as Louisa

Ealing Studios is a place redolent of filmmaking history. It has been home not only to such recent productions as Downton Abbey and Beauty & the Beast, but also such timeless Ealing Comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.

But just why has Britain gone daft for The Durrells? Hawes, who has also starred in such acclaimed dramas as The Missing, Line of Duty and Spooks, believes the series has struck a chord because it appeals to a very wide audience: “I had an email from a woman recently. She told me that she sits down every Sunday night to watch The Durrells with her grandson, who is nine, her daughter, who is in her 40s, her mother, who is 94, and her husband, who she couldn’t get to watch anything else.”

The actress adds: “From the age of nine to 94, all these generations sit down together for this show. It’s something the whole family can watch together. That’s very rare these days because it’s very difficult to make it work. I can’t think of anything else that does that. This has captured everyone’s imagination.”

That impression is reinforced by the sense that Nye’s scripts have a dual effect. Hawes continues: “What Simon does so well is that fabulous Pixar thing of making jokes that work on two levels. He writes jokes which will go over children’s heads, but which make us adults laugh at the same time. So when children are invited in to these cheeky jokes, they feel very excited about it. It’s the same reason why we can all watch The Simpsons together.”

The Durrells, which is made for ITV by Sid Gentle Films as a coproduction with PBS strand Masterpiece and distributed by BBC Worldwide, also taps into a deep communal yearning for a mythical, more gentle and less threatening past. This instinct is perhaps fuelled by a desire to lose ourselves in a realm far removed from the horrors of the real world.

The show follows a British family who have relocated to the Greek island of Corfu

The scheduling also helps a great deal. As Britain is battered by storms and snow, what could be more relaxing than luxuriating in the flawless blue skies of Corfu? It is classic escapist Sunday evening drama.

Hawes affirms that theory: “The Durrells is one of those feel-good nostalgia shows that people want to watch on Sunday night before getting ready for the week ahead.”

But it is not just in this country that The Durrells has had an impact. It has also caused a stir in Corfu. Producer Christopher Hall observes: “The series has had a huge effect. British tourism [in Corfu] has gone up 15% since we first went out. There is a big spike every year just after transmission. On the easyJet flight from Gatwick to Corfu, pretty much everyone has watched The Durrells.”

It has not all been positive for the production, however. Hall notes: “Some tourist operators have been selling tickets to The Durrells Experience and promise a visit to the house where it’s filmed. One day, coach-loads of people turned up to look at our location. We had to tell them, ‘Sorry, this is a private house. You can’t come and look at our set!’

“Two years ago, we had signs up everywhere in Corfu saying, ‘The Durrells’, but we had to take them down because people kept stealing them and putting them on their own house!”

For the producers, there is one other problematic by-product of the show’s popularity. Hall, who also produced Critical, Dracula and Trial & Retribution, says: “The local hotels in Corfu are also doing very well – much to our cost. We say to the hotels, ‘We do a lot of work on the island – can you give us a discount?’ And they reply, ‘No, we can’t give you a discount because we’re full!’”

The Durrells returns to ITV this Sunday

In addition, The Durrells bears out that old filmmaking maxim: never work with animals. The creatures that make up Gerry’s substantial and ever-increasing menagerie are generally very well behaved, but inevitably there are still rogue elements.

Liz Thornton, who works as the animal coordinator on the production, reveals that the most difficult animals she has had to deal with on The Durrells are – quite surprisingly – pelicans. “Out of all the animals, you really don’t know what they’re going to do.

“They’re characters. They will suddenly take a dislike to someone, and that’s it – they’re off. All the animal handlers are standing just off camera. They try to persuade pelicans to do things with fish, but it doesn’t always work!”

The show has also thrown up some intriguing tests for production designer Stevie Herbert. She says her most demanding task is sometimes working out precisely what things are. “The agricultural equipment on Corfu is fascinating,” she says. “There is a guy in the village whose house is like an agricultural museum. You look at an implement and think, ‘What is that?’ They’re uniquely Corfu.

“A lot of it is to do with collecting olives. There are many strange tools you wouldn’t even think of. There are specific baskets that taper down according to the size of the donkey carrying it. Greece was built by donkeys.”

For all the challenges, the cast and crew have clearly relished working on the Greek island. Herbert speaks for everyone on The Durrells when she declares: “Corfu is so beautiful. The sun and the sea and the scenery are all amazing.

“Scrape back the modern world and the old Corfu is still there, just beneath the surface. Terrapins leap in the river, bask in the sun and cross the road at their own pace – they even have road signs warning drivers about that.”

She concludes: “On Corfu, we have a breakfast club where we eat sandwiches, watch the sunrise and think, ‘Yup, another day in paradise.’”

It’s a feeling no doubt shared by the millions of viewers who tune in to The Durrells every week.

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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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Indies bet heavily on book rights

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

In previous columns and features, DQ has explored the difficulty producers face in securing the services of top screenwriters.

One way of addressing this problem is to control the rights to strong source material. If you secure an option on a great novel, it’s an easier way of hooking a decent writer than going to them with an unproven idea.

Indie producer Bad Wolf, for example, was able to secure the services of the sought-after Jack Thorne by waving Philip Pullman’s fantasy epic His Dark Materials under his nose. And The Ink Factory reeled in David Farr by inviting him to make his mark on John Le Carré’s 1993 espionage novel The Night Manager.

Perhaps this is why we’re suddenly seeing so many book-rights deals bubbling to the surface. Last week, we referenced a couple of new examples in this column. And this week indie producer Dancing Ledge Productions has signed a deal with publisher HarperCollins for the TV rights to novels by Alistair Maclean, the legendary writer of books such as Guns of Navarone.

At the same time, the company announced that Tony Marchant (The Secret Agent) had come on board to adapt the first novel, San Andreas; a thriller set on board a torpedoed Second World War hospital ship as it attempts to make its way back across the North Atlantic to Scotland while a saboteur picks off crew members.

San Andreas
San Andreas is being adapted by Dancing Ledge Productions

Laurence Bowen, CEO of Dancing Ledge Productions, said: “We are lucky to be living and working in a golden age of television drama with a huge demand internationally for high-end adaptations and TV events that can be channel-defining. I doubt there are many bookshelves in the UK that don’t have at least one Alistair Maclean thriller, so the opportunity to work with HarperCollins to adapt a number of them for screen is incredibly exciting. If you then add a writer with the talent of Tony Marchant to the mix, we have a wonderful marriage of nail-biting action and emotional complexity.”

Under the terms of the arrangement, each novel will be structured as a four or six-part event miniseries that will build on Maclean’s trademark skill of creating thrilling adventure that appeals to hardcore fans and new audiences alike.

Katie Fulford, special projects director at HarperCollins Publishers, added: “Maclean is one of our most treasured authors. We’re committed to ensuring our heritage brands continue to grow and that we constantly seek new ways to tell these classic stories.”

Other new book-option deals along similar lines include Sid Gentle Films’ acquisition of the rights to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s acclaimed book series The Cazalet Chronicles, which is set between the 1930s and the 1950s and tells the story of three generations of the Cazalet family.

Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014
Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014

Explaining why she picked up the five Cazalet novels, Sid Gentle’s Sally Woodward Gentle said: “Elizabeth Jane Howard is an extraordinary writer, a highly skilled storyteller of understatement and deceptive simplicity. The novels are totally addictive with the ability to floor you with their turn of events. They are set in the middle of the 20th century but the themes of love, loss, repression, sex and family ties are shot through with 21st century resonance.”

Woodward Gentle has already proved that the books-as-bait model can work with SS-GB, a series for the BBC that is just coming to market. Based on Len Deighton’s novel, it has been adapted by James Bond writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis.

One of the indies we talked about in last week’s column was Buccaneer, which joined forces with author Rose Tremain. And Buccaneer is back in the news this week following a deal with Trainspotting creator Irvine Welsh to bring his novel Crime to TV.

This setup is slightly different from some of the other examples because it comes with a screenwriter attached, Welsh’s longtime collaborator Dean Cavanagh. Where it resembles the other deals, however, is in the way that strong source material can help producers build a talent package that interests broadcasters.

Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh

In this case, for example, actor Dougray Scott has come on board to star in and executive produce the six-part project: “When I read Irvine Welsh for the first time I knew I was in the company of a unique and utterly brilliant voice. After finishing the novel Crime, I knew it was a story that I just had to help bring to the screen.”

There’s another book-based story of interest this week. BBC2 in the UK has just announced that it is adapting Ian McGuire’s Man Booker-longlisted whaling novel The North Water in partnership with See-Saw Films. In this case, Andrew Haigh has come on board to turn the story into a six-part mystery/survival drama.

The North Water tells the story of a disgraced former army surgeon who signs on as a ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. On board, he meets Henry Drax, an amoral harpooner. Hoping to escape his past, the doctor instead finds himself trapped on board with a murderous psychopath.

Haigh’s involvement is an example of the new fluidity that exists in the TV business. Until now, he has been best known as a movie screenwriter – first with Weekend and then with 45 Years, which enjoyed a lot of positive feedback on the festival circuit in 2015/2016.

So the combination of a strong core story, a proven production team (See-Saw’s TV credits include Top of the Lake) and an emerging filmwriting talent was enough to attract BBC2, thus circumventing the issue of chasing overworked TV A-Listers.

Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh

Elsewhere, DQ’s parent publication C21 reports this week that TV2 Denmark, Nordisk Film Production, NDF Germany and distributor Dynamic Television have greenlit a crime drama based on the Dan Sommerdahl crime novel franchise by Anna Grue (books again!). For this project, The Bridge’s co-creator Nikolaj Scherfig has been signed up to act as head writer.

Described as a family-oriented take on the Nordic noir genre, the series centres on a detective who solves murder cases in a coastal town. It goes into production in summer 2017.

Dynamic Television VP of coproductions and acquisitions Jan Bennemann said there’s “huge demand right now for Scandinavian crime drama with a blue-sky procedural element. Dan Sommerdahl expands upon this with a very likeable main character and an overall lighter tone, making it an ideal fit for a wider audience.”

Seven books out of a planned 12-part franchise have so far been published, and the agreement with the author includes expanding the property and its characters – raising the prospect of a long-running franchise.

Nikolaj Scherfig
Nikolaj Scherfig

Scherfig’s comments underline the way the right project can lure in-demand writers. He said Dan Sommerdahl is the first in a line of projects that offered to him with “something different to the classic Scandic noir genre: a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities, understanding how modernity and social development affect provincial life.”

Away from the world of book rights, other interesting stories this week include the news that US network NBC has picked up the rights to adapt a time-travel crime drama from Argentina’s Telefe. The original 2011 series was called Un Año Para Recordar (A Year to Remember). It tells the story of a female detective who goes back in time after accidentally killing her husband.

The writer/producer signed up to oversee the adaptation is Michael Foley, whose most recent credit is the ABC/Shondaland series How To Get Away With Murder. Prior to that, Foley was involved in productions such as Revenge and Unforgettable.

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Writers block

Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.

If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.

And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.

Belinda Campbell
Belinda Campbell

Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.

“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”

There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”

The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.

This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.

The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.

UnREAL
UnREAL is written by Marti Noxon, who cut her teen working on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”

From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”

This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.

So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”

Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.

Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel
The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.

Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.

Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.

It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”

German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world
German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world

The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.

“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”

Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”

French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”

Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”

Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”

Stefan Baron
Stefan Baron

Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”

Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”

Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”

Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.

There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.

Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”

A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”

Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.

With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.

Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”

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The Durrells delight on Sunday night

The opening episodes of The Durrells have won over critics and viewers alike
The opening episodes of The Durrells have won over critics and viewers alike

These days, a lot of emphasis is placed on the audience’s ability to time-shift TV. But there’s no question there is still an important role for dramas that can do a job in a particular slot.

Right now, for example, The Durrells (based on Gerald Durrell’s classic Corfu Trilogy of novels) is doing a brilliant job for ITV in the UK at 20.00 on Sunday evenings.

Although the show is only three episodes old at time of writing, it already feels like it has been sitting in ITV’s schedule forever – offering exactly the kind of escapism many of us crave the day before the working week kicks in again (depending, of course, on the country where you reside).

Not that The Durrells should be regarded simply as popcorn TV. It is beautifully adapted by Simon Nye and the acting is really, really good. Keeley Hawes, who plays the mother (Louisa) of author Lawrence Durrell, naturalist Gerald Durrell and their two siblings, is superb, displaying immaculate comic timing and eye-watering sensitivity. Also impressive is Daisy Waterstone as Gerald’s sister, Margo (none of which is to disparage the other cast members).

The show is currently scoring a rating of 8.0 on IMDb, which is pretty good – and it is proving popular with critics. Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph applauds it for its “warmth, nostalgia, beautiful locations” and calls it a “gem.” Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail gives it five stars, adding: “Perfect Sunday night viewing requires period costume, exotic locations, a dash of sex (but nothing explicit) and lashings of laughs. Sounds simple on paper… but it’s pretty near impossible to achieve on screen. But The Durrells was a masterclass in ideal Sunday telly – never too demanding, and yet completely satisfying.”

Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has been given a third season on AMC
Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has been given a third season on AMC

All of this positive feeling is backed by great audience figures. The first episode launched with 6.4 million viewers, making it ITV’s best-performing new drama since Cilla in September 2014. It has since consolidated to 8.2 million viewers (33% share) – showing that it is also possible to transfer the Sunday night feeling to other times of the week.

ITV knows it’s on to a good thing and has commissioned a second season from producer Sid Gentle Films. Sid Gentle CEO Sally Woodward-Gentle said: “The combination of Gerald Durrell’s warm, witty stories and Simon Nye’s brilliance at adapting them meant we knew that we had created something special. The reaction has been fantastic and I am delighted we are able to continue the story and reunite the fantastic cast and crew who have become a close-knit ‘family’ on and off screen.”

Filming on season two will take place later this year in Corfu. In other news, the show has been picked up by SVT Sweden, which may have been tempted by the fact that one of the central characters is a hunky Swede called Sven (Ulric von der Esch).

In the US, AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul finished season two on April 18 with a season average of 2.16 million viewers across 10 episodes. The show stayed pretty solid around the two million mark for the whole season and has been rewarded with a third season during which Breaking Bad’s urbane drug dealer Gus Fring will return.

In terms of comparative performance, the show rates better than Mad Men (which ran for seven seasons) and Hell On Wheels (five). It also has an impressive 8.8 rating on IMDb.

The Night Manager's US debut was somewhat disappointing
The Night Manager’s US debut was disappointing

Last week, we looked at the success of John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager on BBC1 in the UK and asked how it would fare when it switched to AMC in the US. The show has now started airing stateside, where the same-day showing of episode one attracted 0.93 million.

This is a fairly modest opening that suggests it isn’t going to make much impact with US audiences. As a comparison, Humans debuted with 1.73 million on AMC after a strong showing on Channel 4 in the UK. It then fell to around the 1.1 million mark for episode two and stayed there for the rest of its run.

In other words, its retrenched position was stronger than The Night Manager’s opener. The Night Manager also scored quite low with the 18-49 demographic on its AMC debut.

Of course, a modest US opening shouldn’t detract from the quality of the show. It may just be that AMC’s audience is attuned to a different style of scripted content.

It’s also worth noting that The Night Manager has been sold to networks all around the world. The latest deals for the show include agreements with Chinese streaming service Youku Tudou and French public broadcaster France Télévisions. The drama has previously been sold to the likes of Tele München Gruppe for German-speaking Europe, C More and TV4 for the Nordic territories, DR for Denmark, Sky Italia for Italy, BBC First and SBS for Australia, TV3 for New Zealand and AMC International for Iberia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The Shannara Chronicles
The Shannara Chronicles has been renewed despite middling performance

This week has also seen MTV in the US renew its fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, despite the fact that the series has not achieved especially high ratings. The first run of 10 episodes came in at about 890,000 on average, with the back end occasionally falling below the 800,000 mark.

Mina Lefevre, executive VP and head of scripted development at MTV, said the production team “delivered a beautiful, ground-breaking show with compelling stories and character journeys, which brought in new viewers.”

Further underlining Lefevre’s ‘new viewer’ argument, part of the reason MTV is sticking with the show is its performance on digital platforms, “where it garnered 16.6 million streams across all MTV’s digital properties and brought significant traffic growth to the MTV app,” according to the company. “The series also ranks as the highest-grossing digital download for a single season on MTV ever.”

As we’ve reported in previous weeks, a number of shows see their performance improve dramatically when time-shifting and digital viewing are added to the total. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson on FX had a huge three-day ratings gain for its finale episode (up by 2.91 million viewers to 6.18 million).

In the UK, it was a similar story for new Sky1 crime drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, starring James Nesbitt. Episode one of the 10-part series launched in January and delivered an overnight audience of 600,000. But the total figure for the episode rose to 1.74 million as the audience took the opportunity to watch via Sky+ recordings, On Demand and Sky Go.

This increase of 1.14 million was the biggest growth in viewing figures that the first episode of any Sky original drama series has ever achieved in the week after transmission. It also made it the best performing original drama series launch on Sky1 for nearly four years. This underlines the point that, in the new TV economy, there are some shows that are perfect for certain slots (such as The Durrells) but others seem to work well as schedule-neutral programming.

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