Eight-part comedy drama Upright stars Tim Minchin and Milly Alcock as two misfits thrown together by chance in the middle of the Australian desert, as they bond on a quest to transport a precious piano from one side of the country to the other.
Lucky Flynn (Minchin) hasn’t spoken to his family in years. The gifted pianist’s talent for music is matched only by his talent for self-destruction. When he learns his mother has just days left to live, he sets off in a hire car to drive the 4,000km from Sydney to Perth to say goodbye, taking with him his only cherished possession in the world: a battered and scarred upright piano.
This seemingly straightforward drive across the outback soon becomes a test of Lucky’s emotional fitness when he literally runs into Meg (Alcock), a funny, tough-as-nails teenager who has plenty of scars and secrets of her own.
In this DQTV interview, acclaimed musician, actor, comedian and writer Minchin recalls how he joined the project and developed the idea with co-writers Chris Taylor, Kate Mulvany and Leon Ford.
The Australian talks about the themes that drew him to the story, as well as his own circumstances that led him to explore this story of homecoming, and offers his views on how music is used in film and television.
Upright is produced by Lingo Pictures for Sky Atlantic and Now TV in the UK and Foxtel in Australia, and distributed by Entertainment One.
The cast and crew of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries from HBO and Sky, reveal how they told the story of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear disaster that continues to affect thousands of lives more than three decades on.
Thirty-three years ago to this day, a routine safety test at a power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine sparked the deadliest nuclear accident in history.
Beginning with an explosion in a nuclear reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster officially claimed 28 lives directly and led to a further 15 indirect deaths – although other estimates put the actual death toll from the accident and its ongoing impact in the tens of thousands.
Whichever end of the scale is more accurate, one thing is beyond doubt: as bad as Chernobyl was, had the spread of radiation not been contained, things could have become much, much worse. That they did not was down to the bravery and brilliance of a number of people in the days and weeks following that first explosion – and it’s these individuals who take centre stage in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s miniseries about the tragedy.
The five-part drama, simply titled Chernobyl, debuts in the US on May 6 and then in the UK on May 7. Made by Sister Pictures and Mighty Mint Production, the HBO and Sky copro is directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and distributed by HBO International. It covers the dramatic events of the disaster itself and the repercussions on both a global level and for the people of the nearby town of Pripyat, combining disaster movie elements with political intrigue and personal trauma.
It has been created by Craig Mazin, a writer best known for his work on comedy movies such as Identity Thief and the latter two instalments of The Hangover trilogy. So what drew someone with a track record in humour to such a serious and historically significant project?
Mazin, who also wrote and exec produced the show, explains that the lure came more from what he didn’t know about Chernobyl than what he did. “I kind of knew something about Chernobyl but I didn’t know much. I knew that it exploded. I often say to people, if you ask someone what happened to the Titanic, they will tell you it sank; and if you ask how it sank, they will tell you it hit an iceberg. That only works halfway for Chernobyl – if you ask someone what happened at Chernobyl, they’ll say it blew up. But ask them how it blew up…”
Reading up on the subject to fill this “surprising gap” in his knowledge, Mazin found himself increasingly fascinated by the full extent of the disaster, becoming “obsessed” with Chernobyl. “The more I read, the more shocked I was that the explosion is not at all the story,” he says. “The story is, in fact, about how it came to happen and the remarkable acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice that were required because of it. It’s about a system that’s corrupt; it’s about the worst that humans can do but it’s also about the best that humans can do individually.”
Mazin acknowledges he had to consider the massively varying estimates of the tragedy’s true human cost, scoffing at the improbably low death toll arrived at by the Soviet government. “The best estimates put the numbers somewhere in the many tens of thousands. There are estimates of up to a million,” he says. “But if I have a choice between going for something that sounds more dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less. Because what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.
“Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and it also shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”
The individuals highlighted in the drama are a mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters created as an amalgamation of multiple real people. Among those playing historical figures are Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leading nuclear physicist who was tasked with steering the immediate response to the disaster. Prolific movie actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), meanwhile, is Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who leads the government commission investigating the accident.
Paul Ritter, best known for his comedic work in series including Friday Night Dinner and No Offence, portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the man who would ultimately take the blame for the disaster.
Among the great many other actors in the accomplished cast – Chernobyl features a whopping 102 speaking roles, according to Mazin – are Harris’s The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis and Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Nagaitis plays a fireman who is one of the first responders to the explosion, while Watson is a nuclear physicist battling to impress the gravity of the situation upon a range of politicians with their heads firmly in the sand.
Harris’s Legasov finds himself in a similar position, with the actor describing his character as the “Cassandra of the story,” referring to the Ancient Greek mythological figure who was cursed to deliver prophecies that were true but were believed by no one. “He understands what the dangers are and how bad it can go if they don’t get on top of it quickly,” he says. “He’s also responsible for trying to figure out how you contain this event where it’s known that it could happen but no one’s planned for what to do if it does happen.”
While the miniseries’ Legasov “suffers the same fate” as the real scientist – taking his own life on the second anniversary of the disaster while suffering from the effects of radiation exposure – Harris says the drama’s version is “more structured towards our narrative and our story.”
He continues: “He sort of plays off Stellan’s character. They have this frosty, antagonistic relationship in the beginning but they learn to rely on one another and trust one another, and their friendship becomes one of the spines of the whole story.”
The visible impact of Legasov’s radiation poisoning was achieved by the make-up department, led by Daniel Parker. In this respect, however, Harris got off lightly, with other actors displaying the full extent of radiation’s horrific effect on the human body throughout the drama.
“Adam Nagaitis had it worst of all,” Harris asserts. “The process they put his character through was really, really gruelling.”
“Daniel had to become almost a physician,” says Mazin, “because it wasn’t enough to say, ‘Well, someone is experiencing the effect of radiation.’ There are levels to it. He came up with these stages and sub-stages, and then stages inside of stages.”
The make-up team’s efforts extended to the creation of a spreadsheet to keep track of the different levels of radiation poisoning even before Parker’s “artistry was put into place.”
This attention to detail was replicated across every element of the production, with Mazin saying he and the rest of the team shared an “obsession with historical accuracy” that went down to “the chandeliers and the tyres on the cars.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the show’s costuming, overseen by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose enthusiasm for accuracy sometimes went further than the drama could follow. From the lead cast to the most minor of background roles, everyone on screen is dressed in authentic garb from the era.
“We had to occasionally negotiate with her because she was so ferocious about accuracy,” Mazin notes. “She and her staff gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe. She clothed thousands of people – it was mind-blowing.”
But how do you ensure accuracy when recreating the particularities and scale of a nuclear power plant? It turns out nothing beats the real thing, with the production gaining access to Chernobyl’s ‘twin’ station, the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.
“It was difficult,” Mazin says of filming in the station. “For Lithuania to gain entry into the EU, they had to agree to decommission that plant. So they are currently in the process of decommissioning it. They mentioned at some point they had already decommissioned it, yet we couldn’t shoot one day because they were removing stuff out of it.
“It’s not a normal shoot day when you show up at work and hand your passport over, and they keep it. It was pretty intense and very eerie.”
Renck, whose direction has given the series a distinctly cinematic feel, echoes the writer’s view: “The building is massive, it’s eerie, it’s windowless. Every time we went back, I felt the same. Everything is preserved. It’s the sister plant to Chernobyl and everything was built around the same time, so everything in there puts you quite close to what would have been [in Chernobyl].”
“The size of it is astonishing,” adds Mazin, who also visited the real Chernobyl site as part of his research. “These buildings were enormous. The thought that something inside could turn on you just seems beyond the pale.”
One area in which the show does abandon its pursuit of total accuracy, however, is language. The actors speak entirely in English and without accents, wisely avoiding evoking audience memories of any number of dodgy attempts at Russian accents by Hollywood actors down the years.
Of the decision to film in English, Mazin says: “It’s a little tricky when you’re thinking about making a show in a language that isn’t local to you, in part because you then have to ask about performance. If we are to make it in another language, we are narrowing ourselves to people who speak that language, and we don’t. So right off the bat there’s a disconnect. Not only did we feel we wanted to get performances and performers we could connect with, we didn’t want to mess around with accents either.”
Actors were told to “speak in a way that felt natural to you, because in the end the language should disappear.”
This miniseries is not the first time Chernobyl has been examined on screen, with numerous documentaries being made on the subject. There was even 2012’s risible horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which American tourists visiting the exclusion zone around the plant find themselves pursued by mutants. However, it is the first time the true story has been dramatised on this scale, with a significant budget evident from the off.
“I’m shocked that we were able to do it at all,” Mazin says of bringing the financing together. “Given what we had to face, it was remarkable. We started with HBO, but then it became clear that this was bigger than any one network. So we reached out to Sky and they rescued us, they really did.”
Chernobyl is “so much a European production,” the American writer continues. “We’re based here in London and we did all of our post-production in London; we did all of our prep in Lithuania; and we shot in Lithuania and Latvia and a little bit in Ukraine. It’s a story about Europe that takes place in Europe.
“As the foreigner, I must say that I’m in love with the way television is made in the UK. I’m in love with the actors. I just love the way they are trained and the skills they bring to things.”
With the debate around the environment and climate change reaching fever pitch in London this week with mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion activists, Chernobyl feels particularly timely, highlighting one of the worst cases of the man-made destruction of our surroundings.
But for Mazin, the most important thing about the show is that it tells the stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save others. “I hope that people will understand how just a handful of human beings, and then hundreds of thousands of human beings, gave up themselves for all of us,” he says. “Telling their stories is one of the great joys of this.”
As season two of HBO’s Westworld draws to a close, co-creators and showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan discuss making the series, rebooting the Western genre and their fascination with the mind-bending themes at the heart of the drama.
With overlapping timelines, dozens of characters and a premise built on mysterious and complex technology, Westworld might seem a daunting proposition for the more casual TV viewer.
Set in a colossal Wild West-themed amusement park for the super-rich, where guests’ darkest desires are fulfilled by hyper-realistic android ‘hosts,’ the HBO series has demanded its audience’s full attention from the start, trusting viewers to keep track as the rug is constantly pulled from beneath their feet by a succession of twists and reveals.
Among the many surprises of season one, the most significant was perhaps the revelation that two main characters – William and the Man in Black – were in fact the same person, depicted at two different ages.
Season two, the finale of which aired on HBO in the US last night and hits UK screens on Sky Atlantic this evening, has kept the intrigue flowing, exploring the newly sentient hosts’ quest for freedom while simultaneously taking viewers deeper into the origins of the park and its key characters.
It has also revealed the existence of at least two more parks run by the shady Delos corporation, with a British India-based location referred to as The Raj and the previously-hinted-at Shogun World, set during the Edo period of feudal Japan.
Lisa Joy, co-creator and co-showrunner of Westworld alongside husband Jonathan Nolan, admits there is “a lot of complexity” to the show’s “puzzle-like structure” but adds that, this time around, the show has “played the timeline stuff cards up.”
“Each season, the questions that we tee up, we do try to have an answer for all of them. We do intend to answer the questions we set up,” says Joy, whose previous TV credits include Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice.
Nolan, who has worked with his brother Christopher on blockbuster movies such as Interstellar and the Christian Bale-led Batman trilogy, adds: “We do this in part because it’s the kind of show we would like to watch, which is why it’s layered and complex.”
He compares Westworld’s weaving narrative to the film noir structure. “You start at the end and then figure out the way to the beginning. And you have the classic noir protagonist in Bernard [Jeffrey Wright], who has forgotten something important.”
It’s an approach that has at times made it necessary to withhold information from the cast – which includes big-name stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and James Marsden – to “keep the story as fresh and present for them as possible.”
Ahead of season one, even acting royalty like Hopkins, who plays Westworld co-founder and park director Robert Ford, reportedly had to battle to get access to complete scripts. Wood, meanwhile, was largely kept in the dark over revelations about her character Dolores, a host who exhibits different personalities throughout the show.
“We didn’t really tell Evan anything, as we wanted her to be sort of stranded in her character’s situation, guessing what the larger story was,” Nolan says.
For season two, however, the tables were turned, with Wood being given a clearer picture of the overall story while Wright – whose character, Bernard, discovers late in season one that he is not human but a host based on the park’s other co-founder – was tasked with reacting to developments along the way.
“This season we sat down with Evan and laid out the story; for Jeffrey, we explained we weren’t going to tell him anything,” Nolan reveals.
Joy adds: “We’re lucky enough to have this tremendous cast and crew who I think are as invested in protecting the story and their character arcs as we are. So it’s actually not that hard to keep things under wraps, as we have such wonderful collaborators.”
The Wild West-themed park in which much of the action plays out sees Westworld straddle the dual genres of Western and science fiction. And while it might seem a curious combination, it’s not without precedent, following in the footsteps of the short-lived but hugely popular series Firefly as well as movies Back to the Future Part III, Cowboys & Aliens and, of course, the 1973 Westworld film on which the show is based, written and directed by Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton.
“We were fascinated by the idea of this moribund genre,” Nolan says of the Western element. “The most terrifying part of launching the show was that half of it was this dead genre. Even when Crichton wrote the original film, the Western period was on its way out.
“But I think for him and for us it’s a genre that is so consistent; its rules are so simple. There are some phenomenal movies and they all have this underlying structure, which is an investigation of good and evil, free will. It’s a fascinating genre.”
“The idea of good vs evil is really quite binary – the black hat and the white hat – and what we’re trying to do is delve deeper and deeper into character, and eventually you see that everything is shades of grey,” says Joy.
The Western setting also allows for some stunning cinematography. Much of the exterior shots in the show, produced by HBO Entertainment, Kilter Films, JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and Warner Bros Television, are filmed in Utah, making use of awe-inspiring locations such as Castle Valley to illustrate the enormous scale of the Westworld park.
The expansion this season into Shogun World, meanwhile, saw Nolan and Joy draw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, the celebrated Japanese filmmaker known for such titles as Seven Samurai. “We had a lot of conversations about what the look and feel of that should be,” Nolan says. “We were riffing on Kurosawa, so we went back and looked at all of his films to see if there was a signature film stock or a signature aspect ratio, anything we could play with. Kurosawa was restless; he moved back and forth between black and white and colour, he moved back and forth between different aspect ratios.”
This led to increased experimentation in filming methods, with parts of Westworld being shot on anamorphic film. “When you use anamorphic lenses, your bokeh and your focus roll off in a very beautiful way and it just has a totally different, very beautiful texture to it,” Nolan explains.
The showrunner adds that the different techniques are used to suggest to the audience that things aren’t quite what they seem. “By the finale, you realise that that’s our gentle way of putting you in a virtual space,” he notes.
What proved most attractive to Nolan and Joy, however, was the opportunity to explore the themes inherent in a show about androids gaining sentience, particularly free will and the implications of artificial intelligence.
After Abrams had come to them with the idea of remaking Westworld – initially as a film before later suggesting a TV series – Nolan says the pair realised it was “everything we’re interested in and everything we’re talking about right now, in terms of artificial realities and artificial intelligence and consciousness, and human nature, which I’ve always been fascinated by – memory and morality and all this stuff that we’re made of. Looking at it from the perspective of a set of creatures made in our image was just kind of irresistible.
“My point on artificial intelligence is I’m not really sure why anyone would be writing about anything other than artificial intelligence right now. [Star Trek creator] Gene Rodenberry would be very disappointed we’re not already there, but it does feel like we are stumbling into it a bit now. I think we’ve just got a few years left until AI shows up and tells us to stop writing about it!
“We were endlessly interested with exploring what it would be like to have an artificial consciousness – how you would perceive and understand time, how you would perceive memory. From the beginning, we said that this would be a show about the emergence of a new form of life on Earth – and that’s not a short story.”
Westworld, distributed by Warner Bros Television Distribution, also examines free will from the point of view of both the hosts and the humans, with several episode titles referring to philosophical concepts relating to free will, and the question of whether it truly exists for anybody.
Season one finale The Bicameral Mind takes its name from a term coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes, who proffered the idea of two separate minds within every individual – one that gives instructions and another that performs them. Jaynes discussed how consciousness comes from breaking down the wall between the two by exposing the individual to new stimuli.
And tonight’s finale is called The Passenger, alluding to the notion that the conscious mind is just that: a passenger in a vehicle being driven by the subconscious, to which we are all slaves.
Nolan’s position is unequivocal. “As far as we can tell, free will is an illusion,” he says. “If you think about the beginning of The Simpsons, where Maggie has the little fake steering wheel, that’s consciousness. Marge is at the wheel; we don’t get to talk to her. We’re Maggie, looking out the window and imagining we’re making the decisions – and most of the empirical evidence suggests that we aren’t.”
Joy adds: “Humans can be reduced to some rather elementary building blocks. When you start to think about the drives that humans have, sometimes we find that we are maybe simpler than we thought, more manipulable.”
Profound stuff, and viewers can expect more in season three, which received the green light soon after the second run’s premiere. The ending of season two teases the prospect of major changes to come, with the show poised to spend more time outside its amusement parks.
“One of the things we’re excited about is the third season is our world, and we now have the fun-slash-terrifying challenge of building out what the real world looks like,” Nolan says.
Quashing any suggestion that the pair are making it up as they go along, Joy reveals that she has had an ending in mind since day one. “When we were writing the pilot, I pitched a scene to end the entire series on, and so far we have not deviated from liking that scene. As a writer, you never want to tempt a smiting from the TV gods, so I would never venture to guess how many seasons we will live for. But I do think there are tentpole moments we are trying to work towards, and hopefully we will reach our ending in the time we have.”
Screenwriter David Nicholls, director Edward Berger and executive producer Michael Jackson tell DQ about adapting Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
There is no shortage of acclaimed writers willing to endorse Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. The five-book collection – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last – boasts cover quotes from literary figures including Zadie Smith, Alan Hollinghurst, Alice Sebold and Maggie O’Farrell.
Also among them is David Nicholls, the author of novels including One Day and Starter for 10 – and the screenwriter who adapted both for the cinema. “I’ve loved Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Read them all, now,” he says.
Nicholls is likely demanding people watch them, too, now that he has adapted St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books into a five-part limited series for Sky Atlantic in the UK and US premium cable network Showtime.
The sweeping saga follows Melrose from the South of France in the 1960s to 1980s New York and Britain in the early 2000s, while each episode focuses on one of St Aubyn’s five novels, skewering the upper class as it tracks the protagonist’s journey from deeply traumatic childhood to his drug addiction and ultimate recovery.
In an often dazzling and dynamic performance that might surprise those who only know him from Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Melrose, while the sprawling ensemble cast also includes Hugo Weaving, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anna Madeley, Blythe Danner, Allison Williams, Pip Torrens, Jessica Raine, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Holliday Grainger, Indira Varma and Celia Imrie.
The journey to bring Patrick Melrose to the screen began five years ago when executive producers Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz snagged the rights to St Aubyn’s novels. Jackson, a former Channel 4 and BBC executive, describes the books as a “very compelling, human saga” with a “sense of sweep of narrative that appealed from a television perspective.”
There was a fair amount of untangling for Nicholls to do during the writing process, however, as he tackled St Aubyn’s literary prose, the protagonist’s internal thoughts, flashbacks and other structural devices contained within the novels.
“He’s a very skilful adapter and a novelist himself and loved the books, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” Jackson says on bringing Nicholls to the project.
For his part, Nicholls admits he jumbled the source material, most notably by starting the series with the second book, Bad News, in which Melrose embarks on a crazed and drug-riddled visit to New York to collect his father’s ashes. Stories and characters were also transplanted and conflated into different episodes to ensure continuity through the series.
“There was a certain amount of manipulation of the material to give the impression that this was conceived as a saga,” Nicholls says. “The novels weren’t written with the expectation of there being five over 20 years. That came to Edward as he was writing them. So, as you work on them retrospectively, you wonder if we can introduce Mary, his wife, in the third episode so she doesn’t appear out of nowhere in the fourth, and maybe this other character who isn’t in the first episode ought to be.
“There’s a certain amount of retrospective reorganisation and I couldn’t really set about that until I had all five books in my head. Literally for years, I would walk around London listening to the audio books over and over again until I had a map of the whole five volumes and five episodes in my head. That seemed like the only way to do it.”
The original idea had been to create two 90-minute films based on the first two books, and it was quite late into development when the decision was made to adapt all five as individual hour-long episodes. Patrick Melrose is produced by Two Cities Television, SunnyMarch and Little Island Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.
“It was a challenge and quite a puzzle so, in that sense, it was a monster,” Nicholls notes. “It was a much more demanding adaptation than anything I’ve ever done. But after a while, a shape started to appear and a sense that actually it was important to treat the five books as a whole, rather than treat them as five very separate episodes, and to forge links between them rather than separate them out.”
One particular challenge was externalising Melrose’s inner thoughts, of which there are many throughout St Aubyn’s texts. A date from hell between Melrose and Marianne (Williams), in the episode Bad News, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for Marianne in the book, so Nicholls had the “slightly nerve-racking business” of writing it in the voice of the original author.
Each of the five films, as well as being drawn from a different book, also represent Patrick’s state of mind at that particular point in the story, with different settings, visual styles and even camera techniques used to define each individual episode.
“Episode three is an ensemble, epic, huge piece and number four is a much more intense, claustrophobic family drama, and five is a rather melancholic memory piece,” Nicholls explains. “Each one has a completely different quality and, at the same time, you want to feel this is the same character. There’s also a satisfaction in watching not just Patrick but all the other characters change as the years go by.”
Taking charge behind the camera is Edward Berger (Deutschland 83, The Terror), who told exec producers Jackson, Horovitz and Cumberbatch that he had imagined making five different films before he was officially brought on board.
“When I read the scripts, they all felt very different,” he says. “The first one was very subjective and anchored in Patrick’s head, running around New York with him. On set in Glasgow, I was really with Benedict, always behind him with the camera and very much trying to emulate the subjectivity of being this crazy heroin addict in the 80s in New York. Episode two, when I read it, felt, instead of subjective, objective – as if Patrick had stepped back and looked at this psychologically strange arrangement of his family, looking at it from the outside rather than inside, so we just stepped back with the camera. It’s much more static than the first one, much more composed. It’s much more distant, just looking at it as a psychological experiment, almost like a [Michael] Haneke movie.
“The third one is like Patrick has moved on. He’s trying to get sober, he’s trying to get clean. We felt it should still be very subjective but more together, more fluid, so we changed from this very handheld style to a very fluid steadicam, five-minute-take style where we just roam around this party and stay much longer on one shot.
“I thought maybe at the end of the series, it feels like a step towards normalcy in Patrick Melrose’s life, so let’s just try to make it more normal and not so frantic. Every film jumps to a very specific moment in Patrick’s life, so it also needs a very specific language according to that moment.”
Berger joined the production in March 2017 and went straight into meetings with Nicholls to discuss the script before beginning casting alongside Nina Gold. But what excited the director most about the project was the very fact he had no idea how he would do it.
“The potential of failure is always there – you think, ‘I might really fuck this up. This might be really terrible if done badly,’” he says. “I find that interesting, I find that challenging. You have to rise to the occasion and work hard. As soon as you feel you know how to do it and know how it works, I think it’s time to change jobs and do something different, because then it gets quite boring.
“Fantastic characters and great scripts have to be there, of course, and Patrick Melrose is something I wanted to do because the potential to not live up to the books was just immense. My love of the books is so big that I really wanted to see if I could do something that brought back the feeling I had when I first read it.”
Cumberbatch, who also executive produces, shares the creative team’s love of St Aubyn’s books, and Jackson was immediately impressed by the actor’s understanding of the central character. “You could tell right from the very first conversation he would be perfect in the role,” he says. “I don’t think there could have been an actor as good as Benedict in the role. He was perfectly cast.”
The exec highlights Cumberbatch’s subtle ability to move between tragedy and sadness, which he describes as “amazing to behold.”
“We were in awe of it during filming,” he continues. “Just his ability, particularly in the first episode, Bad News, when he’s undergoing the fractured personalities of the heroin addict and speaking in all the different voices. His ability to hold the jigsaw puzzle of the character together is remarkable.”
Berger describes Cumberbatch as “a very intuitive actor” who imagined five or six different versions of a scene and how he might play it. That meant on set, the pair would work through different ways of playing Melrose, before settling on how they wanted to take the character forward. “He likes to experiment a lot, play a lot, and my task is almost to help find that voice and give him the platform to try out what he wants to do and then talk to him about it,” the director says. “It’s not like Benedict comes on set, does three takes and says, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ No, he can do 12 different versions, and trying to find the right one is not easy for me or for him. So finding it together is the most important thing you can do.”
Nicholls echoes Jackson’s comments of their leading man: “It’s really committed performance. That was the thing that struck me, because he really went for it and did all the research. He was respectful of the scripts but drew on the books and was also very attentive to every single detail. He’s not in the second episode very much, but in the rest of the show he’s barely off screen. It was absolutely exhausting but he was entirely committed to it throughout. The whole range of his performance is really stunning.”
Cumberbatch lifts the sharp humour and satire in Nicholls’ scripts off the page while also portraying an emotionally fragile man who is trying to shed the spite and anger he has carried from childhood.
“What’s fascinating to me is the scripts are very faithful [to St Aubyn’s story] but when you put humans on screen and actors put a face or expression to a line of dialogue, they can’t help but make it more emotional,” Nicholls concludes. “That’s what’s been striking for me. The drama on screen is quite moving; it is harrowing in places; but it’s also tackling and emotional. So I’m pleased with it. We’ve brought out that quality without sentimentalising it.”
Lennie James, an actor best known for roles in Line of Duty and The Walking Dead, is also the creator of the latest show in which he stars, Sky Atlantic original drama Save Me. In the six-part thriller, he plays Nelly Rowe, a charmer and a chancer living on a south London council estate.
When Nelly is accused of kidnapping the estranged daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years, he sets out to find her, saving lives, making enemies and risking his life along the way.
In this DQTV interview, series director Nick Murphy and executive producers Jessica Sykes and Simon Heath reveal how James was wooed by Sky to write the series and how the production was slowly built around his atmospheric scripts.
Murphy also talks about how the key to the show was that everyone involved knew exactly what they were making – something he says is both rare and important.
Save Me is produced by World Productions for Sky Atlantic and distributed by Sky Vision.
Lennie James wrote and stars in Sky Atlantic drama Save Me, about a father’s hunt for his missing daughter. DQ joins him on the set to hear why one of its stars is also its setting – a pub.
They don’t make boozers like this anymore. The Palm Tree in the heart of an east London estate is a classic, old-fashioned pub. The regulars, for all we know, may well have been sitting on the same bar-stool for several years without moving.
The Palm Tree also features a karaoke booth that has very much seen better days, gravy-coloured wallpaper that appears to predate the invention of beer itself and fairy lights desperately clinging to the walls. These decorations are for life, not just for Christmas. “Gentrification” is not a word in this pub’s vocabulary.
For all that, The Palm Tree makes an excellent precinct for Save Me, an absorbing new drama that starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic on February 28. Outside of the soaps, this is not a setting we have witnessed very often before on mainstream British TV.
In this new six-part series written by and starring Lennie James, this is the court where the drama’s central character, Nelson “Nelly” Rowe (played by James), holds sway. Nelly is in the Palm Tree every night regaling his fellow punters with colourful tales of his previous night’s exploits. It may have been amusing 20 years ago, but now that Nelly is pushing 50, it’s bordering on sad. At his age, this is a man who really should know better.
Living hand-to-mouth from a series of cash-in-hand jobs, Nelly never stays long in one place, moving in with whichever woman is foolish enough to tolerate him that week.
Chatting to DQ between scenes, James makes for magnetic company. It is easy to grasp why the actor, who was raised in Tooting, south London, has proven such a mesmerising presence in everything from Line of Duty to The Walking Dead.
“I wanted to write a thriller in a place I really knew well,” says James, when asked why he chose this unlikely pub as the principle locus of his drama. With a winning grin, he adds: “Basically, I didn’t want to do hours of research.”
Researched or not, the Palm Tree is the ideal arena in which the drama can unfold. Random people flit in and out of it, but whatever else is going on, you can guarantee that Nelly will always be there, centre stage, playing to an adoring audience (including characters played by Stephen Graham, Susan Lynch and Kerry Godliman).
James reflects: “The pub is a very important part of the story because you go there both to drown your sorrows and to celebrate. Both things can happen at the same time and over the same pint.”
Crucially, the Palm Tree and its motley crew of regulars also smack of authenticity. James observes: “In any pub, there’ll always be a Nelly. People like that do exist. All the core characters in Save Me are based on real people. They’re not 100% depictions, but they’re versions of people I’ve come across.”
Lynch, who plays barmaid Stace, confirms that when she served in bars to make ends meet early on in her career, she came across many Nellys. “I worked in nearly every pub on the Finchley Road when I was at drama school. Many were just like the Palm Tree. You always had your regulars. You would start your shift by saying, ‘Really, Tommy, I’m sorry to hear she’s not very well.’ By the end of the shift, you’d be thinking, ‘I can’t engage with Tommy tomorrow or else I’m never going to get my glasses washed and get home.’”
The actor, who was also had leading roles in From Hell, Waking Ned and Enduring Love, continues: “A pub is a very good setting for a drama as all the stories can cross over there. All the stories start to merge in The Palm Tree, and by the end, there is a huge collision.”
Nelly’s bibulous ‘we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?’ approach to life is rudely interrupted one morning when the police burst in and arrest him on suspicion of kidnapping Jody, the 13-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.
After Nelly had a brief, summer fling with Claire (played by Suranne Jones) more than a decade ago, Jody was born. But when she reached the age of three, Claire decided to move away from their London estate to a bling mansion in the suburbs to start afresh with her flashy record producer husband. That was the last time Nelly saw Jody. Determined to prove his innocence, Nelly discovers hidden depths within himself. But will it be enough to save him?
It is the very fact that Nelly is so singularly ill-equipped to take on the task of establishing his own innocence that makes Save Me so compelling.
James, who has also starred in Jericho, Critical, Low Winter Sun and Snatch, muses: “This is a thriller, just set in place where no one sets a thriller. And the hero of the piece is completely unqualified to be a hero.
“But in attempting to prove his innocence, Nelly finds some sort of redemption. This is a story about the cost of redemption and what it does to him, his ex-lover, his friends and his community.”
For all that, Save Me is very far from an irredeemably grim ‘woe is me’ drama. It is replete with vibrancy, vim and vigour. Jones, who drew widespread acclaim as the titular character in Doctor Foster, comments: “People love dark stories because they take you to a place you think you don’t want to go, but really you do.
“Having said that, the reason Save Me is so different is because it’s also so full of the humour and the history of these people. It portrays a community you’ve never seen before. It’s so warm.”
The estate depicted in Save Me undoubtedly overturns our expectations. Jones continues: “This world is sometimes painted as depressing. But this is very different. When you watch Save Me, you want to be there. Even if you haven’t grown up on an estate like this, you want to go to that pub and meet these people.”
Writing and starring in Save Me required a lot of effort from James. But it has all been worth it. Made by World Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, this is a riveting drama about a man desperately attempting to rescue himself from a life of self-medication, muddling-through and mediocrity.
James declares: “I’m proud that I’m the first person to get a thriller set on a south-east London estate made. I don’t know if it will spawn a new genre, though.”
Perhaps the best part of Save Me, though, is that its producers evaded the easy option. They avoided the temptation to turn out another Richard Curtis-lite version of London. This is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the capital city most people know. It is not prettified and full of red post boxes and red telephone booths, but red in tooth and claw.
Save Me shows us a London we will never glimpse in a tourist brochure. Simon Heath, head of drama at World Productions and executive producer on this series, concludes: “This is a world we don’t see on our TV screens outside EastEnders, but that’s a very different genre. To set a drama in south-east London feels fresh and surprising. We’ll see a different side to London in Save Me.
“It’s not the London of Notting Hill and red buses and black cabs.”
Hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Davina Lamont discusses her work on epic Sky and Amazon historical drama Britannia, in which a Roman army faces up to Druids and Celts in 43AD.
When Davina Lamont received a last-minute call asking her if she wanted to come and work on a “nice little Roman job,” there’s little chance she realised the scale of what was to come.
In fact, the hair, make-up and prosthetics designer could not have joined a more ambitious and visually striking series than Britannia, the Roman Empire-set drama coming to Sky Atlantic and Amazon.
But having worked on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and series such as Sons of Liberty, Legends and two seasons of National Geographic’s Genius, she had the experience needed to bring to life the three vastly different tribes that feature in the story.
“They told me for Genius season one that they had this little project and it’s going to be a nice little script – and then it turned into a monster,” Lamont recalls. “Britannia was the same. I got called in at the last minute and was told, ‘It’ll be really cool.’ Then it just went crazy. But I’m happy for those jobs.
“Producers are starting to like the fact they have one designer who does all three, instead of splitting up the team and having a hair designer, prosthetic designer and make-up designer. They like the fact, budget-wise, they pay one person to do all three, and I enjoy it too. I love the fact I can go from one job to the next and it’s really different – and creatively different. I do prefer to take on those sorts of jobs – the big and difficult ones.”
In television, they don’t come much bigger than Britannia, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as it sets out to crush the Celtic heart of the mysterious titular land, one led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
The nine-part historical drama stars Kelly Reilly as fearless Celtic princess Kerra, David Morrissey as Aulus, the head of the invading Roman army, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as rogue Druid Divis and Zoë Wanamaker as Celtic queen Antedia.
All episodes of the series, produced by Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, are available to view from Thursday on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.
With just five weeks of pre-production to put her ideas together, Lamont worked with costume designer Ann Maskrey and production designer Tom Burton to create this unknown world and decide how they would represent the different tribes.
“Then from that point, we all went into this exploratory period,” Lamont says. “Five weeks was all we had to put it together. It was tough to try to figure out what the Druids were going to look like. I know they wanted a lot of tattoos and wanted some Vikings-cum-Game of Thrones elements involved. We just had to work it out and work out how it transcends into each and every tribe.”
That exploration process included plenty of trial and error. Lamont says she even questioned whether they should be putting tattoos on the Celtic king (Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid, as Pellenor) and queen.
“It looked ridiculous,” she jokes. “There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, this is my last job.’ But then you put everybody else into the same world on the same set and you go, ‘Actually it looks phenomenal.’ It was scary to start with, especially with Veran.”
Veran is the leader of the Druids, a character feared and respected in equal measure and who claims to speak directly from the Gods. Portraying him on screen is Mackenzie Crook, known for turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and TV series such as The Office and Detectorists. In Britannia, however, the star is unrecognisable, sporting a shaved head and several layers of prosthetics and make-up that give him a skeletal appearance, with dark sunken eyes and numerous facial tattoos and scars.
“Basically I woke up one morning and wanted to change him completely,” Lamont says of creating Crook’s appearance. “That’s how he came about. I designed the look and then I sent it off to the producers and told them to sit down because this was what I wanted to do with him. But they loved it and said go for it.
“When I rang up Mackenzie for the first time and we chatted over the phone, he said it was brilliant and was exactly what he wanted to have. So it was great, it worked out perfectly. He was brilliant, and then I said I had to shave his head – he was all for it.”
At that point, however, the scripts were still being pulled together by lead writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and Richard McBrien so it was unclear how many days Crook would be required to get into costume. But thanks to Crook’s startling look and impressive performances, his screen time grew and grew.
“I don’t remember how many prosthetics we did on him in the end, it was massive,” Lamont says. “We made it to three to three-and-a-half hours for him [to get ready]. It’s a long time.”
Crook also came in with his own ideas for Veran’s image, in particular the little round hooks we see on the end of his finger nails.
“On the very first day we did his make-up, he came in with these hooks and started drilling into his nails,” Lamont remembers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you – I really want to do this.’ He drilled into his own nails with a drill and put these rings on. It was brilliant. So he’s fantastic to work with, he’s down for anything. He’s a brilliant actor.”
Speaking about his transformation, Crook says: “I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on, we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three-and-a-half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the make-up team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.”
Another actor who spent plenty of time in make-up was Gershwyn Eustache Jr, who plays Vitus. Also a Druid and part of Veran’s gang, he needed to have a similar look, calling for more tattoos and scarification on his face. Lamont continues: “We also had Divis (Lie Kaas). We really didn’t know what we were going to do with him. At one point he was also going to have a shaved head, and then the producers really loved the fact we etched runes into his forehead and made them like scarification. Everybody had tattoos, prosthetics, contact lenses, big battle wounds. Every single character had something.”
With the amount of money washing through television drama these days, you might expect the design teams get to play with a bigger budget, especially on a show such as Britannia. Yet Lamont says the figures she has worked with over the last few years haven’t seen the same upward trend as overall series budgets.
“They like to start off by giving me a budget that’s really small,” she explains. “But then the scripts don’t portray the budget I have. Nearly every job over the last 10 years, especially in TV now, I get a budget and it’s nowhere near close enough to what [we need for what] we have to do. My budgets do end up getting a lot bigger. Especially on Britannia, the scripts were still being developed as we were going along so we really didn’t know what would come up in the mix or all the new characters coming through. It was a big guessing game.
“When you don’t know what’s coming up, it gets really expensive because you have to have a number of wigs on hire or made and prosthetics that have to come with it. That’s what happened with Veran’s lot. We didn’t know there were going to be three other actors involved so they became big elements for us. It’s definitely changed from what TV used to be, even 10 years ago, when you could pretty much picture the budget. Now we’re basically doing five feature films in one TV show.”
Unsurprisingly, bigger budgets are demanded by dramas at the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed real-world stories on which Lamont has worked on like Top of the Lake. The designer admits she doesn’t know why she continues to be drawn back to genre shows, but says part of the fun is getting to create new worlds for each job.
“I feel like I’m probably meant to be in the fantasy world but I love the fact I can go from a job like Britannia and then go and do a job like Genius,” she adds. “They’re hugely different. With Genius, I have to make people look like they were from the 1900s, like Picasso [season two] and Einstein [season one] – actual people from the past. I love recreating people in that way. I’ve never really been into fantasy but I always get pushed into that genre, so I’ll run with it for now.”
Ahead of the launch of Anglo-French drama The Tunnel’s third and final season next week, DQ visits the set to find stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in an optimistic mood and a new lead writer taking the show back to its roots.
The Tunnel has never been a series to take the easy path. Its Anglo-French take on the beloved Scandinavian culture-clash police drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) risked charges of mere imitation, while filming in the Channel Tunnel represented a logistical high-wire act.
Most recently, external factors – Brexit, the withdrawal of original coproducer Canal+ and showrunner Ben Richards standing down – have combined to make the third and final season, subtitled Vengeance, another tricky proposition.
Yet when DQ meets cast and crew in a terraced house above Dover train station on a baking hot May day, optimism abounds. Much has changed for the leading pair of coppers, Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann, in the eight months since they brought down a ring of international terrorists. The perpetually careworn Karl (Stephen Dillane) is in an uncharacteristically happy place, reconciled with wife and family.
“Part of the difficulty of the second season,” recalls Dillane, reclining in the front garden in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, “was that this awful thing had happened [the murder of Karl’s teenage son], but it was important not to become morose or depressed. That was hard to pull off. You could decide this man was utterly floored by his son’s death, which would be a reasonable character choice, but here, he’s not. We’ve had to move things on now, and he’s in good shape: still a detective, happy enough with work. Family life has changed, but he seems alright.”
Similarly, Elise was left in disarray, betrayed by her lover and almost blinded by a pathogen that was injected into her eye. “I was up for having a scar,” laughs Clémence Poésy in the back garden, wearing Elise’s de facto uniform of shapeless jumper and black skinny jeans, “but she’s made a full recovery.”
Physically, if not psychologically? “Yeah, she starts Vengeance in denial. She’s made lots of very rational changes to put the events of the last series behind her, but something’s not quite right: she grinds her teeth a lot and breaks a tooth in her sleep. If it seems to be under control, it probably isn’t, and Karl coming back breaks that cycle.
“Season one felt like Elise opening up to someone then trying to protect that person, season two was the opposite, with Karl seeing her vulnerable and trying to protect her. Season three has them both going through a lot without sharing everything. Karl is worried about Elise and Elise is unsettled by decisions Karl is making.”
With former showrunner Richards stepping aside to work on the BBC’s adaptations of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, Emilia Di Girolamo, lead writer on Law and Order: UK, came on board. “Ben looked at complex geopolitics with [second season] Sabotage,” she says. “It would have been easier to go bigger and more epic, but I wanted to take it back to its roots and have an intensely personal, emotional story. I worked in prisons for eight years and have a PhD in offender rehabilitation, so it mattered to me that the killers’ motives are rooted in their experience. In this case, that’s trauma and loss. I get excited by how horrifying human nature can be when a person has been so damaged that they have nothing left to lose.”
The Tunnel’s final season, which begins on Sky Atlantic on December 14, revolves around crimes fuelled by the refugee crisis. “We were writing as the refugee camps in Calais were being dismantled,” says Di Girolamo. “I remembered reading these articles about 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were missing in Europe. As a writer and a parent, I couldn’t ignore this startling statistic, so I asked the question behind the story: how can one child’s life be worth more than another’s?”
And then there is the spectre of Brexit hanging over a show that pivots on the fragility of cross-Channel relations. “Nobody in the writers room really believed it would happen,” recalls Di Girolamo of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “But while we’ve got a few Brexit gags and have ramped up the unease between our French and British characters, we wanted to focus on the case and the characters. It wouldn’t have massively affected the drama if we’d voted Remain.”
The Tunnel itself experienced something of a ‘Frexit’ with the withdrawal of coproducer Canal+ (which, it is anticipated, will be airing the series in France as an acquisition), yet this decision was, in reality, neither a huge surprise nor unduly problematic, says executive producer Karen Wilson.
“Sky were clear they wanted a final season, whereas it was a big thing for Canal+ to even come back for a second. Their involvement would have been a bonus rather than something we were anticipating, because historically they haven’t done returning series. They also have a different way of working: they expect to have all their shooting scripts before going into production, but no one in Britain works like that. The European aesthetic and English-French coproduction are what have made this show unique, so rather than running away from it, we decided to embrace the challenges and the differences. We’d reached an entente cordiale by the end of season one!”
In some ways, it was even a positive development. “It’s a lot simpler working for one broadcaster than two,” says fellow exec producer Manda Levin. “We had a story meeting where all the British people were thinking the audience would never forgive Karl for his fling, but the French people didn’t get that at all – he’s just shagged a really sexy woman! We came at stories really differently, but we do miss their robust script notes that pushed and challenged us. They forced us to involve the French perspective even when that was difficult from the start, and that’s what made the show feel a bit different and made us work in a different way. By season three, we knew how to do that, so I hope Vengeance won’t feel any less French.”
Logistics were easier this season, with French sequences shot in one six-week block, sandwiched between English shoots of similar lengths. The active participation of [Channel Tunnel operator] Eurotunnel further smoothed things, and also of course afforded enormous creative opportunities. The Tunnel remains the only TV series to shoot inside the Channel Tunnel itself, although documentaries and commercials have been given access on occasion. Producer Toby Welch has nothing but praise for the Eurotunnel team, especially in meeting some of the final season’s more challenging briefs, which included rats swarming over one character.
“We can’t compromise their security or disrupt their business, so the challenges they faced to make it work for us were huge. While we did use some CGI, a member of our art department still had to count in and count out 200 dead rats meticulously while a member of Eurotunnel oversaw it. There was as much attention paid to the number of dead rats going in and out of the tunnel as there was to crew members [three Eurotunnel staff were required to be in attendance for every member of The Tunnel’s cast and crew], and rightly so! We also had access to some phenomenal properties outside the tunnel: at the beginning of season three, [Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs] John Keefe took us on a tour of cool things that hadn’t been in the show yet, so Samphire Hoe in Kent features prominently in the final season.”
Perhaps appropriately, having invoked a plague of rats, the biggest challenges were presented by some pretty Biblical weather on Samphire Hoe itself, a nature reserve created from almost five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated during the tunnel’s construction.
“Samphire Hoe is quite exposed to the elements,” Wilson explains, “so prior to filming a big sequence there, the production team looked at the weather for the last eight years and identified the week that has always had kind weather. Inevitably, it was awful! They closed the road from Dover and some people couldn’t even get to the location. We lost a day but it all came together in the end.”
Many of the off-camera team members from previous seasons have returned, among them director Gilles Bannier, a veteran of French crime thriller Spiral, who filmed the second half of the season; the first three episodes were helmed by Taboo and Jordskott director Anders Engstrom. The show gave Bannier the platform to realise his ambition of working in British television – he has since directed both Tin Star and In the Dark – and it remains a unique proposition on his CV.
“My trademark style is based on documentaries, where I began my career – I used to be very handheld. I wanted to keep [The Tunnel] simple, to look after the beauty and cinematic side of it and to make sure the police work felt real, but also to hold the characters at the centre and foster the dark, baroque feeling that is part of The Tunnel. It’s totally different to all the crime shows I’ve done. In France, the idea of the auteur is still very strong, while on UK television the writer is the most important. For The Tunnel, it was a true collaboration between the writers, directors, producers and execs, which I loved.”
In the absence of Canal+, Bannier and French adapter Eric Forestier (who also directed Poésy in 2008 feature La Troisième Partie du Monde) helped ensure the accuracy of the French aspects. “We would ask whether we’ve done the equivalent of getting a 19-year-old into Wetherspoons and asking for a cherry brandy,” laughs Welch. “They told us what smelled French, even down to the names of characters.”
This final season, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, will be leaner than ever, running for just six episodes – a decision, the team insists, that was driven by creative rather than financial reasons. “With six episodes, there’s something exciting about being so near the end, even at the start,” says Welch. “It’s nice to have a new format, because there’s no point in repeating ourselves, and there’s something very satisfying about having a trilogy.”
And a trilogy it will remain, Levin confirms. “Knowing we won’t see Stephen and Clémence on screen together again makes me sad, but we do them justice. We started The Tunnel with a man losing his son. Emilia loves writing about parents, children, love and loss, so there was a real circularity to the series. Going out on a high is the way to go.”
For Wilson, the series’ legacy is significant. “I started at the BBC and every story we developed had to be completely British. The idea of subtitles on BBC1 was anathema, and the world has evolved so much since then – in terms of stories we can tell, there are no holds barred.”
Britannia, Sky Atlantic’s epic Romans-in-Britain drama, debuts early next year. Ahead of the show’s world premiere at Mipcom this week, DQ talks to Sky drama chiefs Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.
After the success of Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful and sister channel Sky1’s Jamestown, period drama appears to be working well for Sky drama commissioners Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach.
It’s been 10 years since HBO’s classic Rome (and four since Starz’s Spartacus), but the satcaster looks to be taking advantage of a renewed interest in classical history on TV, with Britannia set to debut in January 2018.
Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter was, of course, responsible for overseeing Rome for HBO and the BBC alongside Anne Thomopoulos
And while it isn’t set in the same era, BBC1’s upcoming £8.5m (US$11.3m)-per-episode show Troy: Fall of a City certainly shares some of the appeal of these ‘sword & sandal’ drama series.
The success of Game of Thrones, with its dynastic bloodletting, treachery, hedonism and epic battles, has probably helped spark an increase in curiosity about Ancient Rome, while HBO’s 2005-07 series was felt by industry insiders to have been something of a dry run for Thrones itself, brought to grief by budgetary issues.
Rome stars James Purefoy (Mark Antony) and Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus) went on the record saying they wouldn’t join former colleagues Ciaran Hinds, Indira Varma or Tobias Menzies in the hit series because they thought Rome was cancelled to set up Game of Thrones’ success.
More recently, two cinema releases used the Roman occupation of Britain south of the Antonine Wall and the disappearance of the Ninth Legion as subject matter – 2010’s Centurion (directed by regular Thrones helmer Neil Marshall), which coincidentally starred Britannia’s David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) as a veteran legionary, and the following year’s The Eagle with a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.
Britannia scribe Jez Butterworth has also previously tried his hand at the Roman era, co-writing 2007’s The Last Legion with his brother Tom. The film was set in the dying days of the Western Empire and starred Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley and Rome’s Kevin McKidd.
The movie also featured no fewer than five prominent Thrones castmembers – Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont), Owen Teale (Alliser Thorne), Robert Pugh (Craster), James Cosmo (Joer Mormont) and Alexander Siddig (the gout-ridden Prince Doran Martell).
For Britannia, Butterworth has once again partnered with his brother Tom and James Richardson to create a story set in AD43 that follows the Roman army as it returns to conquer the land held by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
Kelly Reilly (True Detective) plays Kerra, daughter of the King of the Cantii, who is forced to put her differences with arch-rival Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) aside to face their invaders. The Romans, led by General Aulus Plautius (Morrissey), are determined to succeed where Julius Caesar failed and conquer this mythical land at the far edge of the Roman Empire.
As tribes and Druids, led by Mackenzie Crook’s Veran, unite to fight the Romans, Kerra is thrust into the most important role of her life as she spearheads the resistance against the might of the Roman army.
The show is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in Ireland, Germany and Italy, while Amazon Prime holds the US rights.
Asked if there were any particular influences that led to the commissioning of Britannia, Roach says: “The fact that period drama in the shape of Penny Dreadful worked for Sky Atlantic led us to look at something similarly experiential, with Britannia offering a truly original experience – one that doesn’t ape other shows.”
Mensah is also keen to emphasise the “visceral” nature of Britannia: “It combines epic scale with a human, personal level – some of the communal pagan rites that the Britons and Druids go through bear comparison to modern-day festivals such as Burning Man.”
Mensah is confident the show’s presumably hefty budget will all be up on the screen for viewers to see. With more than 200 people working on the production and reconstructions of Stonehenge and the Celtic underworld (which included animating hundreds of life-size skeletons and disembodied skulls), Britannia doesn’t aim to stint on arresting visuals.
Flashes of unexpected Burning Man-type modernity will apparently not be reflected in the show’s dialogue, which Mensah and Roach assure will stay true to Butterworth’s “unique voice,” rather than attempt a cod-Classical or a slangy contemporary style.
Although Butterworth did not consciously base Britannia on any specific contemporary account of the Roman invasion of Britain (the third after Julius Caesar’s two abortive attempts a century earlier), he did consult with historian Jonathan Stamp – a BBC History producer and a consultant for HBO’s Rome – to ensure the look and veracity of the series was generally accurate.
In terms of casting, Mensah and Roach stress how happy they to secure such familiar and audience-friendly names as Morrissey, Reilly, Wanamaker, Crook (The Office), Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing), with fresh faces including The Enfield Haunting’s breakout star Eleanor Worthington Cox.
Crook previously co-starred with Mark Rylance in Butterworth’s hit stage play Jerusalem.
The visual style of Britannia is also going to be a change from some of the bleakness and windswept vistas seen in similar genre pieces such as the aforementioned Centurion, with Roach promising “a look to the show that really hasn’t been seen before, with lush primary colours and a vibrancy not usually associated with period drama.”
Both Roach and Mensah stress that amid the carnage of the invasion, Britannia will not be without humour, and that the Romans, although understandably the antagonists in the series, will possess shades of grey, as will the native Britons and the Druids.
“Complex characters and believable motivations” are key, according to Mensah, hence Britannia’s presence on Sky Atlantic – which, according to Sky Entertainment director of programmes Zai Bennett, is primarily the home of “heavily serialised, smart, grown-up storytelling,” in contrast to Sky1, where series such as Stan Lee’s Lucky Man have “really clear heroes and villains.”
And while Mensah and Roach are wary of comparisons with Game of Thrones, they are upbeat on the prospect of Britannia extending beyond season one, with story arcs mapped out at least to a possible third season.
In Mensah’s words: “The ambition is to be big.”
With speculation rife that Thrones’ eighth and final season will not appear until 2019 and the attendant spin-offs in the following years, Britannia may have the potential to provide Sky with a homegrown show appealing to a similar audience, which could score a swift season two pick-up (as have Tin Star for Sky Atlantic and Jamestown for Sky1), echoing the success of Vikings for History.
Twists and turns abound in Tin Star, Sky Atlantic’s Rocky Mountains-set drama that sees Tim Roth play a small-town police chief attempting to escape his demons. DQ hears from the star and writer/director Rowan Joffé about pushing the limits in this 10-part series.
Tim Roth isn’t exactly known for playing the quiet type.
Perhaps most famous for appearing in several Quentin Tarantino movies – including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight – the actor has a knack for portraying menacing characters with a simmering intensity, with other memorable villainous turns in 2001’s Planet of the Apes and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
So when the early stages of Tin Star, his new series for Sky Atlantic, see Roth as a level-headed family man and police chief in the peaceful surroundings of rural Canada, it’s safe for viewers to assume that things are going to go south – and fast.
The 10-part drama, which launches in the UK on September 7, stars Roth as former London copper Jim Worth, who has upped sticks along with his family to escape a troubled past by beginning a new life in the Rocky Mountains.
All seems to be going swimmingly at first, with the new police chief – a former alcoholic – spending more time catching fish than criminals in the sleepy fictional town of Little Big Bear. But things soon take a dark twist as the arrival of a shady oil company coincides with a past that refuses to fade away, and an attack on his family turns Jim into a one-man wrecking ball on a quest for revenge.
Coproduced by Endemol Shine-owned firm Kudos Film and Television alongside Amazon Prime Video in the US, Tin Star is distributed by Sky Vision.
The show marks Roth’s first lead TV role since his only other major venture into the medium, Lie to Me, came to an end in 2011 after three seasons on US network Fox.
However, the actor reveals the decision to return to the small screen was not premeditated. “I wasn’t looking for a TV show,” he explains. “I put my feet up in the kitchen and I read a couple of [Tin Star] scripts, and I thought they were bonkers.
“That immediately gets my attention, and then the next question is, ‘Where the fuck does this go?’ And then I found out, and it’s interesting. So I thought, ‘I fancy this.’ Then you call [the producers] and tell them that, and they pay you shit-loads of money!” he jokes.
Roth says he was captivated by the “very, very anarchic story,” adding: “The minute I thought I knew what was going on, it was something different – we always got it wrong.”
Filmed on location in and around Calgary, Alberta, Tin Star makes full use of the region’s natural beauty, with sweeping shots of mountain ranges and rivers providing stark contrast to the ugliness that unfolds between the characters on screen.
Yet while one might think filming in such a place sounds like an actor’s dream, Roth offers a different view. “Having worked in Calgary, I have to say I wasn’t keen to go back,” he admits. “It’s nothing against Canada, but you’re talking about ‘Trumpland’ in Canada. It’s all flourishing – the oil and the corporations, the invasions of the local culture. It’s just there.”
It’s a view echoed by Rowan Joffé, who wrote and directed every episode of the series. “Canada looks like this wonderful, impeccable, clean place – and it is, until you look at what they’re doing with the tar sands out there,” he says, referencing the controversial oil extraction that has been gathering pace in the country. “It’s pretty horrific in many ways.”
Best known for writing 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later and for penning and directing 2014 feature Before I Go to Sleep, Joffé became the latest in an growing band of contemporary movie directors to try their hand at TV drama when he signed up for Tin Star, his first major TV project.
The chance to take charge of what he describes as a “10-hour movie” proved irresistible to Joffé, who says: “Sky were always true to their word, which was, ‘You can author the show.’ And so we just ran with it.
“We thought there was absolutely no point in doing this unless we felt like we were taking risks. The opportunity to write what I wanted to write and to be able to collaborate with actors who I really admire, and for no one to tell me no at any point… It’s just been amazing.”
Joffé’s affinity for his cast – which also includes Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as oil rep Elizabeth Bradshaw and Genevieve O’Reilly as Jim’s wife Angela – is clear, with the director revealing that they played an important role in shaping the plot.
“The story began to change and morph around the actors,” he says. “Without doubt, many of the best moments on screen – particularly in Tim’s case – were ad-libbed. Tim brought a level of wit and comedy to it that was way beyond my ability as a screenwriter.”
Joffé was “free with us and let us be free at the same time,” adds Roth, who particularly relished the chance to really get under the skin of a character across 10 hours.
He describes the experience as “much more satisfying” than working on network television’s standalone episodes – such as in Lie to Me – which he calls a “much harder job.”
“Theatre is where actors really exist, as opposed to film, which is the director’s world. But [television now] is very similar to the stage experience, especially now that there are so many good writers and so much rich talent involved.
“For us as actors, it’s incredible. We get to play more with television now – to invent, change, metamorphose, have fun and be challenged.”
Playing Jim was made more difficult by the increasing presence throughout the series of his dangerous alter ego, Jack, who Jim has learnt to keep at bay – as long as he remains sober.
Indeed, as the show progresses, Jack increasingly comes to the fore, simultaneously ratcheting up the violence and taking the show to “dark, shocking places,” according to Joffé.
“We went far; I wouldn’t have wanted to do it if we didn’t. It was just anarchy on the page,” says Roth, who credits Joffé for creating a character that tests audience sympathies.
“We take you to a very dark place, but the audience is supposed to be my ‘mate’ – they’re part of the fun too. On the one hand you enjoy the journey with this guy, and on the other you hate him.”
As for the suggestion of a second season, it seems Roth would jump at the chance. “In a hypothetical world, if we got to do another 10-hour movie, I’d be happy with that. I’d like to chip back at and fuck with this character again.”
A dark underbelly beneath the glamour of the South of France is revealed in Sky Atlantic drama Riviera. Julia Stiles plays art curator Georgina Clios, whose billionaire husband Constantine is killed in a yacht explosion.
The strange circumstances surrounding her husband’s death lead Georgina to uncover the truth about him and the world he inhabited, while uniting uncomfortably in grief with Constantine’s ex-wife Irina (Lena Olin).
Stiles and Olin tell DQ about the series and discuss the empowerment that comes with playing the same character across 10 hours of television drama.
Meanwhile, coproducer Paul McGuinness, the former manager of Irish rock band U2, reveals how he worked with writer Neil Jordan to bring to life his idea of a television series set among the wealthy elite who inhabit the French Riviera.
Riviera is produced by Archery Pictures and Primo Productions and distributed by Sky Vision.
Casting director Shaheen Baig and executive producer Katie Swinden tell DQ about tapping a host of British stars to appear in Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part study of race relations in 1970s London.
It was before 12 Years a Slave, the film that earned him a screenwriting Oscar, that John Ridley began to sow the seeds of a story that would become Guerrilla – an examination of race relations in 1970s London.
Ridley had met Patrick Spence, MD of producer Fifty Fathoms, while he was in the UK capital editing Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) and as they talked, Ridley’s story about the black movement was transplanted from the US to the UK.
Researchers uncovered information about the Black Power Desk inside the Metropolitan Police in the 70s and suddenly Ridley had something to build a story around. Then the project took a backseat, as Ridley won his Academy Award and partnered with ABC Studios to produce the acclaimed American Crime for ABC.
Such was Ridley’s limited availability that it was five years after those first discussions that Guerrilla finally came to air on Sky Atlantic and Showtime this April. The show was produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.
“First and foremost, it was the story we fell for – a love story set during a time of revolution and in a time in the 1970s when you had hope. As a young person, you felt like you could effect change,” says Katie Swinden, executive producer and co-MD of Fifty Fathoms. “That was very seductive to us, just in terms of storytelling. But Patrick and I are both Londoners born and bred and I didn’t know anything about this. So it was slightly shaming, and it’s a part of history we should talk about.”
Guerrilla is described as a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. The plot sees Jas (played by Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) finding their relationship and values put to the test after they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counterintelligence unit within the Met’s Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.
The cast also includes Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the police officers assigned to the desk, plus Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.
With Ridley attached to write and direct most episodes, it was unsurprising that the series was able to attract a starry array of British talent.
But how did casting director Shaheen Baig, who had worked with Swinden previously on Marvellous and Peaky Blinders, begin to piece together the cast that would lead this emotion-packed drama?
“It’s always about script, the people involved, the director and the producers,” she explains. “It has to be. You start with the script first and see the people who are already involved. Early on, we all had a strong sense of what the show wanted to be, and everyone was on the same page about that. The scripts were really vivid, and the more vivid the script, the more detailed the characters and the easier my job is. If each character is really well drawn, it points me in the right direction.”
Baig began with the main ensemble of characters and worked from there, breaking down the characters, discussing ideas and auditioning several actors for those central roles.
“We saw a lot of actors for Marcus and Jas,” she recalls. “There were lots of different ways you could have played the couple. Then we just started to pick the strongest reads and what felt natural. There was something really exciting about Babou and Freida. Babou is such a quiet, detailed actor and there’s something about watching an actor like that. Maybe he’s a new face for many people who will develop and grow over the series, and I thought that was really exciting.”
“Pretty much across the board, John wanted actors, even if they were supporting roles – so we were asked to cast ‘Man in stairwell,’” she continues. “It’s about casting interesting characters because when you watch it, you can see these moments where it lands because the actor was really vivid. There were a lot of really tiny moments where he wanted actors.”
One actor already heavily involved behind the scenes was Luther star Idris Elba, who was an executive producer on Guerrilla through his company Green Door Pictures. It wasn’t until much later, however, that he took his involvement in front of the camera as well.
“As John was an American writing a British story, we all felt we needed a producer who could make sure it felt authentic and truthful, and Idris was absolutely the right fit,” Swinden says. “We sat down and talked it through, he met with John, so he came on as an exec producer. But then, of course, it’s hard not to go, ‘Is there a role for him?’
“He and John found a role that inspired both of them. That’s how the casting came about, but we had a really tiny window between a couple of movies where [Elba] could come back over [to the UK], and we worked him into the ground for seven days! Nobody ever wanted to cast him as the lead. It always felt like the story was about two young people concentrating on their relationship and what they stand for in the world. As much as we love Idris, casting from the beginning wasn’t towards him and we would have had to twist the show quite substantially to make it one he could have been a lead in.”
Once the majority of the casting was in place, Ridley led mini read-throughs from six weeks before filming began so whoever had been cast would come together to read the script, allowing him to edit it as he felt necessary.
“That was an incredibly helpful process for the cast but also for John in that he was constantly rewriting as he went,” Swinden says. “That was the real joy of having a director, writer and creator in one person – he was constantly listening to feedback and absorbing, tweaking and polishing it the whole time.”
The desire to secure such a talented cast, however, led to a challenging shooting schedule as the production team attempted to align actors’ schedules.
“Rory Kinnear was amazing because he was shooting during the day and then at night he was on stage at the National Opera,” Swinden adds. “It was extraordinary. There was lots of that going on. But the biggest challenge was how to find down-and-dirty 1970s London in gentrified London. There’s not many pockets left. We mostly filmed on the outer edges of Hackney [in east London] and a little in south London, but we moved a lot.”
For Baig, who is also casting Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and Elba-led feature film Yardie, the process stays the same across both films and TV series, though the number of small-screen dramas currently in production means the demand for actors is increasingly fierce.
“The television industry at the moment is so healthy, it’s sort of overflowing because you’ve got so many different outlets and there’s a huge amount being made,” she notes. “Film is still tough. It’s a hard climate unless you’ve got one of the five actors who greenlight films.
“Television is very competitive. I’ve never known quite so many scripts around. It’s bonkers – good but very busy.”
From Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, Guerrilla is a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. It tells the story of a couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London.
Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.
Leading couple Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto, who play Marcus and Jas, discuss their characters and their roles in the ensuing struggle, why they both wanted to work with Ridley, diversity in television and why this story is more than relevant in the present day.
Guerrilla is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature for Sky Atlantic and Showtime, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.
For more about Guerrilla, read DQ’s interview with series creator John Ridley here.
While locations often bring a series to life, few had as much impact as the setting of Midnight Sun, both on and off screen, as the drama’s leading actors tell DQ.
The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon that occurs each summer north of the Arctic circle and south of the Antarctic circle, where the sun is still visible at midnight. Around the summer solstice, there is 24 hours of daylight.
On television, it has been the subject of an episode of Canadian drama Northern Exposure, which examined the impact of the midnight sun on the residents of an Alaskan town, and an episode of The Twilight Zone, whereby the effect was created when the Earth was put on collision course with the sun.
The setting was taken to the extreme on Swedish-French coproduction Midnight Sun, known locally as Midnattssol and Jour Polaire respectively and currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic following a deal with distributor StudioCanal. The story sees French police officer Kahina Zadi (played by Leïla Bekhti) travel to Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, to investigate the brutal murder of a French citizen during the midnight sun period.
With the help of Swedish DA Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten) and a member of the Sami (Sofia Jannok), a local indigenous tribe, she comes to realise the killing and more that follow are part of a 10-year conspiracy involving many of the town’s inhabitants.
The series, produced by Nice Drama and Atlantique Productions, comes from co-creators, writers and directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, who were the main draw for Hammarsten (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to sign up for the eight-episode series.
“Sweden is a small country so if there are talented directors, you know them or know of them. I had wanted to work with Måns and Björn for a long time because I respect them,” the actor tells DQ. “Then they asked me to read something and I was just thinking, ‘Yes please.’ And when I read it, I was even more pleased because they had something really fantastic and special. I was really happy.
“Some things just look good on the paper but the way they worked, it was very important to keep it local and not make it too flashy. For an actor, that’s fantastic. You know you have a good part and there is fantastic scenery around.”
The appearance of the Sami people in a story set in their homeland, located inside the Arctic Circle, was also an attractive proposition for Jannok, who is herself a member of the indigenous tribe.
“Sami is a small community and we had been hearing about these guys doing research for a couple of years, so I knew they had done their homework and I had seen who they had been speaking to,” Jannok reveals. “That’s why I thought it was an interesting project – it gives an image of today and brings issues to the surface that aren’t talked about ever, like the racism against Sami people. People started to debate these issues, both in Sami communities and in Sweden. That’s a bonus if you get people to think about not only the thriller story but also identity, diversity, the many languages and the collisions between the different characters.”
Hailing from the region where the series is shot, and with personal experience of the midnight sun phenomenon, Jannok believes it’s a breath of fresh air to see a story like this told in this unique landscape.
“For people who live there every day, it’s not extraordinary,” she says. “We don’t even have a word for it, it’s just the sun. It’s nice to change the perspective and to not always be in the capital or the cities.”
Hammarsten continues: “It would be very easy to make it a French-Swedish series where there’s a clash between the two cultures, but all of a sudden you go the third way. It’s almost like the landscape has its own part. It’s like the settings have a role.”
Bekhti adds: “The main character is nature and everything around it. This has somehow fed my role and my character. The scenery seems to be moving literally and figuratively as well, fermenting somehow, just as what’s happening to my character and this impression of endless day. It fed the character and invites the viewer to discover a new part of the world.”
French actor Bekhti admits she was particularly affected by working in the unique environment, describing the shoot – which took place during the midnight sun – as a “strong human experience.”
“I forgot where I was, I lost my bearings almost,” she explains. “I slept very little. But instead of being scared by the experience, I thought I would exploit it and make use of it for my character. It was an amazing experience to live there in that space, even if it was physically demanding. It gave more insight into my character and the location helped me.”
Hammarsten picks up: “Leila was the hero of this show. I could go home to my apartment in Stockholm in the weekends but she was up there all the time with the sun and these crazy Swedes! Leila was really up there on her own, so I felt she also needed me – we had a pact. I knew of Måns and Björn but I didn’t know who this French star was. But she’s totally down to earth and a fantastic actor.”
Despite the challenges of the setting, Hammarsten balks at the thought of filming the series anywhere else. “How could you shoot this in a studio?” he says. “Maybe you could if you had an enormous amount of money. For me, it was the same but less of a struggle. We were there for a long time, in the midnight sun. It gave us something.”
For Jannok, though the location may have been familiar, the task at hand was not, with Midnight Sun being her first acting job.
“The new thing for me was acting, that was the challenge,” she exclaims. “So I was glad I was being taken care of. Everyone was so nice and friendly. It was good doing my first time acting at home. I used to ski past the house of my character, so this was home. We don’t sleep during the summer! We’re better at sleeping during the dark winters, but it was nice being home.”
Though herself an experienced actor, with credits including The Prophet and All that Glitters, Bekhti also faced a new challenge when scenes called for her to speak in English – the shared language used by Swedish and French characters in the series, which also features the native Sami language.
“I didn’t speak English at all,” she says. “I was coached for two or three months, six hours a day. It meant I was really thrown into the deep end, I was immediately immersed in that character. I didn’t want to lose the actor’s part in it all. English was an instrument, so when I was frightened, the first thing that came out was in French. That meant it was more realistic.”
Midnight Sun made waves as the first ever French-Swedish coproduction, with many similar cross-border partnerships now in the works. It remains to be seen whether anyone else will attempt to stage another series in this dazzling environment.
Oscar-winning screenwriter and American Crime creator John Ridley realises a long-held ambition to tell a story about race relations in the UK with Guerrilla, a six-part series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.
From Oscar-winning feature film 12 Years a Slave to critically acclaimed drama American Crime, race relations in the US are a common theme in the works of screenwriter and director John Ridley.
His latest project, Guerrilla, transports that topic across the Atlantic to 1970s London, one of the most politically explosive periods in British history.
The series tells the story of a couple whose relationship is tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.
The six-part series is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution. It debuts on Sky Atlantic in the UK on April 13 and Showtime in the US on April 16.
“This is a story and types of characters I’ve been fascinated in since I was a young child,” Ridley (pictured above between stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay) tells DQ. “I was a child of the 1970s and a lot of the iconography of black activism was just so very potent, as well as people like [black activists] Angela Davis and Huey Newton and what they represented both visually and emotionally.
“Then, as you get older, you start to realise consequences of actions and what it means to stand up for a group of people, to stand up against others, and that those individuals themselves were complicated. They were human beings. So over the years growing up, I found those stories very interesting.”
With race and immigration issues front of mind around the world in this age of Trump, Brexit and the refugee crisis, Ridley adds: “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the stories out there for any of us to tell [about race] are both timely and timeless, in that the issues folks were dealing with 10, 15 or, in our case, 40 years ago, people are still dealing with now.”
The story that would ultimately become Guerrilla was first conceived in 2007. But it wasn’t until a trip to London in 2013, when Ridley was in post-production on Jimi Hendrix drama All Is By My Side, that the American filmmaker began to get a sense of the similarities in and differences between racial dynamics in the US and the UK. And after carrying out research and speaking to Brits about their experiences during the 1970s, he found he could tell a story that was firmly rooted in reality.
The accounts offered by the people Ridley spoke to, many of whom joined the show as advisors, were central to shaping the narrative of Guerrilla’s characters. “They lived through this era and their experiences – sometimes in opposition to each other – were instrumental,” Ridley explains. “We wanted to make a show with a certain velocity that makes the audience want to return week in, week out.
“But at the core we wanted to tell a very human story, a story of people who are struggling – against the system, against their own choices, against each other. We could have done a purely dry disposition of London in the 1970s, but I can’t say enough about the individuals who shared their stories and perspectives that ended up being the foundation of everything else we ended up doing.”
As the show’s creator and lead writer, as well as its director for three of the six episodes, Ridley certainly assumes showrunner status on Guerrilla, a role still relatively uncommon in the UK. He says he aspired to bring together elements of the US and UK production systems, including setting up a writers room with British co-writer Misan Sagay (Belle). “We’d sit around talking about ideas and she’d give me a sense of things that really happened in the UK. And sometimes it would just be small language things – like the difference between ‘flat’ and ‘apartment,’” Ridley says of working with Sagay. “She also wrote the fifth episode of our series – I wrote one, two, three, four and six. So it was much smaller than a traditional US writers room, but it definitely worked having someone who’s very talented and knows the UK, as well as someone who knows their history.
“In production, little things are different [between the UK and the US] – hours of the day, how many hours you have to shoot. Some things in the infrastructure are different, like permitting, where you can shoot and how you can shoot. A lot of that was left to our line producer to help figure out. Ultimately, what made Guerrilla work was hopefully taking the best of these two systems and making sure we supported each other in the stories we wanted to tell.”
In terms of scriptwriting, Ridley says he likes to make it clear on the page exactly what’s happening in every scene, meaning the script serves as a blueprint for every department, from hair and makeup to wardrobe and set design. “I want anybody who picks up that script to be able to read it and really understand what is going in a scene,” he says. “You cannot talk enough about every script, every page, every scene, everything that’s happening.”
That also goes for any extras on set: “I really don’t like having a lot of extras. When somebody’s in a scene, I want to know what they are doing and what’s happening with that person. It makes much more sense to have one or two people engaged in a very specific way than having people wandering around in the background.”
As such, Ridley faced a daunting task when it came to filming a protest scene for Guerrilla’s premiere episode involving hundreds of cast members and extras, along with several police horses. However, by working initially with just a handful of actors to plan the action, he was able to piece it together once the cameras were rolling.
“We mapped it out very carefully,” he says of the scene, in which the peaceful demonstration quickly turns violent. “You have 300-and-something people out there, plus horses and crew, so just from a safety standpoint you don’t want to simply turn up and tell people to re-enact a riot – you don’t want anybody to get hurt.
“There are always issues there but you realise that every problem you solve ahead of time, you’re leaving space for issues that come up, no matter what they are. We were able to shoot a fantastic scene full of scale, but also a really emotional scene. On a personal level, you can’t do it without preparation and you can’t do it without a crew that’s fully informed and part of the creative process.”
The protest scene is also notable for featuring one of several instances of police brutality highlighted in the opening episode. On another occasion, a female character is sexually assaulted by an officer. Ridley says that while the production team didn’t want to shy away from such “realities,” they opted to use camera angles and editing techniques to show them in a way that feels more graphic than they actually are.
“Sometimes suggesting things to an audience has more impact than lingering on them,” he notes. “They fill in the gaps of that brutality in a way that depicting them as graphically as possible may not do as well. But that’s part of the joy of putting a show together – when you get into the edit, you can really think about it. I deeply appreciate having the opportunity to do a show that isn’t straightforward. It has allowed for different storytelling than traditional television has allowed for.”
On screen, Ridley has assembled a stunning array of acting talent, from leading stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay (who play central couple Jas and Marcus respectively) to supporting cast members Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.
Ridley reserves special praise for Pinto and Ceesay, who he says put in a lot of work to develop their on-screen partnership. “If there is no sense of chemistry between your lead actors, the show’s not going to work,” he says. “That chemistry comes through trust, camaraderie and a sense of leadership through two people who are sharing the screen.
“Freida and Babou put in that work. It goes beyond the writing, the lighting, the wardrobe; it’s about the actors putting in the time so when they arrive on set, they’re good friends, they’re there for each other and they put in a great day’s work for the rest of the crew. Freida and Babou just really had it. It’s great to watch.”
The cast also includes Luther star Idris Elba, who is also an exec producer on Guerrilla through his Green Door Pictures label. “He gives an outstanding performance, one that is very different from the Idris people have seen over the last few years,” Ridley says. “It was a special opportunity to work with him as a partner on the show.”
With season three of American Crime having launched in March this year, Ridley is now developing a Marvel series, though he declines to reveal anything about the top-secret project. But while cinema is currently buoyant on a wave of blockbuster superhero films, Ridley believes there’s still room on the big screen for storytelling-focused dramas such as Lion and Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight.
He continues: “When people are making a US$200m bet, you can’t blame them for wanting to take a short bet. But I hope there is still space for filmmaking that’s a little challenging, not traditional and represents people in different ways, and that such films can co-exist [alongside blockbusters].
“I’m just happy, thankful and appreciative television does exist because I don’t know that someone would have made a bet on a film like Guerrilla,” Ridley adds. “I certainly can’t fault the film studios for the choices they make, but I’m thankful there’s another space where we as writers, as storytellers, can tell the stories that are most meaningful to us.”
The cast and crew of Riviera return to the South of France for the world premiere of Sky Atlantic’s compelling crime drama. Michael Pickard spoke to the production team about creating a dark, corrupt world below the surface of this playground for the super-rich.
The story of Riviera plays out entirely on location across the south of France, capturing every aspect of this impossibly glamorous and wealthy part of the world to tell a story that uncovers a layer of darkness and corruption beneath the glossy exterior.
So it’s only fitting that the cast and crew of the 10-part series are in Cannes today to attend the series’ world premiere at MipTV.
It’s a quick return to the French Riviera for the team behind the Sky Atlantic drama, which is produced by Archery Pictures and Primo Productions, having only completed production earlier this year. The finishing touches to the show, distributed by Sky Vision, are now being put together ahead of its debut this summer.
Julia Stiles (pictured top) stars as Georgina, a Midwestern US girl turned smart, resourceful wife of the billionaire Constantine Clios. But after just a year of marriage, her immaculate new life is blown apart, literally, when her art collector husband Constantine is killed in an explosion aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch and arms dealer.
Believing there to be more to the tragedy, she sets out to uncover what happened. Dark truths about Constantine’s dealings emerge and, as she begins to realise who she was really married to, Georgina enters a spiral of moral descent as she becomes immersed in a world of lies, double-dealing and criminality.
Lena Olin co-stars as Irina, the first wife of Constantine, Adrian Lester as Georgina’s friend and art dealer Robert Carver; Iwan Rheon and Dimitri Leonidas as Constantine’s sons Adam and Christos; Roxane Duran as Adriana; and Phil Davis as Jukes, the art fraud investigator trying to get to the truth.
The idea for a series set on the French Riviera was sparked by Paul McGuinness, the former manager of Irish rock band U2 who owned a house in the region for many years. After discussing the idea with Archery Pictures execs Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier, McGuiness pitched the project to Oscar-winning writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, The Borgias), who came on board as series creator, writer and exec producer.
“Paul and Neil have been friends for years, so Neil came on board and wrote the pilot script and the bible,” Marshall recalls. “Sky were very excited and greenlit the show on that and then we were off.”
Thykier says the idea began life as a film but over the course of the 18-month development period, it took shape as a television series.
He continues: “It felt fresh, exciting and entertaining. Although Riviera is about darkness and corruption that sits underneath the surface of this particular world, there was something about it that was also bright, colourful and glamorous. So the combination of complexity of character and that Neil Jordan tone, matched with one of the great locations of the world, caught everyone’s attention.
“Neil wrote the first two scripts with John Banville and then brought on some new young writers. Julia Stiles came on board to play our heroine Georgina. It sounds so easy but there were various steps along the way. In some respects, that initial creative vision that Neil provided set the blueprint for the show and we started shooting last summer until the beginning of this year.”
Marshall says that with Jordan’s list of credits, the story was always going to be about a dynastic family.
“Having done The Borgias, he was attracted to that kind of subject matter but quite quickly we realised we wanted to tell the story of one woman, Georgina Clios, who is at the heart of it,” the exec producer says. “She’s our eyes into this world. She wasn’t born into it, she climbed up. She recently married her husband Constantine so they’re madly in love at the start of the show. Then he’s killed in a giant yacht explosion.”
A grand villa in Villefranche doubles as the Clios family home, while locations along the coast were used to bring Riviera to life. As Marshall notes, “it’s set where it’s shot.”
“We began in August [last year], which was a pretty tough time to be shooting in the south of France because it’s the height of the season, so it was very expensive,” she says. “We were based in some old film studios in Nice, so everything was relatively close. It was very expensive shooting there and they have labour laws that are quite different to ours [in the UK]. There’s a limit to how long you can shoot per day, and it’s five-day weeks, which is unusual, not 11-day fortnights. But it was so worth it because you get so much value on screen. Every time we could point to the sea or some scenery, you could see they were living this opulent lifestyle, which people do down there on the Riviera.”
Thykier picks up: “It’s a cliche when people say the location is one of the characters, but bizarrely on this, it really is, I promise. We had one returning set which was the villa but, apart from that, we shot the shit out of the south of France and hopefully you’ll see it on screen. We never limited our ambitions in terms of this world because ultimately it’s the world of the 1%. It is yachts, helicopters, cars, grand hotels and grand promenades. So it was fantastic.”
The start of production was complicated, however, by tragic circumstances as shooting began three days after a truck careered into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing more than 80 people.
“A lot of our crew were from Nice and the environs so that was obviously tragic and tough,” Thykier reflects. “Any big show of that scale over that time period will have some production ups and downs but to be honest, we rather loved the crew there. In a way, the awful events meant the town was very keen to welcome to us. They wanted to show they were open for business and weren’t going to be cowed. There was a solidarity to the city and they were incredibly welcoming so we were able to access great locations.”
Behind the camera, Philipp Kadelbach (Generation War) came in as lead director, helming the first two episodes and laying the blueprints for the four directors who followed him. He worked alongside director of photography Laurie Rose and costume designer Emma Fryer to create the look and style of the series, which, as viewers might expect, drips with opulence. In particular, inspiration was taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie Le Mépris, which starred Brigitte Bardot.
“When you see Georgina and Irina, they just look completely fabulous,” says Marshall. “Irina’s wearing a selection of great dresses, trouser suits and high heels and that was really important to the look of the show as well. We wanted it to be beautiful and glamorous.”
When it came to casting the series, Stiles was first choice to play the central role. Thykier describes the actor as bright and brilliant, with an innate integrity and honesty that was necessary to lead an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom are described as morally bankrupt.
“She’s always been an incredibly attractive actor in that regard both for men and women and we needed someone to be the emotional heart of the show,” he says. “She was always our dream casting. We’re very fortunate we have a rather brilliant cast of actors around her – Lena, Adrian, Iwan – so it was good. One of the things we’re proudest of is that it’s a cast of very talented actors.”
Running the production on the ground was series producer Foz Allan, who had recently finished ITV’s supernatural drama Jekyll & Hyde when Marshall approached him about joining Riviera.
“Liza gave me a call, she asked me if I wanted to do it and you just go, ‘Yeah.’ What’s not to like?” he admits. “Neil Jordan, Sky – it was all good, and you get to live in Nice for a year!”
Having previously worked in Hungary, Kenya, Sweden and Australia, setting up in France proved to be no problem for Allan, utilising support from local producer Peninsula Films to bring together the local crew.
“Part of the treat of Riviera is lifting a curtain on a world that most of us don’t see” Allan says. “Going back and forth to Heathrow, I was finding myself more often in the expensive-watch section and I’m looking at £5,000 watches, thinking, ‘that’s quite reasonable actually’ – and the only way I’m thinking that is because I’ve been in a world where everything starts at £5,000 and then moves up. It was very exciting. Julia Stiles was genuinely a breathtaking performer. She was always on the money. Lena Olin’s mesmeric. The whole cast was great. It was long and complex but, actually, it was brilliant fun and they’re great performers. The scripts got stronger and stronger.”
Coming from CGI-heavy Jekyll & Hyde, Allan reveals that Riviera also had touches of computer wizardry. He explains: “The brand ‘Riviera’ has blue skies, right? So how often do you actually get blue skies out there? The truth is quite often but not every time you’re shooting. So you’ve got to deliver the brand in the same way. [Creator] Charlie Higson’s warped imagination for Jekyll & Hyde was as complex to make happen as Neil Jordan’s lyrical imagination for Riviera. The job is just to make sure you capture these imaginations and get them out to a wider audience.”
But that wasn’t the biggest challenge facing Allan on location. “We had to blow up a US$25m yacht, so first we had to get a US$25m yacht and then get the man who owns it not to mind that it will appear to have been blown up,” the producer says. “That was quite a complex journey.”
It was also a journey for Thykier, whose background had been entirely in the film business, compared to his former Archery Pictures partner Marshall, who has worked on Taboo and the Red Riding trilogy and has now set up on her own at Hera Pictures. Thykier describes Riviera as a “big learning curve,” in terms of both working with multiple directors and dealing with an ever-evolving script.
“I used a lot of muscles I hadn’t used before,” he admits. “We were originally going to kill a certain character at a certain point in the series, but after about two weeks shooting, they were fantastic and we found a way to keep them in. So it was that wonderful thing of being able to adapt the series to the talent we had. That was really exciting and different. But it’s long and hard. I have newfound respect for the people at the top of their game in this business because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“I’ve been friends with [The Crown producer Left Bank Pictures’ CEO] Andy Harries for many years and always respected him and thought he was brilliant. I now think he’s a genius! Once you’ve been through one of these big shows, you recognise it’s hard work and the people at the top of that game are really very brilliant.”
With Riviera designed with the potential to become a returning series, the cast and crew could find themselves back in the south of France not long after attending the world premiere at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals.
But Marshall says it’s testament to Sky’s ambition to create British drama that stands alongside the HBO and Showtime series that also air on Sky Atlantic which has given birth to a big-budget, 10-part series like Riviera.
“Nobody else is doing that yet in the UK but Sky are because they’ve got big ambitions for their drama,” she concludes. “What’s interesting when you come to a project like this is it’s very different to making a film. There’s so much more story, it’s all about the writers, it’s very episodic. In film, the director is in charge; in television, it’s much more the writers medium. What’s exciting is it’s just all about content. People just want to make good stuff and there’s lots of opportunity at the moment which is great.”
As Sky Atlantic returns to Fortitude for a second season, Richard Dormer recaps what happened in season one and what the town’s survivors can expect to face in the future. Meanwhile, new co-star Dennis Quaid reveals why the script, the cast and opportunity to spend time filming in Iceland drew him towards the series.
Fortitude is created and written by Simon Donald and produced by Fifty Fathoms. Fortitude returns to Sky Atlantic on January 26, available on Sky Box Sets.
Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.
Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.
The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).
Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).
Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.
The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.
As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.
The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.
Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.
After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.
Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).
The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.
Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.
At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).
Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.
The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.
As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).
But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.
Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.
Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).
The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.
BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.
And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.
From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.
In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.
Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.
Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).
Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.
The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.
The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.
For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”
The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”
With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.
The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.
The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.
In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.
Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.
It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).
Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”
Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.
Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”
Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.
Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.
Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”
On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.
This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).
The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.
Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.
The producers of Humans and The Young Pope are probably a bit down in the dumps right now. The second season of the former show has just launched on Channel 4 in the UK with an estimated audience of around two million. That’s well down on season one’s average of five million-plus, despite a pretty heavyweight marketing campaign. As for The Young Pope, the much-anticipated Jude Law scripted series is reckoned to have attracted just 141,000 viewers for its debut screening on UK pay TV channel Sky Atlantic.
The most likely explanation is that there is just so much drama on TV right now that it’s impossible for viewers to keep up. In my household, Humans is on our hit list but didn’t stand a chance of being watched ahead of the penultimate episode of BBC1’s Poldark. As for The Young Pope, it’s in a queue that consists of Westworld, Victoria and The Night Of. Oh, and Humans of course…
The Night Of, an HBO crime drama starring Riz Ahmed, is another show that hasn’t been rating particularly well in the UK. Having launched on Sky Atlantic with an audience around 240,000, the latest numbers (mid-October) put it at around 160,000.
This is surprising for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s a really good series – as evidenced by a strong IMDb score and a positive response from the UK’s TV critics. Secondly, because its ratings curve did the opposite in the US. After the first episode managed a mediocre 0.77 million viewers, word obviously got out that the show was good – because by episode two it was up at 1.28 million. It then continued to build throughout its run, peaking at 2.16 million for the finale. Presumably, the show is continuing to do well now that it has moved into the realm of on-demand.
This should be a cause for encouragement for the teams behind Humans and The Young Pope. Even if you don’t get good ratings on launch night, genuine quality will eventually get you noticed, even if it does take a year or two sitting in box-set land.
Sticking with HBO, the network will be pretty pleased with the resilience of its own robot-themed drama Westworld. In the US, the show debuted with 1.96 million and is currently at 1.49 million after five episodes. That suggests it isn’t going to turn into a Game Of Thrones-style monster hit but it’s not bad – especially when you also consider it has a 9.2 rating on the IMDb scale.
The show is also doing very well for Sky Atlantic in the UK. The opening episode attracted 1.7 million for the channel and the following two have come in around 1.2 to 1.4 million. As we’ve seen from the ratings for The Night Of and The Young Pope, that’s an excellent showing for a network that rarely gets above 500,000 viewers (Game of Thrones being the big exception). Maybe there’s a positive point here about movie reboots, at least in the context of pay TV, where they seem to do pretty well.
Another show that seems to be bedding in well is Amazon’s Goliath, a David E Kelley legal drama starring Billy Bob Thornton. Although Amazon doesn’t do audience ratings, it is reported this week as being “the top-binged first season of a US-produced Amazon original series ever over its first 10 days.” That’s a bit of a mouthful but it does suggest the show is proving popular and is a strong candidate to secure renewal.
Of course, shows like Goliath are fortunate in that they don’t get put under the microscope in the same way as Humans and The Young Pope. Likewise with Netflix’s new royal drama The Crown. At timing of writing the show has a perfect 10/10 score on IMDb and is attracting five-star ratings from media critics. Clearly it’s a good show – but for all we know, it could be getting an audience in the UK that is half the size of Sky Atlantic’s The Young Pope.
Back in the US, another show that is in pretty good shape is Lucifer, created by Warner Bros TV for Fox. Currently in its second season, the show has just been granted an extended second season, taking its total run from 13 to 22 episodes. Fox says the show is attracting around eight million viewers an episode when all multiplatform viewing is factored in. “Lucifer continues to deliver, with great blasts of dark humour and ambitious storytelling,” said Fox entertainment president David Madden. “The show has turned out to be a true wicked pleasure, the perfect companion to [Batman prequel series] Gotham. We couldn’t be more pleased.”
In Australia, meanwhile, there is a general sense that domestic drama is beginning to fight back against foreign imports. In the year to June 30, Screen Australia estimates that the number of hours of local TV drama rose from 518 to 561 – representing a total spend of A$376m (US$288.91m), up from A$300m.
One title that continues to do well is Network Ten’s Offspring, season six of which aired this summer. Although the show’s numbers dropped from 950,000 at launch to around 600,000 later in the season, that was still good enough for the network to announce that there will be a seventh season in 2017.
Finally, a plug for the C21 International Drama Awards, which take place on November 30 as part of C21’s Content London event. This week, the finalists were announced.
In the Best English-language Drama Series category, finalists are London Spy, Marcella, The A Word, The Night Manager, The Night Of, Unforgotten and War & Peace. Up for Best Non-English-Language Drama Series are Black Widows, CASE, Follow the Money, Highway Of Love, Public Enemy, Section Zero, The Writer and Trapped. And the Best Miniseries contenders are And Then There Were None, Beyond The Walls, Ku’damm 56 – Rebel with a Cause, Sotto Copertura, Roots and The Secret of Elise.