Tag Archives: Sky Atlantic

Back with a Vengeance

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.”

The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy

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.”

Dillane’s Karl Roebuck is in a happier place at the start of season three

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!”

French actor Poésy returns as Elise Wassermann

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.”

Six-episode Vengeance is the concluding season of The Tunnel

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.”

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Rule Britannia

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.

Kudos (Sky Atlantic’s The Tunnel) is also developing a take on Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, with the possibly of a long-rumoured reboot of Robert Graves classic I Claudius coming from Bad Wolf (His Dark Materials).

Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter was, of course, responsible  for overseeing Rome for HBO and the BBC alongside Anne Thomopoulos

David Morrissey and Kelly Reilly star as Aulus Plautius and Kerra respectively

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.

Zoe Wanamaker as Queen Antedia

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.

Mackenzie Crook plays Druid Veran

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.

Britannia is set to debut on Sky Atlantic in January

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.

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Star turn

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.

Rowan Joffé

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.

Tin Star’s cast is led by Tim Roth as troubled police chief Jim Worth

“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.”

The show centres on Jim and his family’s attempt to start a new life in the Rocky Mountains

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.”

The show also features Mad Men star Christina Hendricks

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.

Genevieve O’Reilly as Jim’s wife Angela

“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.”

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Art attack

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.

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Casting Guerrilla

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.

Katie Swinden

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?

John Ridley (centre) poses with Guerrilla stars Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto

“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.”

Ridley’s dislike of scenes with large numbers of extras and his desire to have ‘actors’ in every role meant Baig was casting right to the end, picking out people to play supporting parts throughout filming.

Ceesay portrays Marcus, who is in a relationship with Pinto’s character Jas

“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.”

The show had to work around the busy schedules of actors such as Rory Kinnear

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.”

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Protest behaviour

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.

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Land of the Midnight Sun

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.

L-R: Midnight Sun actors Leila Bekhti, Gustaf Hammarsten and Sofia Jannok at Mipcom last year

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.

The series centres on a murder investigation

“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.”

Midnight Sun was shot during the darkness-free period from which it takes its name

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.

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Power to the people

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.”

Ridley (right) in discussion with Idris Elba on the Guerrilla set

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.”

The show is centred on race relations in the UK in the 1970s

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.”

Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton is among the supporting cast

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.”

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What lies beneath

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.

Liza Marshall

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.

Game of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon is among the main cast

“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.”

Kris Thykier

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.

Hustle star Adrian Lester has a part in the show

“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.”

Lena Olin co-stars as Irina

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.”

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Return to Fortitude

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.

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Kings of the wild frontier

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.

Tim Roth in forthcoming Sky Atlantic drama Tin Star

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).

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Missing accomplished

The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre
The Missing is an English-language show with a French cop at its centre

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.

Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK
Midnight Sun has been sold to pay broadcaster Sky Atlantic in the UK

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.

The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family
The A Word looks at the impact of an autism diagnosis on a family

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.”

Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings
Masters of Sex has been axed by Showtime after four seasons of declining ratings

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.

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Scripted series battle to get noticed

Humans' season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing
Humans’ season two debut results were disappointing compared with its first outing

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.

The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic
The Young Pope also achieved underwhelming ratings on Sky Atlantic

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.

Riz Ahmed in The Night Of
Riz Ahmed in The Night Of

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.

Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic
Westworld is doing well on HBO and Sky Atlantic

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.

Goliath looks likely to secure a second season
Goliath looks likely to secure a second season

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.

offspring
Offspring will get a seventh season next year

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.

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Lethal Weapon, Westworld start strongly

Lethal Weapon's first season will now comprise
Lethal Weapon’s first season will now comprise 18 episodes

Fox will go to Mipcom in Cannes next week with a spring in its step thanks to Lethal Weapon, its TV reboot of the classic movie franchise.

Now three episodes into its first season, Lethal Weapon is one of the US fall season’s top-performing shows. It’s currently  pulling in 7.3 million same-day viewers, a figure that rises to 11.5 million after a week’s catch-up viewing is added in.

The network has responded to the show’s strong start by giving it an additional five episodes, taking the total for season one to 18. This is less than the traditional 22-episode US network model, but Fox is still describing it as a full-season order – something that may reflect a wider trend towards shorter-run scripted series.

Commenting on the award of the extra episodes, announced this week, Fox Entertainment president David Madden said: “Lethal Weapon delivers an explosive and wildly entertaining core relationship between two cops, with dynamic performances by Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford, surrounded by cinematic action, endearing humour and true heart. It has proven to be a self-starter and solid companion to Empire.” (Lethal Weapon directly follows Fox hit series Empire in the schedule.)

Westworld
Westworld has opened strongly on both HBO and Sky Atlantic

Another movie reboot that has got off to a strong start is HBO’s Westworld. Blessed with a talented cast, a strong creative team and cult name recognition, the first episode attracted 3.3 million for the first showing via cable and streaming. The second episode dipped to 2.7 million, but some of this decline has been put down to competition from the second US presidential debate.

Strong ratings in the US were mirrored in the UK, where Sky Atlantic reported a record-breaking performance for the show’s first episode.

A statement from Sky said: “After being watched by an overnight audience of 458,000 on Tuesday October 4, more than 1.38 million viewers have taken advantage of catching up on the show flexibly over the following seven days [i.e. 1.84 million total].”

HBO will be encouraged by the fact the show has attracted a strong 9.2 rating on IMDb. However, it is early days for a series that is thought to have cost US$100m to produce. HBO would like Westworld to build the same kind of momentum as Game of Thrones, but it is built on a much sparser mythological foundation. For this reason, it is difficult to prejudge how much traction the show will gain with the audience. The true potential of the franchise should become clearer around episode six or seven.

Another US series that merits a mention is FX’s long-running American Horror Story anthology franchise, which this year is sub-titled My Roanoke Nightmare. Four episodes in, the show is averaging 3.58 million viewers. The figures are on a slight downward curve but they are similar to last year’s series Hotel, suggesting the show has a pretty robust core audience.

American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare
American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare

This year’s series takes the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina as its storytelling starting point. During the 1590s, the colonists vanished. Moving to the present, a couple’s new home near the settlement is full of paranormal activity. The cast includes Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr, with a special guest appearance from Lady Gaga (who also appeared in Hotel).

Away from the US, Zodiak Rights is reporting strong sales for Public Enemy, the Belgian drama that won the inaugural MipDrama Screenings Buyers’ Coup de Coeur Award in April.

Produced by Belgium’s Entre Chien et Loup and Playtime Films for RTBF Belgium, the 10-part drama centres on the story of Guy Béranger, a dangerous child murderer at the end of his prison sentence. His release on parole to the custody of the monks at Vielsart Abbey leads to an outcry from the nearby small village and to the rest of the country. Then when a young girl disappears on the outskirts of the Abbey, the entire village is in uproar.

The French-language show was a ratings hit for RTBF Belgium, securing an audience share of more than 25%. Now Zodiak has sold it to Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany; free-to-air broadcaster TF1 in France; Movistar Series Xtra and Movistar VOD in Spain; and Ale Kino Channel (Canal+ Group) in Poland. It will also air on Scandinavian broadcaster C More’s linear and premium SVoD services in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Public Enemy
Zodiak Rights is shopping Belgian drama Public Enemy

Producer François Touwaide of Entre Chien et Loup said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium, we are happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by the Zodiak Rights team. Zodiak Rights believed in the show from the beginning and has been a great support.”

Caroline Torrance, head of scripted at Zodiak Rights, added: “The demand for innovative, globally relevant drama that works across platforms continues to be very strong and we expect these deals to be the first of many for this compelling series.” The sales also underline the promotional value of the new MipDrama award.

Still on the subject of distribution, SVoD platform Netflix has acquired global rights to Syfy space drama The Expanse. Season one will be available to Netflix members outside North America and New Zealand from November 3, with a second run due in 2017.

The Expanse is set 200 years in the future, after humanity has colonised the solar system. It follows a tough detective and a rogue ship’s captain who stumble across a huge conspiracy while looking for a missing woman.

The Expanse has been picked up by Netflix
The Expanse has been picked up by Netflix

The first series aired on Syfy in 2015 and didn’t rate especially well, starting at 1.19 million and dropping to 0.55 million. The show is a good indication, however, of the new economic model that exists in the Netflix era, where modest ratings on a US host channel don’t necessarily result in automatic cancellation because of the opportunity to secure a secondary revenue stream from an SVoD partner.

More generally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings warned this week that the chance of the SVoD service entering China “doesn’t look good.” The company has been plotting an entry into China for a couple of years but seems to be suffering the same barriers to entry as other US brands. “Disney, which is very good in China, had their movie service shut down. Apple, which is very good in China, had their movie service closed down. It doesn’t look good,” he said at the New Yorker TechFest conference last week.

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Keeping it in the family

Hard-hitting Italian crime drama Gomorrah has been hailed as one of the best TV shows of the decade. Michael Pickard speaks to the series’ writer and co-creator Stefano Bises.

If you believe Ricky Gervais, there’s an Italian drama that stands side by side with critical and popular hits such as The Wire, The Bridge and The Sopranos and could even be the “TV show of the decade.”

Gomorrah (or Gomorra as it’s known in its native Italy) debuted to huge success when it launched in spring 2014, drawing 700,000 viewers to Sky Atlantic and Sky Cinema – twice the number achieved by established crime drama Romanzo Criminale.

The ratings justified the hype surrounding the series, which had already been sold around the world – Sky in the UK and Germany, Canal+ in France and HBO in Scandinavia and Latin America were among the buyers – before an episode had aired.

And it continued to grow through its first season, with 900,000 viewers tuning in for the 12th and final episode in season one, according to overnight ratings. That figure grew to 1.2 million after replays were included. Season two then kicked off in May this year with 1.3 million watching the season premiere, the highest ratings ever for a Sky Italia series and above and beyond the number of Italian viewers watching US shows such as Game of Thrones.

Stefano Bises
Stefano Bises

While series such as Romanzo Criminale and Inspector Montalbano have established themselves as international hits, it is Gomorrah that has now become the calling card for Italian drama worldwide, with distributor Beta Film selling the fast-paced and explosive series into 130 territories.

The show is now set for its US debut on SundanceTV on August 24 – but what it is about this Mafia story that has proven so popular at home and abroad?

Based on the book by Roberto Saviano (which also inspired a 2008 film directed by Matteo Garrone), the series follows the members of the Savastano clan, one of the most powerful and influential Neapolitan crime families. When the head of the family, Don Pietro, is jailed, second-in-command Ciro Di Marzio is forced to adopt his mentor’s violent methods while grooming Pietro’s son Genny to take control of the empire. Along the way, he must deal with Genny’s impulsiveness, Don Pietro’s wife Lady Imma, the family’s growing unrest without its godfather and rival organisations set on claiming Savastano territory.

Produced by Sky Atlantic, Cattleya and Fandango in association with La7 and Beta Film, Gomorrah is written by Stefano Bises and directed by Stefano Sollima, Francesca Comencini and Claudio Cupellini.

The series was developed for television by Saviano, Bises, Giovanni Bianconi, Leonardo Fasoli and Ludovica Rampoldi – and Bises says he never expected the acclaim Gommorah has received since its debut two years ago.

“The book by Roberto is surrounded by different feelings,” he explains. “Part of the country is for him and supports him and his job, but there’s another part that is against it because they say he’s always writing and telling stories that show the worst part of our country. It’s not good publicity. So we didn’t know how people would receive it. We had a lot of problems from politicians and people who were saying, ‘You’re speculating on our problems, you’re picturing Naples like Hell,’ but there were many other people who said the standard of the series was, for the first time in Italy, an international standard.

“We had a huge success with the second season, much better than the first – and the second season is always more difficult because you lose the freshness and viewers have already seen that world. But Sky doubled the audience from the first to the second season, which was huge for us. We were trending on Twitter the evening Gomorrah was broadcast – that’s unbelievable for an Italian series.”

One of the initial challenges of the project was separating the series from not just Saviano’s bestselling book but also the movie of the same name, which meant Bises and director Sollima had to find a new story to tell in the same Neapolitan setting.

Gomorrah
Gomorrah was in filmed in and around the real Mafia-run districts of Naples

“We had to give a new picture of that world so we said, ‘Let’s choose a family, let’s tell a basic story with an old boss who’s feeling he’s getting too old to maintain power,’” Bises explains. “He has a son who’s not ready to take his place and we introduced an illegitimate son who is brave and capable of driving the kingdom. There were very classical elements used to build the story and then we dropped it in Scampia Secondigliano [a northern district of Naples] and it works. It was very simple; it was a very basic plot. The characters were very classical to watch – it was like Shakespeare in Naples.”

During development, Bises and Sollima visited Scampia Secondigliano together before building the characters and the story. But the writer admits it wasn’t until they began watching the daily shooting footage that they began to fully understand the characters they had created.

“Often in the night I went to Naples when Stefano was shooting,” he recalls. “We saw the dailies and then we understood a lot of things – for example, the friendship between Genny and Ciro is born not in the script but from viewing the first footage. We decided to do it like they were two brothers because they work so well together. It was day by day, building brick by brick, and on the second season we were much more aware of what we were doing.”

One of the show’s strengths is its Neapolitan setting, grounding the characters and their actions against a real location – though filming in Mafia-run districts of Naples was not without its problems.

“It’s one of the main characters of the series,” Bises says of the show’s location. “The director of photography, Paolo Carnera, did a great job photographing those neighbourhoods because they are an unbelievable set – and they’re real. The first season was very difficult to realise because while we were shooting there was a war on the streets. We would have a plan [for the next day’s filming] and during the night someone would call us and change the plan because two people had just been shot and killed on the street, so it would not be a good idea to shoot there tomorrow.

“There were 10 or 12 deaths during shooting for the first season but for the second season, the major problem was we were always surrounded by kids with smartphones who wanted to film our actors.”

Gomorrah
A third season is on the way and writer Stefano Bises already has plans for a fourth

The shocking real-life events that took place in this northern hub of Naples often informed the series, however, with Bises explaining that true stories were always the starting point for the show.

In fact, writers from the show would regularly venture into the city to collect and research stories. But this meant they often had to find two or three sources to collaborate the same information, such was the possibility that sources would present a version of events that could help them in a fight with another Mafia family.

“There are so many unbelievable stories right there,” he continues. “Our problem was working out how to make things authentic for viewers. People would never believe they were true! Another problem was the real people who inspired the characters. [We had to make sure] they wouldn’t recognise themselves in those characters because that might put [people involved in the show] in danger, but we always took inspiration from reality. It’s much more powerful than any imagination.”

Looking ahead to season three, Bises, who has written the plot outline, admits that while the show’s success has meant production is now a much smoother process, new challenges often emerge.

“The only problem we have now is keeping people away from the set,” he reveals. “We had a problem on the last season finale when there was a big plot secret that we kept for months. On the day of broadcasting the last episode, we discovered someone was on a roof where we were shooting and he was able to catch some pictures of two guys in a duel. So on the internet they were saying, ‘Who’s killing who? Who’s dying?’

“So that’s the biggest danger right now on the production side. On the writing side, when you come from big success, you always fear being unable to reach the same level. You have to not think about that and think of doing something surprising, like we did in season two when we killed off many main characters. People were so upset, they called us crazy for killing their favourite character. But it’s always the reality that drives you – we were telling a period of that struggle where all the bosses were killing each other.”

Bises is now dividing his time between other film and TV projects, including an adaptation of Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel Anna. He is also involved in planning for a potential second season of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, which stars Jude Law and will air on HBO, Sky and Canal+ later this year.

There are also plans for a fourth season of Gomorrah, with the writer adamant that there are plenty of as-yet-untold stories capable of keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

“I don’t feel comfortable comparing it to masterpieces like The Wire or The Sopranos,” Bises adds. “It’s just an Italian gangster movie, but it shows we can do something good when we tell our own stories. This is a country that is full of stories. The Mafia is strong everywhere in the country. We would be missing our duty if we were not telling these stories.”

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A farewell to kings

As HBO says goodbye to Game of Thrones for another year – and edges closer to the show’s end – it’s time for the storied network to look towards life after Westeros.

With the sixth season of Game of Thrones (GoT, pictured top) now concluded, rumours abound that the final two chapters of the fantasy drama may only run to a total of 13 episodes. It’s time for HBO to contemplate life after Westeros.

For HBO (and other channels that air the series, like Sky Atlantic in the UK), the prospect of saying goodbye to such a ratings juggernaut must be daunting, with thoughts of what – if anything – can take its place.

Doubts have been raised about the appeal of some HBO’s upcoming slate of shows. Sci-fi series Westworld and 1970s/80s New York-set porn industry drama The Deuce (from The Wire’s David Simon) should attract high sampling, but others may fall by the wayside.

HBO will have high hopes for forthcoming series Westworld
HBO will have high hopes for forthcoming series Westworld

Succession, about a super-rich dynastic American family, and Somali-American drama Mogadishu, Minnesota could find less traction, as might historical miniseries Lewis & Clark and American Lion (starring Sean Penn as the seventh US president, Andrew Jackson), which might struggle outside the US.

Back in 2008, the UK’s Channel 4 played HBO’s other presidential biopic miniseries, John Adams, to critical praise but few viewers.

For Sky Atlantic, some of HBO’s more US-centric shows – such as public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, Olive Kitteridge, The Brink and the recently cancelled Vinyl – have failed to resonate with viewers.

Political dramas based on real-life events such as Game Change, Too Big To Fail and Recount have also struggled to connect with audiences outside the US, as have biopics You Don’t Know Jack (about assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kervorkian), Temple Grandin (the autistic inventor of the ‘hug box’) and Phil Spector (the famous The Beatles producer now in prison for murder).

So for Sky Atlantic, GoT is an essential part of its long-running deal with HBO, wisely beefed up earlier this year by a similar agreement with Showtime.

Returning to the show itself, its approaching end in 2018 has prompted inevitable speculation about a possible prequel, with two distinct possibilities.

Vinyl has been cancelled after a single season
Vinyl has been cancelled after a single season

Through the visions of the Three-Eyed Crow (played by Max Von Sydow) and other flashbacks, season six has already given us tantalising glimpses of King Robert’s rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, including Ned Stark’s epic duel with Ser Arthur Dayne and Jamie Lannister’s slaying of Aerys.

For a GoT fan, the prospect of seeing the young (non-corpulent) Robert Baratheon and his deadly clash with Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford must be enticing, as well as earlier incarnations of Tywin Lannister, Stannis Baratheon and Jon Arryn, the latter seen only as a corpse in the series.

Another possibility would be to adapt other work from GoT author George RR Martin. Novella series Tales of Dunk & Egg, set 90 years before the events of the books on which GoT is based, is somewhat lighter in tone. The stories provide further insights into the complicated world of Westeros and how the seeds of rebellion were planted decades before Robert Baratheon began his campaign to oust the Targaryens and avenge the ‘abduction’ of Lyanna Stark.

If so, will current showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss be heavily involved, or will they take a backseat and explore other, non-Martin projects?

Furthermore, will the success of the show prompt HBO to develop works in similar territory? This is a risky path but one that may be worth treading, despite the inevitable comparisons to GoT.

After all, GoT started well but it only become a phenomenon in season three, a fact that may persuade HBO to persist with the long haul involved in commissioning another serious fantasy show.

Vikings has performed well for History
Vikings has performed well for History

Other networks’ attempts to exploit the success of GoT with dramas of a similar style have had varying levels of success.

History’s Vikings has carved out a distinct identity and proved a ratings winner, but others have paled in comparison, including The Bastard Executioner (FX), Beowulf (ITV/Esquire), The Last Kingdom (BBC2/BBC America), The White Queen (BBC1/STARZ) and ABC’s Of Kings & Prophets – all of which have failed to ignite the same interest as GoT.

Bernard Cornwell, who wrote the books on which The Last Kingdom is based, took a swipe at HBO’s fantasy behemoth in the Radio Times, saying of the show: “This is very, very dull. So they put a lot of naked women behind it all, they’re called ‘sex-planations’ in the trade. My programmes won’t need sex-planations.”

Sky and BBC1 are going back to the fantasy/sword-and-sorcery well, with The Last Dragonslayer and Troy: Fall of a City respectively, but industry expectations are currently not especially high for either show.

Long-gestating plans for a film followed by a TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s popular Dark Tower series of novels have now been abandoned solely in favour of a cycle of movies, with stars including Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey attached.

There are also a number of serious fantasy novels in development as series; the trick for HBO will be to order something that shares some of GoT’s DNA without being a copycat. Perhaps a fresh take on a known property may do the trick.

Could there be mileage in looking at ‘classics’ of the fantasy genre that could benefit from a new HBO-style spin without the accusations of aping the GoT formula?

Possibly one of Robert E Howard’s characters Conan, Kull and Soloman Kane, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, which has a legion of fans despite the poorly received 2012 movie adaptation titled John Carter. Maybe even Michael Moorcock’s lesser-known Elric could also get a TV spin.

After all, Elric’s blade is referenced in GoT – when the obnoxious King Joffrey Baratheon is presented with a new sword at his wedding feast, he asks the crowd what should he name it, and someone shouts out “Stormbringer.”

For a more female-skewing audience, Ursula K Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea novels, which possess a unique aesthetic, clearly distinguishable from the world of GoT, could be worth a pop. Syfy’s 2005 miniseries did little justice to the books and was quickly forgotten.

To some minds, HBO’s Rome and Starz’s Spartacus acted as trailblazers for GoT – perhaps HBO will return to the apparently shelved remake of I Claudius.

With their dynastic blood-letting, perversion and intrigue, the time may well be ripe for a big-budget take on Robert Graves’ novels.

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Light at the end of The Tunnel?

Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel
Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel

Season two of Sky Atlantic’s The Tunnel finished on May 31, and although the official ratings aren’t yet in for the last couple of episodes, the show hasn’t done as well as its first season in late 2013.

While the first outing debuted with 803,000 viewers (live+7), the follow-up kicked off with 680,000. The first run settled down around the 500,000 mark, whereas the second season had been attracting around 300,000.

This reduced audience doesn’t necessarily mean the second season (Sabotage) is inferior to the first. There are several possible explanations for why it hasn’t achieved the same high standards.

One was the unfortunate timing of the show’s launch. Due to premiere around the time of the Belgium terrorist attacks, it was delayed by a week out of respect for the victims. This may have been enough to knock the edge off the show’s appeal.

Another is that the Scandinavian show on which The Tunnel is based, The Bridge, has become a big international hit in its own right. With BBC4 in the UK attracting an audience in excess of one million for the first three seasons of The Bridge, it’s possible that audiences have decided to bypass The Tunnel in deference to the original.

There’s also the time lag between the two seasons. Echoing the situation with The Returned in France, it’s possible that the lengthy gap between them has sapped the franchise of some of its momentum. By a similar token, people who missed season one may (rightly or wrongly) have shunned season two for fear of walking into a franchise in the middle of its story.

The Bridge, on which The Tunnel is based
The Bridge, on which The Tunnel is based

Then there’s the fact that Sky Atlantic ‘did a Netflix,’ releasing all eight episodes of the latest season in one go as a box set. To get a true reflection of the show’s performance, we really need to see how it did when those numbers are also factored in.

And finally there is the ongoing process of media fragmentation. Two or three years on from the launch of season one, there are new scripted channels and new platforms pulling audience away from Sky Atlantic.

Overall, however, the Ben Richards-scripted show has probably done enough to justify a third season – particularly as the cost of production is shared with Canal+ in France and it can be aired across Sky’s services in Italy, Germany, Austria and Ireland.

While it can’t compete in ratings terms with Sky Atlantic shows such as Game of Thrones and Fortitude, it outperformed The Last Panthers and is comfortably ahead of most of the US acquisitions that have featured on the channel (Vinyl, Veep, Billions).

As we’ve observed before, there is so much scripted content on the international market these days that it’s incredibly hard for shows to make their mark – unless they are placed in BBC1 primetime or the AMC slot just after The Walking Dead. However, one show that has managed to make some noise this week is Entertainment One (eOne) TV’s polyamorous comedy You Me Her.

Created and written by showrunner John Scott Shepherd, the show is about a couple who hire a female sex worker to introduce a spark into their sex lives. All three then fall in love.

You Me Her has been given a second season
You Me Her has been given a second season

There’s very little public indication of how the first series did when it aired on DirecTV’s Audience Network in March, but the channel is obviously happy, having just greenlit two new seasons. “Our viewers have opened their hearts and minds to embrace the unique relationship between Jack, Emma and Izzy,” said Chris Long, senior VP of original content and production at AT&T (the company behind DirecTV). “Audiences strive for compelling storylines and intriguing characters, and we believe in the potential for this show to grow even more as we continue our journey with eOne.”

You Me Her is the second collaboration between DirecTV and eOne. The two companies previously partnered on Rogue, a police drama starring Thandie Newton.

Commenting on the alliance, John Morayniss, CEO of eOne Television, added: “You Me Her is a bold, provocative show that grabs your attention immediately. We’re delighted AT&T has signed on for another two seasons, which speaks to the strength of these dynamic characters and storytelling. We’re looking forward to seeing how this complicated, polyamorous relationship that John Scott Shepherd has brilliantly created will continue to unfold.”

One story that has attracted a lot of attention this week is Netflix’s decision to release some insight into how its viewers consume drama series. Although the SVoD platform didn’t actually go as far as releasing any numbers, it did provide some insights into the speed at which people binge shows.

In a nutshell, the Netflix research looked at the way audiences watch 100 shows across 190 countries (though keep in mind that some of these countries will have small subscriber bases, so what we’re primarily seeing is user behaviour in major subscriber territories like the US, Canada, UK and Scandinavia).

Netflix-binge-scaleNetflix then created a binge scale (see above), identifying the shows that get devoured most quickly. Its conclusion? “Series like Sense8, Orphan Black and The 100 grab you, assault your senses and make it hard to pull away. The classic elements of horror and thrillers go straight for the gut, pushing the placement of series like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Fall towards the devour end of the scale. Likewise, comedies with a dramatic bent, like Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie and Grace and Frankie seem to tickle our fancy and make it easy to say ‘just one more.’”

By contrast, Netflix added: “It’s no surprise that complex narratives, like House of Cards and Bloodline, are indulged at an unhurried pace. Nor that viewers take care to appreciate the details of dramas set in bygone eras, like Peaky Blinders and Mad Men. Maybe less obvious are comedies like BoJack Horseman, Love and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But the societal commentary that powers their densely layered comedy paired with characters as flawed as they are entertaining allows them to be savoured.”

You might be tempted to suggest that shows at the slower end of the scale are not being savoured and are instead struggling to hold viewer attention. However, with strong titles like House of Cards, Narcos and Daredevil in that position, it seems unlikely.

Possibly a point that doesn’t come out of the analysis is different binging speeds according to age. A teenager or young, single adult probably has more time (and inclination) to watch episodes back to back than an older adult (at least up to the age of 60). So that might skew Netflix’s binge-ometer.

More granular insights are probably required to make use of Netflix’s data. But there may be a lesson for more traditional channels about the way they deliver their content to audiences. If channels want to make a big impact quickly, then perhaps they need to buy or commission shows that lend themselves to super-fast binging. But if they want to encourage audiences to come back to them week after week, then there may be a role for shows where audiences are happy to wait for the next episode.

Nashville
Nashville could be revived on CMT

In terms of shows destined to be big international hits, FX Productions and Marvel Television’s X-Men spin-off series Legion looks well-positioned to make its mark. An eight-part series from Noah Hawley (Fargo), the show will debut on FX in early 2017 after being produced in Vancouver this summer.

As the result of a new deal signed this week, it will also have a day-and-date premiere on Fox channels in 125 countries.

Legion follows David Haller who, diagnosed as schizophrenic, has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. But after a strange encounter with a fellow patient, he is confronted with the possibility that the voices he hears and the visions he sees might just be real.

Finally, there may be a reprieve for country-and-western scripted series Nashville, cancelled after four seasons by ABC. Producer Lionsgate has been looking for a new home for the show and there are reports that CMT may be willing to pick up the tab.

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Outlander outdoes itself on Starz

Outlander
Outlander’s season two premiere delivered its best ratings performance yet

It’s not quite Games of Thrones, but adventure/romance/time-travel series Outlander is proving to be an ace in the pack for US pay TV channel Starz. The first episode of season two aired last Saturday and attracted an audience of 1.46 million (Nielsen’s live plus same-day ratings).

Not only is this a record for the show, it translates into a 50% increase on its season one finale. This suggests that a lot of people played catch-up on the series and have now been converted into hardcore same-day fans.

The show also set a Starz record for a season premiere, beating Power’s second-season opener by a fraction. All of these metrics bode well for Outlander, and suggest Starz may have managed to get its claws into a female audience, with a lot of its shows to date – the likes of Black Sails and Spartacus – having felt quite male-skewing.

Starz also launched its new Steven Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, on Sunday. Because it’s Hollywood director Soderbergh, the critics have taken this show very seriously, mostly coming out in favour (though The New Yorker reviewer Richard Bordy wasn’t a fan). Less clear-cut is the feedback from IMDb, where the show has scored a 7.4 rating, which suggests the audience is either ambivalent or polarised.

Riley Keough stars in The Girlfriend Experience
Riley Keough stars in The Girlfriend Experience

In terms of TV ratings, The Girlfriend Experience launched with back-to-back episodes – averaging around 350,000 viewers across the two. The numbers look stronger if you add up the various staggered showings of the new episodes, but it’s not an outright success – especially when you consider there’s a lot of raunchy content to lure viewers in. So we’ll need a few more weeks to see if the show can build.

Season two of AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) also launched last weekend. With an overall audience of 6.67 million, this is in a similar ballpark to the ratings it was achieving at the end of season one. True, FTWD saw a slide in the number of 18-49s watching the show, but it is so far ahead of AMC’s other series (with the exception of The Walking Dead) that it seems nitpicky to point that out.

It’s also in a league of its own compared with the rest of the US cable universe. Keep in mind that FTWD also has a Talking Dead chatshow brand extension, which brings in a further 2.36 million viewers just after it finishes. On the whole, AMC must be ecstatic about the show’s numbers.

Fear The Walking Dead
Fear The Walking Dead looks to be picking up where its first season left off, securing strong numbers

The network has delivered some superb US-produced shows over the years (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands to name but a few). But it was notable that it didn’t do quite so well in ratings terms with the UK version of Humans (although this is also a good show). Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the channel does when it airs the six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.

The Night Manager recently aired in the UK, where it was a resounding success for the BBC – achieving an audience of eight to nine million for every episode (Live+7 days: BARB). In terms of its AMC showing (which begins on April 19 at 22.00), one thing it has in its favour (compared to Humans, for example) is an internationally recognisable cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.

If the show were on PBS (or maybe even A&E) it would be a dead cert to succeed. But whether the AMC audience will be as enthusiastic is an open question. Hopefully for British-based producers, it will be a big hit.

The Night Manager was a resounding success on BBC1
The Night Manager was a resounding success on BBC1, but how will it fare on AMC?

Meanwhile, US cable channel Bravo’s first foray into scripted TV was Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently completed its second season with an average of 660,000 viewers per episode – reasonable, but not amazing. Nevertheless, it’s clearly doing a good enough job for Bravo because the network has just announced that it wants three more seasons (a commitment that echoes Netflix’s recent backing for Orange is the New Black).

“With our first foray into scripted, Bravo’s viewers fell in love with Abby (the lead character) and her close-knit group of friends experiencing the joys and disappointments of juggling dating, careers, family and relationships,” said Frances Berwick, president of Lifestyle Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all excited to see what’s next for Abby and her friends.”

One show that is, perhaps surprisingly, under pressure is ABC’s The Catch, which started airing on March 24. The latest series from the Shonda Rhimes stable (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), it was expected to fly out of the blocks. Instead, it debuted to a lacklustre 5.85 million viewers.

The Catch isn't doing as well as expected
The Catch isn’t doing as well as expected

Now three episodes in, it is hovering just under the five million mark. It would be a major surprise if ABC bailed on a Shonda Rhimes show after just one season, but The Catch does need to start turning things round quite soon to keep the channel’s suits on board.

On the other side of the Atlantic, ITV has decided to ditch its fantasy adventure series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, thus rounding off a painful winter that also saw an unsuccessful outing for Jekyll & Hyde. The good news, however, is that spring has started off much more promisingly with strong ratings for ITV’s attempt at Nordic noir, Hans Rosenfeldt’s Marcella, and Sunday night treat The Durrells, which launched in the week ending April 3 with around 6.68 million viewers.

This will be welcome news for Polly Hill, who has just quit as BBC controller of drama to become ITV’s new head of drama. Explaining her decision to jump ship at a time when the BBC has just racked up successes with Doctor Foster, Poldark, War & Peace and The Night Manager, Hill said: “After 11 years at the BBC I am proud to be leaving it at the top of its game. ITV has always played a vital part in the landscape of British drama and shows such as Cracker, Prime Suspect and Band of Gold had a huge influence on me and the drama I wanted to make.

Stephen Dillane and Clemence Poesy in The Tunnel
Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel

“I am proud to be joining ITV and will lead the drama department into its next exciting chapter, making the very best popular drama, which will feel original, distinctive and authored. I can’t wait to start.”

Finally, one show to keep an eye on is the second season of The Tunnel (adapted from The Bridge), on Sky Atlantic, which debuted on April 12. The first season, which aired in 2013, settled down at around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers.

A three-year absence means the franchise will probably have lost some momentum, but early reports suggest The Tunnel is the channel’s biggest series launch of the year to date. We’ll check back in after a couple more episodes to see how the ratings performance of season two stacks up against the first outing.

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Vikings prosper on History

Vikings' 20-episode fifth season will air next year
Vikings’ 20-episode fifth season will air next year

The thesis that high-quality TV drama can lift the fortunes of any TV network, no matter its positioning in the market, was partly inspired by the success of Vikings on History in the US.

Launched in March 2013 as a nine-part series, the Michael Hirst-produced drama encouraged the reappraisal of a network that had become a little too reliant on reality TV series like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. The fact that History had previously been perceived as a factual-only TV channel also encouraged an array of other networks to try their hand with scripted series.

Vikings, which is positioned as an Irish/Canadian coproduction, has grown into a huge franchise for History. After following up the first season with two more batches of 10 episodes in 2014 and 2015, the channel upped its commitment to 20 episodes for season four, which is currently on air. And that isn’t the end of the story – History has just ordered a further 20 episodes for 2017.

In total, this means there will be 69 episodes of the show by the end of 2017, which is also great news for MGM TV, which handles international distribution.

To date the main headline regarding season five, aside from the number of episodes, is that Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) will be joining the cast. Production starts this summer.

Vikings has proved a ratings stalwart for History at a time when the channel has been busy developing other scripted ideas for its slate. Shows set to appear on History in the near future include Roots, Six, Knightfall and the acquisition War & Peace.

Rowan Joffe
Rowan Joffe

Meanwhile, there are reports that Sky Atlantic has commissioned indie producer Kudos to make its next big-budget drama, Tin Star. Created by Rowan Joffe, The Calgary Sun in Canada says the series is “an epic tale of deception, betrayal, murder and revenge set against the backdrop of a remote and beautiful Canadian mountain town; a perfect idyll, transformed when big business moves into the area.” The series will shoot near Calgary in late spring.

Joffe, the son of renowned director Roland Joffe, has made a name for himself in recent years with productions such as Brighton Rock, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall and Before I Go to Sleep. As yet there are no casting details on the project.

With Empire a breakout hit for Fox and American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson doing well on FX, it’s interesting to note that the depiction and treatment of African-Americans is starting to become a key focal point for the Fox family of channels.

At the mainstream end of the spectrum, Fox followed Empire with crime procedural Rosewood, while in the case of the American Crime Story franchise, FX is planning to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in season two. Fox has also placed a straight-to-series order for Shots Fired, which will analyse the recent racial tensions and police shooting incidents that have spurred demonstrations and outrage across the country.

Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood Hunt, Shots Fired looks set to be a major piece of work with a high-profile cast including Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer. It will focus on the political, commercial, legal and social repercussions of a North Carolina shooting, with Hunt playing a fictional North Carolina state governor and Dreyfuss a real-estate mogul who owns privatised prisons.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters has been given a second run on Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family)

In other developments, US cable channel Freeform, formerly known as ABC Family, has renewed its supernatural fantasy drama Shadowhunters. Based on book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, it tells the story of humans born with angelic blood who protect humanity.

NBC, meanwhile, has confirmed the fourth show in its Chicago procedural portfolio will be a legal series called Chicago Justice. The new show will be introduced to viewers during episode 21 of sister series Chicago PD, which is coming up in April.

This isn’t an especially active time of year for new drama greenlights, with the emphasis being on renewals and acquisitions. In terms of the latter, UK pay TV channel Sky Living has added Jennifer Lopez crime drama Shades of Blue and season four of country music drama Nashville to its line-up (The latter previously aired on More4). These join an existing slate of US series that includes Scandal, Elementary, The Blacklist, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Bones and Blindspot. Shonda Rhimes’ new show, The Catch, will also soon feature on the channel.

Distributor Hat Trick International, meanwhile, has announced a number of sales of three-part period drama Doctor Thorne. Based on the novel by Anthony Trollope, the fact this is Julian Fellowes’ first project since Downton Abbey was always expected to generate strong interest among buyers.

Channels to have jumped on board so far include VRT Belgium, DR Byen Denmark, UTV Ireland, YES Satellite Services Israel, Prime New Zealand and SVT Sweden. The show has also been licensed for the US and Canada by The Weinstein Company.

Doctor Thorne
Doctor Thorne has sold into a number of territories

Hat Trick sales director Sarah Tong said: “Doctor Thorne received a great deal of interest from the outset and we are delighted to announce these pre-sales ahead of MipTV (the Cannes market at the start of April). The unique combination of the original Trollope story together with Julian Fellowes’ first-class adaptation and input from the production team at Hat Trick has delivered a miniseries that will no doubt become a classic. We are looking forward to screening episodes of the drama to our clients.” Next week we’ll take a closer look at some of the dramas being presented at Mip.

Finally, a cancellation story: ABC in the US has axed biblical drama Of Kings and Prophets after just two episodes. The show, which tells the story of Saul and David from the Old Testament, already had a shadow hanging over it after ABC moved it out of the autumn schedule to make a few changes. But dismal ratings in the first two episodes sealed the show’s unhappy fate.

Two interesting themes come out of this story. The first is that ABC has a major problem with Tuesday at 22.00, with a long line of shows failing to perform in the slot (including Wicked City). The second is that biblical stories don’t seem to be able to gain much traction on US network TV.

While Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible did exceptionally well for cable network History, its sequel, AD: The Bible Continues, was aired on NBC and only lasted a single season before it too was cancelled.

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Walking Dead tramples cable competition

The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape
The Walking Dead continues to dominate the cable landscape with huge ratings on AMC

AMC’s The Walking Dead is back with a bang and Better Call Saul didn’t do badly either. This week we look at some of the other big US cable shows limbering up for launch. Also, HBO’s Vinyl renewed and ITV’s Beowulf on the brink.

This is an interesting time of year for US cable drama. On the one hand, you get a number of new launches. On the other, you get established series returning after their winter break.

AMC’s zombie phenomenon The Walking Dead (TWD), for example, returned on Valentine’s Day after a two-month pause with a storming 13.7 million same-day audience – the highest-rating cable show of the week by a mile. This was down slightly on the pre-Christmas finale episode but not enough to sound any alarms.

In fact, the franchise is so strong that the second highest-rating show of the week was Talking Dead, the fan chatshow that comes immediately after each episode. With 6.4 million viewers, this franchise extension attracts a bigger audience than virtually every drama on cable. To ram home the show’s dominance, the fifth highest-rating telecast of the week was a TWD marathon, which drew in just under five million viewers.

Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson
Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson

The only other drama to make it into the cable top 25 during this week was FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson, which recorded a same-day audience of 3.33 million for episode three. This is down on the previous episode but not calamitously, suggesting the show will probably settle at around the three million mark. If this is the case then it will certainly end this season as FX’s top-rated show.

TWD’s outlandishly strong performance makes most other cable shows look feeble by comparison. But it’s important to readjust the lens before making a judgement. For example, season two of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has just debuted with 2.57 million. While that may not be in the same league as TWD, it is a thoroughly respectable score that comes in at a similar level to the end of season one. The only AMC shows that outperform it are TWD, its companion series Fear The Walking Dead and the martial arts fantasy Into the Badlands.

The fact that this is a launch period for shows means there are always numerous pre-launch trailers on display to whet people’s appetites. FX, for example, has been airing promos for The Americans, a period espionage drama about two KGB agents deep undercover in the US during the 1980s.

The Americans' chances of a fifth season look slim
The Americans’ chances of a fifth season look slim

The Americans is now in season four and has been received well by pundits and hardcore cable viewers. But its audience is only borderline sustainable, having come in around the one million mark for series three. That’s down on the season two average of 1.34 million and also less than the 1.22 million average that led to a first-season cancellation for FX’s medieval adventure The Bastard Executioner. Without some kind of uplift for The Americans, it’s tough to see the show surviving for a fifth season – unless it racks up a few high-profile awards to justify its existence.

Another show that has been promoted heavily in recent weeks is History Channel’s Vikings, which returned for a fourth run yesterday. This is a key show for History, which increased the episode order from 10 for the first three seasons to 20 for this one on the back of strong ratings.

For season three, the show was attracting around two million same-day viewers, jumping to 4.3 million for Live+3 days (one of the biggest uplifts to be found in scripted cable TV). The season-three premiere on Feb 19 last year attracted 4.6 million Live+3 viewers, so that is the kind of benchmark History will be looking for to ensure its increased investment is paying off. An added bonus is that the show also does well on History in Canada.

Vikings
Vikings returned to History Channel yesterday with a double-length season

Another key series being trailed now is BBC America’s Orphan Black, which returns to US screens on April 14 with a 10-episode run. Season three ratings of 440,000 don’t sound that high when put against the shows already mentioned, but BBC America is a smaller channel with more limited ratings expectations (The Last Kingdom, for example, was pulling in around 350,000 to 400,000 when it aired on the channel last year).

Another show that recently returned to US screens after an extended autumn/winter break was USA Network’s slick city lawyer drama Suits. In the past we’ve talked up the ratings performance of this show but there are now signs that it is finally flagging. While the first half of season five (aired during summer) was hitting similar audiences to season four (circa 2.1 to 2.3 million), the first four episodes since the show’s return have come in around 1.5 to 1.7 million. Suits is still USA Network’s top show but there will be some concern about the slide, especially given that the network committed to season six a while ago.

As we’ve said many times, the decision whether to renew a show in the pay TV space is about not just the headline ratings, but also the role the programme plays in pulling subscribers to a network and keeping them there.

Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO
Martin Scorsese’s music industry drama Vinyl has already been given a second season on HBO

HBO, for example, has just renewed its new Martin Scorsese-directed music series Vinyl for a second season after just one episode of the first season. Clearly this isn’t anything to do with the ratings, which came in at a modest 760,000. Instead, HBO will be thinking about the value of having a high-concept Scorsese drama on its playlist – not just in the US but also on own-branded or partner services around the world, such as HBO Go Nordic and Sky Atlantic.

Meanwhile, UK newspapers are starting to report that ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is going to be axed at the end of its first season. With seven out of 12 episodes aired, the show is currently pulling in a below-par 1.5 million viewers. ITV is not commenting on the reports as yet but is unlikely to recommission such a big-budget show with this level of audience. A cancellation will, however, be a big blow to ITV, which has already pulled the plug on Jekyll and Hyde, another foray into the fantasy adventure space. Cable network Esquire will also be disappointed, having picked up the show in the hope it might develop into a long-running franchise.

Fantasy fans won’t be worried, however, because season six of HBO’s Game of Thrones is launching on April 24. It will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK at the same time (02.00 local time). Despite this graveyard slot on a niche pay TV channel, chances are the new Game of Thrones series will still outrate Beowulf, which just goes to show the power of the big cable brands.

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