Eight-part drama Jamestown charts the early days of the first British settlers as they embark on their lives in America, among them a group of women destined to marry the men of the colony.
Facing all manner of trials, the settlers come together to conquer and adjust to the realities of their new lives on the other side of the world. But while Jamestown is a place for them to build new lives and start again, it’s also somewhere past secrets can be buried.
Writer Bill Gallagher (Lark Rise to Candleford, The Paradise) tells DQ about the historical facts that inspired the story of Jamestown, the research he undertook in Virginia and why he compares the series to a novel.
He also discusses the value of collaboration to help create the identity of a show, which in turn informs the direction, casting and other decisions during production.
Jamestown, which debuts on May 5, is produced by Carnival Films for Sky1 and is distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
Thekla Reuten tells DQ about joining the cast of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man and ponders what she might do with a bit of good fortune.
Fortune didn’t always favour James Nesbitt during the first season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, in which he plays a detective given a magical bracelet that gives him unlimited good luck.
Circumstances have become trickier still for Nesbitt’s DI Harry Clayton in season two, with his world thrown further into chaos after his discovery of the existence of a second bracelet that belongs to a mysterious stranger called Isabella.
Enter Thekla Reuten, a Dutch actor whose big-screen credits include In Bruges and The American. She has also previously appeared in British TV dramas Restless and Hidden, and US series such as Showtime’s Sleeper Cell and long-running ABC series Lost.
“I’m always after the story,” she tells DQ about how she chooses her parts. “It can be theatre, which is how I started out, it can be film and it can be television. Who knows what medium will be invented in the near future? But for me it’s always about the story and the people involved. That’s what grabs me.”
The decision to play Isabella appealed to Reuten for several reasons, most notably her intrigue at a cop show tinged with comic-book sensibilities. As its full title suggests, the show, produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, was co-created by comic-book legend Stan Lee.
“It’s a thrilling combination,” she says. “Isabella was described as a mysterious, glamorous woman because she’s very experienced with her bracelet – she’s had it for 10 years, which we learn in the first episode. It can be very hard when a role starts out so mysteriously but she pushes the storyline forward so we’ll find out about her with Harry while watching the series.
“What I did love about her is she’s a mother and, because of the bracelet, she also leans towards being a comic-book character because she has this power and she knows how to work with it. She has seen that Harry’s found it all quite vexing for the first season, and he seems to want to get rid of it. But she wants to show him the other side of it. Also, they’re the only two people in the world with a bracelet and it’s lonely. It’s made Harry very isolated during the first season, while she’s had it for 10 years. So there’s an instant connection when he sees another person with a bracelet; it’s a shock as well at first but he’s intrigued.”
Though she had never met him before, Reuten says working with Nesbitt also soon became part of the charm of joining the cast in season two. She describes the leading man as “lovely, generous and down to Earth” and says they shared the same ideas about their characters and their screen relationship from the first script read-through.
“I could ask him lots of questions about the superhero element and these two worlds combining, and we just had a really good connection over that, talking about how we could give Isabella and Harry their world,” explains Reuten, who was hoisted up onto wires alongside her co-star for publicity shots for the show, which returned to Sky1 in the UK last month.
“It felt very organic and lovely. In working with him in the middle of London, he was very open and kind to people approaching him, and very patient if they wanted to take a picture. You just feel he’s loved by a huge audience and they are happy to approach him. It’s been a big pleasure.”
Viewers of season one will remember the central role the UK’s capital city plays in the series, with producers keen to present a postcard view of London by using various landmarks as backdrops throughout the series.
Reuten spent six months living in London during filming last summer and says it was the perfect way to see the sights. “I knew London a little bit, being here every now and then for a day or two, but with the locations that my character goes to – I was on the Millennium Bridge [which can be seen behind Reuten in the top image], in the National Gallery before opening time, at Piccadilly Circus on a Friday afternoon, in the West End and on rooftops with all these amazing views of London – it felt like being on a London holiday!”
She recalls “bumping into” Somerset House during one expedition around town on a day off, only to discover a couple of days later that she would be filming at the historic location.
“I saw on the call sheet my character was going to walk through the fountains of Somerset House – that’s one of my favourite scenes,” she says. “That’s a big extra when you work on a show and you can spend your days off at Somerset House in the fountains and it’s all yours for a whole morning. It was also really special to be in the National Gallery before opening – somehow being in front of those paintings on your own makes it really different. There’s something about it, it’s really magical. So I’m very thankful for those enormous treats that come with a job that I’m already very happy doing.”
More challenging were the shoots at the aforementioned tourist hotspots of Piccadilly Circus and the Millennium Bridge, where Reuten and Nesbitt were tasked with completing their scenes as star-spotting crowds grew around them.
“The Millennium Bridge is a public place so you’re not allowed to stop people there,” says the actor. “So they were being guided around us. We had quite a lot of heavy dialogue and we were doing this while people were there checking out Jimmy. You have to work hard building a little wall around you but it’s great, it’s wonderful! You just have to focus really hard and shut the outside world out.”
She continues: “We were in the West End on a Friday night, it was Halloween, and trying to walk there with Jimmy and play a scene was a big challenge. People were very happy because they’d had a little drink – they were all dressed up really weirdly so if they jumped into shot, you couldn’t use it. Normally you could just ignore it but, with those crazy outfits, that was impossible. So that was fun!”
Ultimately, viewers will see Isabella take DI Clayton on a new journey as he continues to question life with the lucky bracelet, but Reuten also points to the family stories that make the series stand out from the crowd.
“What I like about the second season is that the stories about Harry and his family are stronger,” she says. “Obviously, when you do a second season, you build from the first one. And the characters that Amara Karan (DS Suri Chohan), Darren Boyd (DI Steve Orwell), Steven Mackintosh (DSI Alistair Winter) and Sienna Guillory (Eve) all play, that goes to the next level as well. I really like how the show has these private lives and the different cases, and then my storyline pushing it forward. Isabella pushes the story of the bracelet to a more extreme situation.”
But what would Reuten do if she were given the power of never-ending luck?
“I really wouldn’t want to have it – that’s what I know from being in the series!” she jokes. “It’s fine the way it is. Where you have it, you enjoy it – and yet it can be gone before you know it.
“I definitely know a few changes in the world I would like to make, and there are quite a few obvious ones! It’s a really strange world at the moment, with lots of negativity and divisiveness. In the end, I hope everyone sees that it’s not the way we should want to have the world. So I would use a little magic on that.”
James Nesbitt is reunited with his enchanted bracelet in the second season of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. DQ chats to the cast and production team on set in East London.
The offices of the Murder Investigation Squad (MIS) have a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the River Thames, offering sights of some of London’s best-known landmarks.
Yet on the police station set of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, this impressive vista is revealed to be an illuminated backdrop. Elsewhere, banks of computer screens stand in front of a backlit map of the city, surrounded by bare-concrete walls and pillars that complement the grey steel desks and filing cabinets that complete the Bethnal Green set’s industrial look.
The series, which first launched on the UK’s Sky1 in January 2016, is back for a second season after becoming the pay TV network’s highest-rated original drama series ever, attracting an average audience of 1.9 million.
Viewers followed the fortunes of Detective Inspector Harry Clayton (James Nesbitt), who acquires an ancient bracelet that makes him incredibly lucky. Now the stakes are set to rise higher as he discovers the existence of a second bracelet.
The new 10-part season, launching tomorrow, also takes on a new structure, shifting from the serialised storyline of season one and picking up a story-of-the-week format as DI Clayton becomes embroiled in new cases in each episode.
Co-created by comic book writer Stan Lee, Lucky Man is produced by Carnival Films in association with POW! Entertainment and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
“If the first season was about getting the bracelet, understanding what it is, believing in it and realising the power of it, the second season is about what Harry does with it,” explains exec producer Richard Fell. “He’s confronted by the possibilities of what it might or might not do when he meets the mysterious Isabella, who has had a bracelet for 10 years. This means Harry has to make some decisions about what he’s going to do now he’s accepted he has a lucky bracelet and how powerful it really is. And, in that classic Stan Lee way, is it a curse, a blessing or both – and how do you balance it out?”
Fell describes Lucky Man as “a little bit of crime drama, a little bit of high-concept superhero drama and definitely an action show.” But underneath it all is a very British drama, he says, with the lead character pitched as a flawed hero who often walks far too close to the line. “A British show doing a British version of The Flash or even Spider-Man would grate slightly,” he admits. “Harry is definitely a very British hero.”
Madonna Baptiste, who joined Lucky Man as producer for season two, feels many ingredients contributed to the show’s successful debut run. “It was fun, entertaining, had a great cast and great crimes,” she says. “It was a nice mix but ultimately it was great entertainment, plus it had the appeal of Stan Lee so it felt a little bit global. It was ambitious and it was a great Sky1 show. That’s what I loved about it. It was something I hadn’t seen before.”
Back on set during repeated takes of an interrogation scene for episode seven, Nesbitt is asked to kick over the same chair several times as Lily-Anne Lau (a returning Jing Lusi) gets the better of Clayton and his partner DS Suri Chohan (Amara Karan).
Chatting between takes, Nesbitt says: “I wasn’t sure where season two would go or how the character would develop but they’ve done a great job.” Wrapped in a knee-length coat to guard against the biting cold temperatures on set, Karan adds: “There’s a great cast and there’s lots of group scenes so everyone’s involved all the time.”
The actor, who is now a huge star thanks to her turn as lawyer Chandra Kapoor in HBO miniseries The Night Of, also teased that there will be lots of surprises for her character as season two plays out. “It’s an amazing script and there’s lots of action,” she adds. “I’m getting physical this season and even get to fire a gun!”
Fell describes the series as “entertaining, bold and fun,” with the “brilliant” Nesbitt at its heart. “He’s the kind of actor who can convey what is quite a wild idea – a lucky bracelet that actually works – and give it heart so it doesn’t feel too silly,” he says. “There are moments where he brings it back to Earth. It’s a combination of those things. It’s great Friday night telly, it’s really fun. And it looks good, it’s got a lot of energy.”
Baptiste adds of the show’s star: “James just knows the character and the character’s voice. For me, that was helpful because you would send him the script and he would say, ‘I don’t think the line is right.’ He’s an absolute professional and everybody loves him. He brings the fun and he’s just entertaining. You love to watch him and that energy transfers to the set. But he does long hours, he’s constantly filming. He’s in 90% of the scenes. It’s challenging for him but I have never seen him grumpy. He’s always enthusiastic.”
For Lusi, whose casino owner Lau once again goes head-to-head with Clayton, returning to film season two felt like she had never been away. “I hope her return is unexpected,” she says of her character. “One of my favourite things about Lily-Anne is that she is unpredictable, so I hope the viewers don’t see her coming. With regards to what to expect, let’s just say she hasn’t exactly seen the error of her ways from season one. Her wardrobe still rocks though!”
Lusi, who has also appeared in crime dramas Scott & Bailey and Law & Order: UK, says the show’s premise perfectly blends elements of both detective and superhero series. “I really like the style of the show – the slickness, gloss and pace,” she adds. “It’s different to a lot of other British shows and Lucky Man is quite daring in that respect. The creatives made a unique and complex world that the actors revelled in bringing to life, and every day we laughed a lot. It’s important to have fun, no matter what you do, and fun we certainly had.”
The actor reveals she was more relaxed during filming this time around than she was for season one thanks to her chemistry with Nesbitt and Karan. “I knew that if anything went wrong, we would just laugh it off and carry on,” she explains. “The worst thing you can do on set is to pressure yourself. There’s enough pressure as it is, you don’t need to add to that.”
The producers faced entirely different pressures, however, as the show’s unique challenges included filming in multiple locations across London, and capturing stunts and explosions. The season opens with a dramatic car chase around the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the City of London.
Baptiste says: “We’ve done lots of falls from high buildings and fight sequences and they’ve all been fairly big and ambitious. They’ve all been quite brilliant. We did want to have a stunt on Tower Bridge but there’s a thing about bridges and people diving off them – you’re not allowed to do that sort of thing. The writers will create something huge and we try to make it manageable. We go as big as we can.”
Locations are also key to the show’s identity, with the creative team very consciously presenting postcard London and all its iconic landmarks. “The shows I really like are those that are sunk into the place where they’re filmed,” Fell says. “London is a character and it’s exciting. It’s got dark bits and light bits and it’s vibrant, amazing, diverse and full of energy. We wanted the show to have that look and feel. It’s a very different London [to that presented in other shows], purposefully. It is a bit of a love poem to the city. Everyone who’s worked on it has lived here for years and loves it and wants it to look good.”
“We did a bunch of shots on the Millennium Bridge and Jimmy [Nesbitt] and Thekla [Reuten, who plays Isabella] were trying to act a scene and there’s tourists coming in and having their pictures taken. For them to maintain their confidence and focus among that chaos is testament to how good they are. That’s probably the most challenging part about this show because we want to be right in it, in the middle of London.”
With filming completed in December, Baptiste recognises season one as a tough act to follow and hopes fans won’t be disappointed when the show returns. “We just want to build on that and give the fans a little bit more – but give them what they loved about the series too. There’s something very British about Lucky Man but American shows broaden our horizons and it ups everyone’s game. Lucky Man rises to that challenge very well.”
Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.
Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.
The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).
Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).
Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.
The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.
As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.
The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.
Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.
After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.
Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).
The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.
Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.
At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).
Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.
The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.
As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).
But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.
Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.
Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).
The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.
BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.
And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.
From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.
In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.
Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.
Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).
About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.
This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.
There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.
Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”
Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.
Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.
The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”
Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”
Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.
In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.
Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.
Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.
With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.
If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.
Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.
The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.
Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”
The team behind globetrotting new drama Hooten & The Lady want viewers to escape reality with a mix of daring adventures and intriguing characters.
In television, adventure series can be something of a poisoned chalice. As our heroes cross the globe in search of secret treasure, historical remains or ancient relics, only a few have lived up to the popcorn capers enjoyed by Indiana Jones and tomb raider
US series Warehouse 13, Alias and The Librarians have enjoyed success, while the Tia Carrere-fronted Relic Hunter was cancelled after completing its three-season contract. UK drama Bonekickers was buried after just one season.
Now comes Hooten & The Lady, an ambitious new series that follows the adventures of maverick Hooten and fearless historical expert Lady Alexandra Lindo-Parker as they travel the world in search of hidden treasures from the past.
From the mythical Amazonian golden City of Z to the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great, each episode in the eight-part series follows the duo on a new adventure through jungles, deserts and underground cities.
Michael Landes and Ophelia Lovibond star as Hooten and Lady Alexandra respectively, with support from Jane Seymour, Jessica Hynes, Jonathan Bailey and Shaun Parkes.
“Adventure is seen everywhere as a movie genre because television sometimes struggles with the lighter tone a show like this needs,” explains series creator Tony Jordan. “Luckily, that’s my style of writing, that’s what I do.
“There’s nothing else in this space. That’s what’s exciting about it. I love films like African Queen and Romancing the Stone – but I haven’t got anyone with a hat and a whip!”
Hooten & The Lady is fully funded by broadcaster Sky1 and distributor Sky Vision, which has given Jordan the freedom to push the series to its limits while taking in locations such as Rome, Moscow, Cambodia and Cape Town. It’s a huge undertaking for his production company, Red Planet Pictures, but Jordan says this show represents the kind of television he has always wanted to make.
“I’m a bit fucking fed up with serial killers,” he admits. “I’m fed up with how many different ways you can kill someone and how fucking long you can draw out finding out who killed all those children. I don’t mind that, let’s do that as well, but there was a time when television had both ends of the spectrum. There’s nothing like ‘Hooten.’
“When people have done this genre in the past, I always feel like they’ve tried to make an excuse for it. So they thought, ‘We can’t just do fun or adventure, can we make it supernatural?’ The thing about Hooten & The Lady is we’ve said there’s no supernatural. These are real things they’re looking for – the lost city of Eldorado in the Amazon, the missing scroll of Buddha, the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. All these real things, but with romance and imagination. You want to be with Hooten and the Lady. You just want to spend time with them and watch ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
With a £2m (US$2.64m) budget for each episode, the show is also filled with an array of dazzling stunts. “We’re killing the actors on a daily basis,” jokes Jordan, who co-writes the series with James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. “As a writer and producer, I want to do big shows. I want to set the world on fire.”
Having previously appeared in shows including Upstairs Downstairs, Love Soup and CSI: Miami, Landes has enjoyed “the adventure of a lifetime” starring as Hooten.
“It’s got a bit of the Indiana Jones-style genre and treasure hunting,” he says of the show. “There’s a bit of mystery about Hooten, which is fun. Tony gave me a whole backstory. Audiences want more than banter and we slowly peel away the story. You don’t even know his first name. He’s a mystery man and Tony does a great job to reveal his story.”
Landes jokes that while he’s “no Tom Cruise,” he enjoyed the opportunity to do his own stunts as often as possible – though on one occasion he was left grounded when the script called for a skydive.
“The action stuff is fun but it’s physical and that becomes tiring,” he explains. “Fighting in a helicopter sounds like a great idea but after 10 hours it’s physically demanding. Just the
grind of working all day every day, you have to have stamina.
“But I love to travel so I enjoyed that aspect. We went to the Kremlin and I love Rome so spending a week there was great. I got to travel through the city with a police escort on the back of a Vespa.”
“I watched Michael for years,” Jordan says of his leading man. “He’s this clean-cut American boy and I thought, ‘One day someone’s going get hold of him and mess him up.’ But no one ever did. So when Hooten & The Lady came around, I got hold of him and he’s a revelation. He’s a movie star.”
On Lovibond, the writer adds: “I was always a huge fan of Ophelia – she’s just got this quality about her; she’s really watchable. I think she’s got a touch of Katharine Hepburn about her. And then you put them together and watch Hooten & The Lady and you think you’re watching a movie. The dynamic between them and the way they spark off each other – American alpha male adventurer cut against an aristocrat lady – it’s great, it’s fun.”
The task of creating the world of Hooten & The Lady was handed to Michael Ralph, a long-time collaborator with Jordan who has previously worked on Red Planet series Hustle, Death in Paradise and Dickensian.
Ralph says he was immediately thrilled at the concept of Hooten, which he compares to Saturday-night matinee adventures shown on television during the 1950s and 1960s.
His challenge, however, was to create locations and sets around the world that viewers hadn’t seen before. “That meant we had to go deeper underground and further into the jungle, and higher and farther away,” he says.
“People are willing to embrace that and the genre means you can get away with more and have a rollicking good time. Scale was everything for me on this show – but people also have to believe it. That was the key.”
Alongside location shooting, Cape Town doubled for the desert, the Himalayas and the Egyptian city of Alexandria. For one scene that featured a village found on the edge of cliff, Ralph and his team built the set beside a dam and reservoir in the mountains.
“The characters are larger than life and where they go is more adventurous than ever before,” he says. “I had licence to create locations as big as the characters. Once I did the concept art, people would say, ‘Does that exist?’ and I would say, ‘No, but we can do it.’ People got such a thrill on the set. The actors thought they had walked into a 1940s black-and-white film and expected to see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. That’s the joy of it.”
For another scene in which Hooten falls through a rope bridge, a quarry was found to double as a deadly gorge. The steel frame of the bridge was subsequently pre-built and then transported by road to the location 12 hours away from the production base.
“Sometimes we have got to stop people from being too serious and remove them from the concept of realism,” Ralph says of Hooten & The Lady’s escapist ambitions. “It was like doing science-fiction for me because that’s the most exciting form of design. No one knows what it will look like. It’s something I can invent. I had the freedom to create a fantasy. Don’t do it by numbers, do it by heart.”
Working with Ralph was locations manager Luke Longmore, who says the concept of the series “took my breath away.”
“A massive amount of research is part of it,” he says of his role. “Most of the locations I hadn’t been to, but Google becomes your best friend. You research pictures of locations, but you’ve also got to understand the different lifestyles and cultures. You start with the research and then you marry the script to what you’ve researched and then try to find a local location. And once you’ve found it, other elements come in like logistics, permits and catering.
“With Hooten & The Lady, it was very challenging. It’s 90% planning, 10% work. When you’re shooting in the Cambodian and Amazon jungles, you’re dealing with the rain and trying to keep everyone warm and dry. Each location has got its own challenges but we had a fantastic production team and locations team, which made my job much easier.”
In practice, the real locations were used for exterior shots, while matching landmarks were found across South Africa for other scenes.
“Michael Ralph is a master of it,” Longmore continues. “He had seen most of the locations and we would take his lead on it, knowing what he wanted and trying to marry locally in South Africa with what was needed and what he required. Marrying up locations was fun. We’re privileged and blessed to have the whole world in South Africa. You can be in Bangkok or in the jungle.”
Landes adds: “The production value of it was very ambitious and we accomplished a lot during the seven-month shoot. When we call it a globetrotting, treasure-hunting drama, it really is. Alias never left the lot. There’s no faking what we did. It’s going to be a fun adventure.”
As networks invest in drama to define their channel, it’s this fun adventure that Jordan believes could become Sky1’s calling card when it launches tomorrow. “Look at what Mad Men and Breaking Bad did at AMC, and House of Cards at Netflix,” he concludes. “Sky Atlantic has done really well with the HBO vibe but then you think, ‘What’s Sky1?’ I think Sky1 is Hooten & The Lady.”
This week the UK is mourning the death of Caroline Aherne, the comic genius behind memorable shows and characters such as The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and ‘Checkout Girl,’ who appeared on iconic sketch comedy series The Fast Show.
Many of Aherne’s colleagues and collaborators, expressing their grief at her untimely death, have held her up as a comedy pioneer, which she undoubtedly was. However, she was also part of a great Northern tradition that includes the likes of George Formby, Stan Laurel, Les Dawson, Eric Morecambe, Alan Bennett, Shelagh Delaney, Morrissey, Julie Walters and Victoria Wood, another gifted female comedian who died this year.
Aherne’s humour was built around immaculate comic timing and close observation of the human condition. While rooted in her experience of growing up in the North, her insights were universal and, for the most part, benign. It would have been easy for her work to mock the working-class people it portrayed – but instead it celebrated them for their stoicism, loyalty and optimism. Her characters were people you could turn to with a problem.
This resonates with an interesting study conducted in 2009 by comedy expert Rosemarie Jarski, who set out to explore why the North of England has been such a rich source of relatable comedy. Her conclusion was that the North has developed a unique brand of wit that relies on self-deprecation, the desire to prick pomposity and the ability to find humour in the sadness of everyday life. “Northern humour is above all the humour of recognition,” she said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “Northern comedians don’t try to be cleverer than us. There are no airs and graces, no upmanship. They are one of us.” It’s notable that, in her interview, Jarski cited both Aherne and Wood for their ability to spin “comic gold out of pain and misery.”
In the wake of Aherne’s death, there has also been a rekindling of the debate about whether the UK television industry does enough to encourage distinctive working-class voices like hers.
At one level, this has never been a better time for working-class voices – if by that we mean on-screen representation. In comedy, we have the colossus that is Peter Kay – whose observations carry the same wit and wisdom as those of Aherne. And Aherne’s collaborator on The Royle Family, Craig Cash, is currently out in the market with his new Sky1 football-themed sitcom Rovers.
But the genre of comedy only scratches the surface in terms of the working-class characters we’re seeing on the small screen. In drama, Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley and Paul Abbott’s Shameless are both brilliant interpretations of working-class life, combining the comedy and struggle Jarski refers to above.
Similarly, a big change since Aherne first came onto the scene is the rise of reality TV. While this form of programme-making often polarises opinion, there’s no question that series like Benefits Street, Educating Essex, The Dealership and 24 Hours In A&E all tackle truths about what it’s like to be working class in 21st century Britain (both north and south of Watford). And then, of course, there is Gogglebox, narrated by Aherne. While not exclusively focused on working-class families, it is a natural successor to Aherne’s work (with Craig Cash) on The Royle Family.
Another element that must be factored into this debate is the rise of celebrity- and talent-show culture. Even a woman of Aherne’s undisputed abilities would have struggled to find a way to comment meaningfully on the circus that surrounds Big Brother, Geordie Shore, Got Talent, Take Me Out, I’m a Celebrity and the like. How do you create character comedy when TV and social media are filled with people you couldn’t begin to make up? This, after all, is the era of Ronnie Pickering, the road-raging cult hero.
On top of all this – and most importantly – is the centrality of soaps on British TV. Just this week, for example, ITV announced that the UK’s most successful and popular soap drama, Coronation Street, will add a sixth weekly episode from late 2017. Commenting on that decision, ITV director of television Kevin Lygo said: “I am a life-long fan of Coronation Street and one of the first things I wanted to explore when I became director of television was taking the production to six episodes a week. The soaps are the cornerstone of the ITV schedule, and Coronation Street continues to produce some of the finest drama and comedy on television. It is a hugely important part of what has defined ITV throughout its history and I want it to continue to be right at the heart of what ITV defines in years to come. As a viewer, I have watched the soap as it has continued to evolve, entertain and grip the nation with fantastic storylines and this move will be the next exciting chapter in Corrie’s story.”
Rooted in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ city of Manchester, Coronation Street has brilliantly encapsulated the changing face of working-class culture in Britain since the 1950s. It is unquestionably cut from the same cloth as Aherne’s comedy. And it is complemented by the BBC’s London-based EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale, which has charted the UK’s rural experience.
So, in fairness, the issue in the UK is not about the depiction of the working class on TV, which is there – warts and all – for everyone to see. There is, however, more of an argument about whether working-class people get an opportunity to tell their stories from the privileged position behind the camera.
Tim Hincks, former president of Endemol Shine Group, raised this issue in July 2015 when he called the UK industry “hideously middle class” during a lecture delivered to Bafta members.
Here, the question is whether the business makes enough of an effort to create entry points for working-class people. Breaking into the business is much easier if you know someone who already works in it. Or if you have enough family financial support to spend a couple of years establishing yourself in the business (training courses, low-paid work placements in big cities and so on – the kind of things that working-class people generally don’t know exist, and if they do, they can’t afford to take advantage of).
This isn’t an easy issue to address, especially when it sits alongside the debate about BAME, LGBT and disabled access to the industry – and not forgetting the issue of gender equality. However, it’s important for a couple of reasons. The first is that the industry is in a risky position when it relies on middle-class people to tell working-class stories. The danger is that, without the benefit of working-class insight, it strays into the mocking and judgemental territory that Aherne’s work astutely avoided. The second is that there is a possibility it will miss the next Caroline Aherne, an oversight that would leave the world a much drearier place.
These days, a lot of emphasis is placed on the audience’s ability to time-shift TV. But there’s no question there is still an important role for dramas that can do a job in a particular slot.
Right now, for example, The Durrells (based on Gerald Durrell’s classic Corfu Trilogy of novels) is doing a brilliant job for ITV in the UK at 20.00 on Sunday evenings.
Although the show is only three episodes old at time of writing, it already feels like it has been sitting in ITV’s schedule forever – offering exactly the kind of escapism many of us crave the day before the working week kicks in again (depending, of course, on the country where you reside).
Not that The Durrells should be regarded simply as popcorn TV. It is beautifully adapted by Simon Nye and the acting is really, really good. Keeley Hawes, who plays the mother (Louisa) of author Lawrence Durrell, naturalist Gerald Durrell and their two siblings, is superb, displaying immaculate comic timing and eye-watering sensitivity. Also impressive is Daisy Waterstone as Gerald’s sister, Margo (none of which is to disparage the other cast members).
The show is currently scoring a rating of 8.0 on IMDb, which is pretty good – and it is proving popular with critics. Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph applauds it for its “warmth, nostalgia, beautiful locations” and calls it a “gem.” Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail gives it five stars, adding: “Perfect Sunday night viewing requires period costume, exotic locations, a dash of sex (but nothing explicit) and lashings of laughs. Sounds simple on paper… but it’s pretty near impossible to achieve on screen. But The Durrells was a masterclass in ideal Sunday telly – never too demanding, and yet completely satisfying.”
All of this positive feeling is backed by great audience figures. The first episode launched with 6.4 million viewers, making it ITV’s best-performing new drama since Cilla in September 2014. It has since consolidated to 8.2 million viewers (33% share) – showing that it is also possible to transfer the Sunday night feeling to other times of the week.
ITV knows it’s on to a good thing and has commissioned a second season from producer Sid Gentle Films. Sid Gentle CEO Sally Woodward-Gentle said: “The combination of Gerald Durrell’s warm, witty stories and Simon Nye’s brilliance at adapting them meant we knew that we had created something special. The reaction has been fantastic and I am delighted we are able to continue the story and reunite the fantastic cast and crew who have become a close-knit ‘family’ on and off screen.”
Filming on season two will take place later this year in Corfu. In other news, the show has been picked up by SVT Sweden, which may have been tempted by the fact that one of the central characters is a hunky Swede called Sven (Ulric von der Esch).
In the US, AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul finished season two on April 18 with a season average of 2.16 million viewers across 10 episodes. The show stayed pretty solid around the two million mark for the whole season and has been rewarded with a third season during which Breaking Bad’s urbane drug dealer Gus Fring will return.
In terms of comparative performance, the show rates better than Mad Men (which ran for seven seasons) and Hell On Wheels (five). It also has an impressive 8.8 rating on IMDb.
Last week, we looked at the success of John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager on BBC1 in the UK and asked how it would fare when it switched to AMC in the US. The show has now started airing stateside, where the same-day showing of episode one attracted 0.93 million.
This is a fairly modest opening that suggests it isn’t going to make much impact with US audiences. As a comparison, Humans debuted with 1.73 million on AMC after a strong showing on Channel 4 in the UK. It then fell to around the 1.1 million mark for episode two and stayed there for the rest of its run.
In other words, its retrenched position was stronger than The Night Manager’s opener. The Night Manager also scored quite low with the 18-49 demographic on its AMC debut.
Of course, a modest US opening shouldn’t detract from the quality of the show. It may just be that AMC’s audience is attuned to a different style of scripted content.
It’s also worth noting that The Night Manager has been sold to networks all around the world. The latest deals for the show include agreements with Chinese streaming service Youku Tudou and French public broadcaster France Télévisions. The drama has previously been sold to the likes of Tele München Gruppe for German-speaking Europe, C More and TV4 for the Nordic territories, DR for Denmark, Sky Italia for Italy, BBC First and SBS for Australia, TV3 for New Zealand and AMC International for Iberia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
This week has also seen MTV in the US renew its fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, despite the fact that the series has not achieved especially high ratings. The first run of 10 episodes came in at about 890,000 on average, with the back end occasionally falling below the 800,000 mark.
Mina Lefevre, executive VP and head of scripted development at MTV, said the production team “delivered a beautiful, ground-breaking show with compelling stories and character journeys, which brought in new viewers.”
Further underlining Lefevre’s ‘new viewer’ argument, part of the reason MTV is sticking with the show is its performance on digital platforms, “where it garnered 16.6 million streams across all MTV’s digital properties and brought significant traffic growth to the MTV app,” according to the company. “The series also ranks as the highest-grossing digital download for a single season on MTV ever.”
As we’ve reported in previous weeks, a number of shows see their performance improve dramatically when time-shifting and digital viewing are added to the total. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson on FX had a huge three-day ratings gain for its finale episode (up by 2.91 million viewers to 6.18 million).
In the UK, it was a similar story for new Sky1 crime drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, starring James Nesbitt. Episode one of the 10-part series launched in January and delivered an overnight audience of 600,000. But the total figure for the episode rose to 1.74 million as the audience took the opportunity to watch via Sky+ recordings, On Demand and Sky Go.
This increase of 1.14 million was the biggest growth in viewing figures that the first episode of any Sky original drama series has ever achieved in the week after transmission. It also made it the best performing original drama series launch on Sky1 for nearly four years. This underlines the point that, in the new TV economy, there are some shows that are perfect for certain slots (such as The Durrells) but others seem to work well as schedule-neutral programming.
Director Mark Tonderai talks to Michael Pickard about helming every episode of new Sky1 drama The Five and finding inspiration from football managers.
A former radio DJ, Mark Tonderai made his name as a director in feature films – most notably 2012 thriller House at the End of the Street, starring a then relatively unknown Jennifer Lawrence (it was filmed before but released after The Hunger Games).
He’s now about to break out on the small screen after directing all 10 episodes of Sky1’s latest original drama, The Five.
The series, created by novelist Harlan Coben and with Danny Brocklehurst as lead writer, follows a group of friends who are haunted by the disappearance of a young child while he was in their care. Years later, they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
Produced by Red Production Company (Happy Valley) and distributed by StudioCanal, it stars Tom Cullen, O.T. Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani.
It’s rare for a TV director to helm every episode of a single show, especially one that runs to 10 parts – still an unusually high number of episodes for a British drama.
“Most people don’t do 10 episodes. It’s a real ask,” Tonderai admits. “I come from features and it’s equivalent to three films. It’s a long time to shoot – it took over 127 days. It’s a massive deal.”
The director was initially brought on board to oversee three episodes of The Five, which launches tonight, but says the material and the team around him gave him the confidence to take on the whole season.
“You are only as good as your producer, and Karen Lewis has got a wonderful way of leading – she just lets you be,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could go into battle with this lady because, if I’m honest, she’s stronger than me.’ I had the right foundations to go forward, and I thought it would really help to have one person immersed in all of the creativeness.”
In particular, Tonderai says he was drawn to the project because he could relate to the idea of a group of people who haven’t been able to move on with their lives and are in a position in life where they don’t want to be.
“I lived like that for years,” he explains. “I used to put up posters in football stadiums. The job wasn’t beneath me but I didn’t want to be putting up posters in urinals in football stadiums. I wanted to be making films. That feeling of living in limbo, stasis and ambiguous grief that the characters have is where I was. It was a form of grief. So it was a combination of the material, the personnel involved and thinking I had to go for it because I might not get an opportunity to do all 10 with this sort of platform again. Sky were fantastic about it. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
A self-confessed fan of Coben’s thrillers, Tonderai shared the author’s intention to replicate his page-turning plot twists on television: “My goal was I didn’t want people to go to the toilet. I want people to sit there or, if they do go to the toilet, they rush back because they want to know what happens next.
“What you get is this rollercoaster where every episode is better than the one before. By the time you get to eight, nine and 10, you’re like, ‘Woah.’ It’s really good. I really believe that. I’m hoping that people just hook into it.”
He also praises Brocklehurst – “a really class writer” – who was one of the key contributors to what Tonderai describes as a “perfect storm” of talent behind the scenes.
It’s that collaborative effort that resonates most with Tonderai, who believes everyone on set should work for the story, rather than any individual. “I always say to the crew, ‘You’re not working for me and I’m not working for you, we’re working for the story.’ I come into work and say, ‘We’re going to do this right and we’re going to do it from the story’s perspective.’ I don’t care who’s got an opinion. If it’s not about the story, I don’t want to hear it. That’s my philosophy.
“A lot of my inspiration for how to direct comes from football managers because they all have ways of getting the best out of their players. You need a strong philosophy and everyone has to buy into it. If they don’t, you get clashes. But if everyone does, and they know what’s going to happen and exactly how you’re going to do it, it’s OK.”
Tonderai gets a new tattoo after every job he does, this time choosing to have the words ‘Take a position’ inked on his skin. The phrase represents his directorial style on The Five, he explains, because “you have to do that in life and you have to do that when you film. You have to take a position. You can’t be mediocre, cute or middle of the road. We live in mediocrity. Take a position because if it’s wrong, it doesn’t matter.”
He adds: “Every moment in life is unique and I believe every scene should be unique. You look around and find the angles. That’s what we did with every scene, so it meant sometimes we used a whole lot of operating styles – steadicam, handheld, we used the crane a lot and filmed in widescreen as much as we could. We took a position.”
But the thing the director is most proud of? That everyone came to the wrap party. “It means everyone enjoyed the experience,” he says. “That’s a big deal to me. Everybody had a really good time on it.”
As a director, Tonderai’s career has been mostly in features, with one episode of Syfy drama 12 Monkeys also to his name. And he says the changing film business in the US prompted his move into television and the opportunity to join The Five.
“House at the End of the Street made US$66m – a lot of money. It only cost US$3.5m,” he reveals. “I couldn’t make that film now. That isn’t because I couldn’t get it made – the point is I couldn’t get it distributed. The whole distribution model has changed because studios now control a lot of release dates because of their blockbusters.
“We now have global releases, whereas five years ago you had this slow roll-out. So the nature of the film business has changed. Really you only get three sorts of films being made – low-budget horror, massive blockbuster and Oscar-bait, which actually is a genre now. The latter is only triggered by actors; you’ve got to get the right actors. So I started to realise that if I didn’t adapt, I was going to starve.”
The former BBC Radio 1 DJ, who helps his actors get into character by playing music on set, first looked to the US TV market but admits that once he broke through, “I hated it because you’re basically there just to collect footage. You have four days in the edit and you just work out what you’ve done.”
That led Tonderai to leave his LA home and return to England, where he says a television director is still central to the creative process. After The Five, his next step is to have ownership of the content he’s creating, either in television or film.
“There are lots of directors but very few storytellers,” he says. “David Fincher, Ang Lee – these people are allowed to tell their own stories. It’s very hard to be in that camp –writers who direct their own stuff – and that’s the space I want to be in. You have to earn that right and you can’t do too much of other people’s work. You’ve only got so much juice in the tank as a director.”
In particular, he’s passionate about stories from Africa that reflect his own heritage and is working on a project about asylum seekers travelling from the continent to Europe.
“I’m from Africa and I’m very passionate about African stories, but they don’t get a look in because they don’t sell, especially in America,” Tonderai notes. “I’m an immigrant over there. I’m there by their grace so this idea I went to America to better myself, my position and my standing is something I really relate to. So when I see all these people coming from Africa, all they want is a better life. They’re not coming here to steal our money, our jobs or our women; they want a better life for themselves and that strikes a chord with me.”
He adds: “But you’ve got to dress it up in genre or something else so people hook into it. The best example is (Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi movie) District 9 – a fantastic film that uses allegory and metaphors to say something quite profound about Apartheid. That’s a space I would love to be in.”
Crime novelist Harlan Coben was at MipTV in Cannes this week to promote his new series The Five, created in partnership with Red Production Company for UK pay TV channel Sky1.
While in town he also took 30 minutes out of his schedule to take part in a keynote interview. Articulate and witty, he provided plenty of food for thought for would-be novelists and screenwriters in the audience.
He is, for example, refreshingly honest about his status as a writer. Asked about his influences, he expressed irritation at writers who talk as though they haven’t lived through the modern era: “Ask a lot of writers about their influences and they’ll say Milton, Shakespeare, the great philosophers, but that’s all nonsense. I was influenced as much by the old Batman series as anything, the TV shows I grew up with.”
This may explain why Coben has found it relatively easy to convert himself from a novelist (28 novels, 60 million book sales worldwide) into a TV writer: “I’ve always seen my books as quite visual – though I didn’t realise how visual you could be with TV until I started working on The Five.”
His books are also packed with dialogue, another symptom common among novelists who have grown up in the TV era. His emphasis on dialogue that works hard is another factor that has made the jump to TV achievable: “I’ve always believed dialogue has to serve more than one purpose in a book, and it’s the same for a TV show. It’s advancing the plot, but it has also got to tell you something about the character and create mood. If your dialogue isn’t doing at least two of these things, you should get rid of it.”
A lot is written about the difference between the internalised world of the novel and the way TV plot and character development are moved forward through action. But Coben focused more on the way novel-writing is a solitary occupation whereas TV is collaborative.
He enjoyed the fact that, with The Five, his original idea was refracted through the prisms of other people’s perspectives: “I planted the seed and someone else is taking care of the tree. For me, that’s exciting. It’s cool that I had this idea in Jersey where I live and now this wonderful cast, crew and production team have turned it into this glorious thing. I’m not just seeing my interpretation but a lot of people’s work.”
That said, it’s not an accident that Coben’s TV work to date has involved European partners – before The Five, he adapted one of his novels, No Second Chance, for TF1 in France
Obsessive about his work, he told delegates that Sky and TF1 were more willing to allow him to present his vision than the Hollywood system would have been: “That’s important to me. We might succeed or fail with The Five, but a least I know the end result is based on my vision.”
Cohen is unabashedly commercial and expresses annoyance with writers who say they only write for themselves: “That’s like one hand clapping, or saying I only talk to myself. What we do, books or TV, is all about communication. I chase readers/viewers because I want my stories to move them, to keep them up at night. No one wants to make a TV series that isn’t watched by anyone.”
Although he has good dialogue with his fans, he says he tries not to be too influenced by their opinions: “If a consistent message was coming back from them, I’d probably listen – but there never is. I appreciate my fans, but it’s a mistake to write by committee. We’re not as good when we try to do what people want. My job is to take fans where they don’t necessarily know they want to go. I don’t look at the data and try to respond. If I see that my books are popular in Bulgaria, I don’t add a Bulgarian character in the next one. I write about what I know. The more specific you are with your creative vision, the more universal the appeal.”
Coben focused more on the similarities between books and TV than the differences, comparing The Five to a novel on TV – with “10 chapters, and a real end, no cliffhangers – because that’s unfair on the audience. I want them to like the show enough they come back for the next one. At the end of the day, both forms come down to storytelling and that’s how it’s been since the caveman era. You tell a story; if you’re boring, someone picks up a club and kills you.”
Despite his sales success, Coben talked about the anxiety and constant self-doubt that comes with being a writer: “I’m still learning how to write novels. Part of being a writer is you’re immensely insecure and always think you suck. And every day, that brings me back… when you lose that doubt, that’s when you call it a day. Only bad writers think they’re good. You need that angst to make your stuff better.”
Continuing this theme, he advised fellow creators to avoid reading reviews on platforms like Amazon: “It’s like reading the comments section below a news story. Don’t do it!”
Aside from The Five, Coben has now launched a TV company with Red’s Nicola Shindler called Final Twist, which will make scripted shows based on his books. The first one in development is Six Years.
On working in TV, he added: “This really is the golden age. It’s never been better, there’s never been more variety and there have never been more ways of seeing it. And how lucky are we to work in this business? We get to make TV for a living! We’re not making cardboard boxes for a living. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that’s just so frigging cool!”
The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?
It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.
Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.
With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.
Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.
“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?
“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”
In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.
“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”
One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.
Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.
Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.
“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”
The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.
“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”
Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.
“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.
“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”
Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.
The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.
“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”
Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.
“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”
Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”
For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.
“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”
Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”
On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”
Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.
“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”
With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.
Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.
“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”
Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.
“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.
“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.
“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”
The US churns out a lot of appalling sitcoms. But just occasionally it produces half-hour comedies that are pure genius.
Friends (1994-2004) is the most famous example of this. But there’s no question that Friends is matched by ABC’s Modern Family, which is now in its seventh season.
Created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, Modern Family is a mockumentary-style comedy that follows the lives of Jay Pritchett and his extended family, which divides into three units. In the first unit are Jay, his Colombian second wife Gloria, his stepson and infant son. The second includes his daughter Claire, her husband Phil and their three children. Finally there is his son Mitchell, his partner Cameron and their adopted child.
The show won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row before finally being knocked off its perch this year by Veep. In ratings terms it delivers consistently high audiences, averaging around 12 million viewers throughout each season once time-shifting is considered.
There is a slight sense that critics are getting bored with the Modern Family formula, but this has yet to translate into a mass exodus by fans. The show is currently five episodes into its current run and continues to do a good job for ABC, despite being up against last year’s breakout drama Empire and long-running series Criminal Minds.
It also provides a good leg-up for one of ABC’s newer comedies Black-ish (now in season two), which airs immediately after it on Wednesday evenings.
With around 150 episodes, Modern Family has also become incredibly valuable as a syndication and distribution property. More than Friends, it also lends itself to adaptation, with local versions of the show made or planned in Chile, Greece, Iran and India.
Modern Family stands out for its ability to both attract audiences and appeal to critics. Compare it with NBC’s Parks and Recreation, for example. That show, starring Amy Poehler, came to an end in February 2015 after seven seasons. While Parks and Rec was well crafted, funny and positively reviewed, its ratings for the last four seasons came in at around the four million mark, which is not particularly good.
NBC is to be congratulated for sticking with it for so long, however, and also with its creator Michael Schur. This summer, the network announced that Schur had been signed up to created a 13-part comedy called The Good Place.
There are also reports that NBC is backing a second comedy from Schur and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) about a happily married interracial couple whose lives change when they move closer to the wife’s family.
So what else comes close to Modern Family? The most obvious comparison is CBS megahit The Big Bang Theory (TBBT), now in its ninth season.
Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show centres on a pair of university physics geeks sharing an apartment and their circle of friends. TBBT’s first season attracted a fairly modest 9.7 million viewers, but by season six the show was hitting the 20 million mark.
This year there seems to be some slackening in the ratings and a growing sense that the formula has run its course. But with the show already renewed through season 10, it isn’t going anywhere just yet.
After then, however, who knows? The lead actors are now on salaries resembling those of Friends cast. So if ratings continue to slide then CBS may decide it is an opportune time to call a halt to the show.
Successful but not spectacular is how best to describe ABC’s The Middle, about a working-class family in Indiana coping with the day-to-day problems of existence. Now in its seventh season, the show has a rock-solid audience of around 8-8.5 million. It has also racked up enough episodes to become a valuable syndication and distribution asset.
Not to be overlooked either is Fox’s contribution in the form of animated comedy, with The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy all doing good business (The Simpsons is now up to 578 episodes over 27 seasons).
The Simpsons doesn’t look like it will ever be cancelled (it will take a brave exec to do this), but if we take the view that Modern Family and TBBT are both in the autumn of their lives, what else is coming through that might build up similar momentum?
One show moving in the right direction is CBS’s Mom. Another Chuck Lorre comedy, it focuses on Christy (Anna Faris), a single mother who, after dealing with alcoholism and drug abuse, restarts her life in California, working as a waitress and attending AA meetings. Like many good comedies, Mom started out with fairly good ratings (season one hit 8.3 million) but really took off once word of mouth kicked in (season two drew 11.79 million). Season three, which starts on November 5, will provide an indication of whether the show has stamina for the long haul.
Also building an audience, albeit from a slightly lower base, is ABC’s The Goldbergs. Created by Adam Goldberg, the show is set in 1980s Pennsylvania and is loosely based on the showrunner’s own childhood, during which he videotaped events.
The show’s brashness has divided critics (it’s not as sedate as The Wonder Years, for example) but with season two (8.3 million) building on season one’s ratings (6.2 million), there were high hopes coming into season three. So far The Goldbergs is holding up well and looks like a dead cert to come back for a fourth run. For all that, though, it doesn’t yet have the feeling that it can develop into a modern classic.
As yet, there are no comedies in the class of 2015/16 that are obvious hits in the making. But one of the more encouraging entrants to the market is CBS’s Life in Pieces, which looks like the channel’s attempt to come up with its own Modern Family.
The show, which has settled in with audiences in the 8-9 million mark, revolves around four branches of the Short family tree and their awkward, funny, and touching milestones. Very likely to get a renewal, it benefits from being aired after TBBT and having the likes of James Brolin and Dianne Wiest among its cast.
Also looking good is ABC’s Dr Ken, which is rating well despite not being that popular with critics. The show, which has just been given a full season order by ABC, stars comedian Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and is loosely based on his experience working as a doctor before making it in Hollywood.
As we’ve seen with The Goldbergs (and Louis CK’s successful sitcom Louie), blurring the lines between reality and fiction is becoming a big theme in US comedy (see also Real Rob and The Real O’Neals) and is an extension of the mockumentary trend.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest the big four networks are the only ones capable of delivering great comedy. While those channels are undoubtedly best placed to secure large audiences, the US cable market can also be relied upon to deliver some superb comedy. A case in point is HBO’s Veep, the show that broken Modern Family’s run of five wins at the Primetime Emmys.
Veep recently finished its fourth season and typically secures ratings of around one million. However, its value to HBO is more about its ability to reinforce the brand’s profile and attract subscribers – a job it does very well.
Commenting on the latest run, TV critic Tim Goodman of The Hollywood reporter said: “Veep entered its fourth season, firmly established as one of TV’s best comedies, and then did what seems impossible – it delivered its most thoroughly assured, hilarious and brilliantly written and acted episodes.”
In May, HBO announced a fifth series of Veep, renewing another of its acclaimed sitcoms Silicon Valley at the same time.
Another show that is attracting plaudits is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was released on Netflix in March.
The series follows 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City, having being rescued from a doomsday cult in Indiana where she was held for 15 years. The subject matter is more edgy than you’d see on network TV but is typical of the more complex themes that pay TV and streaming services can touch on (another example being Amazon’s acclaimed Transparent).
One other show worth keeping an eye out for is You, Me and the Apocalypse, a joint production between Sky1 in the UK and NBC in the US. The story of an eclectic group of people forced to survive together as a comet heads for Earth has already started airing on Sky1 and is doing pretty well. It will be interesting to see how it performs when it reaches NBC, a more mainstream outlet. If it does well for both partners, it might open the door for a few more transatlantic ventures.
Mexican media giant Televisa is the largest producer and distributor of Spanish-language content in the world. But now it wants to play in the English-language market.
Having recently announced plans for an English-language version of Spanish drama Gran Hotel (to be produced by its US-based Televisa USA division), it has now revealed plans to “greenlight production of multiple English-language series to fuel its own demands as well as those from the global on-demand and TV markets.”
The first title to be announced is Duality, starring Dougray Scott (Taken 3). Working with Vancouver-based Odyssey Media, Televisa says the show will be one of the first to utilise the 1991 Mexican-Canadian tax treaty for scripted series. Chris Philip, head of production and distribution for Televisa USA; Jorge Aragon; Eduardo Clemesha, Televisa´s general director of new content and formats; Odyssey film and television producer Kirk Shaw (The Hurt Locker); and Scott will executive produce.
According to Televisa, Duality will centre on an elite, top-secret team of State Department, CIA and Mexican intelligence agents within Mexico who wage war against the most dangerous villains operating in Latin America. The series, based on an original story from writer-producer Barry Schkolnick (The Good Wife, Law & Order), “depicts characters on dangerous missions while battling their own personal demons.”
Clemesha added: “Televisa brings to this venture access to award-winning producers and directors; the economies of scale of shooting in Mexico with Televisa’s facilities and crew; as well as the latitude to adapt formats from both Televisa’s massive library and third-party rights holders.”
Elsewhere, UK pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered an Indiana Jones-style drama from Red Planet Pictures. Titled Hooten & The Lady, the 8×60’ series follows an adventurer called Hooten who teams up with the British Museum’s Lady Alexandra to track down lost treasures, including an Amazonian city, the Buddha’s missing scroll and the tomb of Alexander the Great. Filming will take place in Rome and Cape Town. Writers include Red Planet founder Tony Jordan, James Payne, Sarah Phelps, Jeff Povey and Richard Zajdlic. The show will be distributed internationally by Sky Vision.
This week has also seen the emergence of another movie-to-TV project, with Fox ordering a pilot from Warner Brothers based on the 1980s/90s hit movie franchise Lethal Weapon. If Warner Bros decides to stick close to the movie storylines then it will have a lot of content to work with. Aside from the original film, there were three sequels – and a fifth that never got out of development.
In other reboot news this week, reports suggest US network CBS is planning to revive 1980s TV series MacGyver.
In addition to new projects, there have been a couple of interesting drama renewals this week. In Denmark, crime series Dicte is about to go into production on a third season. Produced by Miso Films for TV2 Denmark and written by Dorte W Høgh and Ida Maria Rydén, Dicte is a crime series that centres on journalist Dicte Svendsen, plus her family, friends, colleagues and sources within the police.
This season will have an international dimension, with part of the series taking place in Lebanon and Syria. “We are so happy to be able to present a new season of Dicte,” said Katrine Vogelsang, head of fiction for TV2. “Danish viewers love the character of Dicte and the series has performed fantastically in TV2’s primetime slot on Monday nights. In Denmark, we measure viewers’ evaluations of episodes and Dicte is at the top of all Danish TV series.”
Meanwhile, CBS has greenlit a second season of Zoo for summer 2016. Based on the bestseller by James Patterson, Zoo is a thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans across the planet. “Zoo’s thrilling stories clicked with audiences each week during a very competitive summer,” said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. “We’re excited for viewers to see where our writers and cast take them as the adventure continues to unfold during season two in the fight of man versus beast.”
Zoo is an interesting show, because it is part of a deal involving CBS and SVoD service Amazon Prime Instant Video. In a nutshell, Amazon helps fund the series and gets the right to stream the show in the US just a few days after it airs on CBS. The deal works for CBS because audiences are lower in the summer, so it is able to get a decent-quality drama at a relatively low price.
CBS and Amazon first created this model for Under the Dome, which has just ended after three seasons, and also used it for Extant. Now, the two parties have extended the arrangement to cover the next three summer periods. This will give Amazon access to new seasons of Zoo and a new series called BrainDead. “Prime members have loved having access to series like Under the Dome and Extant just four days after broadcast, and we’re excited to continue to offer in-season availability of more great CBS summer series over the next three years,” said Brad Beale, Amazon’s VP of digital video content acquisition.
Another interesting commissioning story this week came from the UK, with the BBC announcing that it has ordered another spin-off from sci-fi drama Doctor Who. Written by Patrick Ness and destined for BBC3, Class (8×45’) will be aimed at young adults and centres on a London school where sinister enemies are “breaking through the walls of time and space.”
It is exec produced by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffatt, Ness and Brian Minchin. Moffat said: “No one has documented the dark, exhilarating world of the teenager like Patrick Ness, and now we’re bringing his brilliant storytelling to Doctor Who.”
With autumn programme market Micom starting today, there has also been a lot of activity in terms of drama acquisition deals. The biggest story of the last week is that US cable channel Esquire has acquired the rights to ITV Studio’s new epic drama Beowulf. This follows a previously announced deal that saw Esquire acquire the Tandem production Spotless.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a 13×60’ series that is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It is set in the mythical Shieldlands, a dangerous place populated by humans and fantasy creatures. The first episode sees Beowulf return to Herot after many years as a mercenary warrior to pay his respects to the recently deceased Thane Hrothgar. But when Herot is attacked by the monster Grendl, Beowulf has no choice but to hunt the beast down.
Matt Hanna, EVP of development and production for Esquire, said: “Beowulf exemplifies our commitment to delivering well-produced, vivid and engaging programming. We’re thrilled to bring an impressive assembly of artists and visionaries to our line-up when the series unveils next year.”
Other acquisition deals this week include a raft of sales for German drama Naked Among Wolves, which has sold to Mediaset in Italy and KBS in South Korea others. There’s also been activity around Dori Media’s Ciega a Cita, a romantic comedy format that has been sold to AB Groupe in France.
On the service front, Channel 4’s new foreign drama on-demand service Walter Presents (launching in partnership with GSN) has acquired a number of Nordic dramas from Fremantle Media International, including Dicte and Acquitted. More deals are on the cards from Walter Presents at Mipcom this week. Meanwhile, Netflix has announced that it will launch in Spain on October 20, Portugal on October 21 and Italy on October 22.
Finally, there was news of a cancellation this week, with USA Network calling a halt to Graceland after three seasons. The Fox Television Studios-produced series told the story of a rookie agent who had to investigate his mentor. Reports suggest the show was iced because of low ratings.
Prolific author Harlan Coben says he’s ‘shooting for greatness’ with The Five, his first original TV series. DQ talks to the novelist and others behind the production and finds out why they’re convinced they’ve got their hands on a five-star hit.
A group of friends are haunted by the disappearance of a young child years earlier while he was in their care. Now they are forced to revisit their past when the missing boy’s DNA turns up at the scene of a murder.
If you thought this sounded like the gripping plot to the next story by author Harlan Coben, you would be right. Only this isn’t a book that’s heading straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.
Instead, it’s the chilling set-up to The Five (pictured above), the novelist’s first original story for television.
The 10-part series stars Tom Cullen, O-T Fagbenle, Lee Ingleby and Sarah Solemani as four friends who are forced to confront their past when a terrible childhood tragedy comes back to haunt them.
Produced by Red Production Company and distributed by StudioCanal, it is due to air on Sky1 in the UK in early 2016.
Mystery writer Coben has penned more than 25 novels, with more than 60 million copies in print worldwide. His books have been translated into 43 languages.
But 25 years since his first book, Play Dead, was published in 1990, he has now written for television for the first time.
Coben says he was first approached about working in TV by Red founder Nicola Shindler, an exec producer on The Five, and he happened to have an idea for the perfect show.
He explains: “I had this idea that I was thinking of writing as a novel but for some reason I always thought that instead of writing a novel and adapting it, it would be better to go straight into making it into a TV series. I had a big idea that I always saw more visually, more spread out, on a different canvas than a novel. So I gave her the story in three or four sentences and Nicola jumped on it, and that’s how it all started.”
But what was it about this one story that made it a better fit for television? “It was mostly because there are more lead characters,” Coben says, “but partly because I always saw it visually. The idea of these five kids playing in the park, four of them supposed to be watching the younger one. They kind of make fun of him. And I could almost see in my mind the kid crying and running down the path, never to be seen again.
“These four kids have to spend 20 years growing up, not knowing what happened. I could see him walking down that path. I could see the mother of that child years later looking out at that same path where her son disappeared. It always came to me very visually and that’s why I thought it would work best this way.
“I do see my novels cinematically, but not quite as much as this one. I wanted to see the lives of all four characters, but it wouldn’t make a movie. With the four characters, it would be better to have it spread out in something like this where we have 10 episodes to tell the story.”
Red’s previous productions include Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, while it is also known for working with such notable writers as Sally Wainwright, Russell T Davies and Bill Gallagher.
Shindler says: “We wanted to do something that was incredibly hooky, with a story at the centre of it that meant you couldn’t switch off and you had to watch the next episode. That’s Harlan’s novels. You get really compulsive – I have to stay up late, I have to keep reading, I have to know what happens. And it felt like to try to translate that on screen would be brilliant.”
Coben adds: “Once we started doing it, I became completely obsessed. I think about this show night and day, about how we can do this and that. When I write a novel I become completely obsessed in that world too.
“I’m boring company because I’m always looking off and thinking about my story. And that’s how it is with this thing. I’m completely obsessed with everything about it; we all are, frankly. Once we got into it and saw the potential for it, we just wanted to keep going.”
For The Five, Shindler paired Coben with Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies, Shameless), who is the lead writer on the project. But that doesn’t mean Coben stepped back from proceedings, despite never having previously worked alongside another writer.
“I’ve been working with Danny a lot and I know he can tell interesting stories with a lot of pace,” says Shindler. “Danny has written the script by himself but what Harlan brings is the story and the idea – the plot. Danny said it was something he was interested to try.”
Brocklehurst says he was excited to collaborate with Coben but, like the author, had only previously worked on stories he had devised himself.
“To work like this with this brilliant idea that Harlan has created but also to collaborate together, it was a great opportunity,” he says. “I would read one of Harlan’s books just before I wrote each script so I was very much in that Harlan world. Trying to write with those twists and characters in mind was a challenge but one I really enjoyed.”
Coben adds: “Nicola was the one who came up with the idea, telling both Danny and I separately that we would work well together.
“I don’t collaborate, I write my own novels. I don’t work well with others, but I’ve actually been shocked at how in sync Danny and I are, how our sensibilities are so similar, and how we’re brothers under the skin in terms of this. There will be times when he’s writing and it’s like I wrote it – but better. When we were meeting, we realised we really have the exact same vision for what this show should be. That really helps.”
To demonstrate their working relationship, Brocklehurst recalls a moment on set where he was required to rewrite a scene: “Harlan sent me an email making some very amusing suggestions, which I very quickly typed up. So sometimes there’s been this very close collaboration where you get to a point where you don’t know where an idea came from. There are just so many ideas swirling around. But it’s been great. It’s been a really healthy collaboration.”
Shindler adds: “We told the crew all the way through that they’ve all got a mental bumper sticker that says, ‘What would Harlan do?’ and it’s really helped. Reading his books before you make any decisions also helps because it’s kept it different and ensured the show feels like it’s one of his stories. Our fear and Sky’s fear was that it would just fall back into that British way of storytelling, which we didn’t want.”
As well as forging a writing partnership, The Five also goes against the grain by having one director – Mark Tonderai – take charge of all 10 episodes. This, says Shindler, has removed any differences in style that can occur if new directors are brought in at different stages of production.
“It’s really unusual, but we have longer prep weeks between each filming block and the actors have loved it because they’ve had one person giving notes,” Shindler continues. “We’ve loved it because we understand what Mark’s trying to do and what to push him on. It’s hard when a director comes in halfway through and tries to pick up the style, so we’ve not had any of that. That’s really what’s set it apart on the set. Mark described it as making a film each week, and that’s what it looks like. He’s so cinematic in his approach.”
Though The Five is Coben’s first original story for television, it is not his first television series. He has also been working on No Second Chance, an adaptation of his own novel that has been made for French broadcaster TF1.
The six-part action thriller, produced by VAB Production and distributed by TF1 International, tells the story of a woman (played by Alexandra Lamy) who wakes up from a coma to discover her husband has been murdered and her baby is missing. Suspected by the police and on the run from hitmen, she turns to a former criminal investigator – who is also her first love – to help find her daughter.
So why has it taken Coben so long to turn his attention to television? “If I’d tried making a series 10 years ago, you may have wanted a procedural with a weekly crime, that sort of thing,” he says. “That would hold no interest to me. But this is a new canvas I can tell the story on. No one has to push here, there’s an ambition we all share.
“I don’t need to have a TV series, I can continue to write my novels. We’re shooting for greatness or there’s no point. We’re not shooting just another TV show. I don’t need it, the rest of the team doesn’t need it. So that’s something we’re all sharing on The Five. We all want to do something a bit different.”
The author also compares his experience writing for television to that of writing a novel as he immerses himself in the world he is creating: “It’s how I work when I’m obsessed with something. I don’t know how to take my foot off the accelerator. I’ve probably made some of the crew a little crazy by this stage of the game. If they thought I was just going to be a name on the credits, they were sadly mistaken. So that obsession is just how I work.
“It has been more fun than I thought. I didn’t think I would enjoy collaborating as much as I have, but I have loved it. I’ve loved working with the actors and trying to talk to them. Mark was a wonderful director, and Danny, Nicola and I have also had a great deal of fun trying to make this happen.”
Coben’s move into TV wasn’t just about finding the right story, however. It also had something to do with the creative partners he was able to link up with and the freedom he would be given to bring his story to life. That, says the American author, is why he chose to work in the UK and France, rather than within the US studio system.
“The opportunities presented themselves at a time when I was open to the idea,” he explains. “I’ve probably been given more freedom than I would have been given in America. There’s notes and all that stuff but they’re minimal. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh the network made me do it this way and that’s why it didn’t work out.’ I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that’s more important to me than what country I’m working in.”
On a similar note, Shindler says the UK drama business in particular is enjoying something of a high at the moment as broadcasters open their doors to new ideas. “Sometimes you get really annoyed, but on the whole it’s really healthy,” she says of the industry. “There’s no prescriptive notes about what people need anymore. We’re not told at 21.00 on a Wednesday night people will only watch dramas that do this or that. Now all the broadcasters constantly give us ideas, so it’s brilliant for us.”
Brocklehurst adds: “There’s a lot of competition out there now and that’s driving ambition. All the channels are having to up their game because of what others are doing, and that can only be a good thing.”
If The Five turns out to be as gripping as one of Coben’s bestselling novels, the chances are that viewers won’t have to wait another 25 years for his next original TV series.
This week, BBC1 in the UK launched Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part drama based on the period fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke. Scheduled at 21.00 on Sunday evenings, the first episode attracted 4.5 million viewers. While it is highly likely that this number will be boosted once time-shifted viewing is included, the live audience is probably at the lower end of expectations.
It is lower, for example, than Poldark and The Casual Vacancy – both of which previously occupied this slot. And it’s also less than the slot average for the last 12 months (which is just over five million).
UK newspapers were divided over the appeal of the show. The upmarket titles were generally upbeat, with The Independent calling it “a real treat” and The Daily Telegraph describing it as “a brilliant adaptation of the novel.” However, The Daily Mail was not impressed, acerbically noting that: “If your idea of a racy evening is chit-chat in the dons’ common room at an Oxbridge college, then perhaps you found this entertaining. For the rest of us, it was so deathly dry it might as well have been dehydrated.”
The Spectator, meanwhile, hedged its bets, concluding that: “In theory, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is to be congratulated on its bold rejection of Sunday-night convention. In practice, it hasn’t yet banished the feeling that it might end up seeming a bit silly.”
As a public broadcaster, the BBC is not compelled to chase ratings. But it seems likely that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell suffered from the fact that there was no compelling PR hook on which to hang its launch. The Casual Vacancy benefited from the fact it was based on a book by JK Rowling (who takes Harry Potter fans with her whereever she goes), while Poldark had two things going for it. Firstly, it was a remake (thus appealing to older audiences). Secondly, there was a lot of media interest in lead actor Aidan Turner’s six-pack (thus appealing to younger female audiences). Having failed to ignite audience interest for episode one, JS & Mr N is now in a fragile position and the BBC will need to hope that The Daily Mail’s assessment is wide of the mark. If so, it may regain momentum from word of mouth/social media.
Of course, all of the above might prove to be overly pessimistic if the show does pick up a lot of additional viewing via time-shifting technologies. In this respect, there is encouragement from the US this week, where Wayward Pines has just recorded the highest ever percentage increase of any Fox debut show as a result of time-shifted viewing. Having debuted on May 14 with around 3.75 million viewers, live plus-three ratings surged by 65% to 6.2 million.
As is the way these days (to avoid piracy), Fox made Wayward Pines available to the international market as soon as possible after the US launch. It then pumped out a series of figures that suggest the show has been well received. In Australia, says Fox, the show “increased the performance in its primetime slot by 683% and outperformed The Walking Dead’s season five premiere.” In Germany, meanwhile, the show increased its slot average by 158%. As for Norway, the Wayward Pines premiere is the best series premiere for a new show ever for Fox Norway among viewers aged 12-plus. Portugal also tuned in. Here, the premiere was the most watched show of the day on pay TV.
Channels around the world debate endlessly about the relative merits of local versus international TV. The orthodox view is that audiences prefer local content because it better reflects their own life experience. One area where this thesis seems to break down, however, is in the world of scripted series. Here, there are still plenty of examples of US shows outperforming local rivals.
One case in point is UK pay TV channel Sky Living, which recently saw its origination budget cut for exactly this reason. In this case, the origination budget has been handed to sister channel Sky1 (so it can fund more ambitious projects), while Sky Living will place its emphasis on acquired shows. This decision makes a lot of sense when you see how Sky Living’s US dramas fare compared with its home-grown shows. Typically, US dramas like Bones and The Blacklist pull audiences of around one million-plus on the channel. By contrast, a recent showing of Eleven Films’ original three-parter The Enfield Haunting pulled in around 676,000.
This is actually a pretty good audience when compared with the channel’s slot average. And there’s no question it was a great piece of television. With a superb cast headed by Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, The Guardian called it “an outstanding chiller, beautifully directed and packed with big scares and superb performances.” Presumably, however, the problem lies squarely with the economics of pay TV. Acquiring a US show is usually cheaper than making a domestic original. And it typically offers a lot more episodes. Limited-run dramas like The Enfield Haunting require a lot of pre-transmission marketing and have limited amortisation value afterwards. Overall they are better-suited to free-to-air channels which are able to mobilise big audiences more easily. Having said all that, however, hats off to Eleven for a great piece of TV. All eyes will now be on Nazareth, which the company is reportedly developing for Fox in the US.
Still in the UK, BBC4 has become an important staging post for non-English-language dramas hoping to establish a presence in English-speaking markets. Titles to have aired on the channel include Wallander, Spiral, Borgen, The Killing, Inspector Montalbano, The Bridge, Salamander and Hostages. The basic rule is that if a foreign-language show can rate well on BBC4, it stands a chance of selling into the US as either a completed series or a format. And if that happens, it may then pick up interest from other markets that wouldn’t have considered it prior to a US deal. In some ways, BBC4 has become a victim of its own success, because it is now experiencing competition for this category of shows from UK and US pay TV channels (such as E4 and Sundance) and SVOD platforms. But it remains an important player.
All of which brings us to 1864, a Danish drama that has just debuted on the channel with an audience of 642,000 at 21.00 – well ahead of the slot average. An eight-part series that originally aired on DR1 in Denmark, 1864 tells the story of a war between Denmark and the German Confederation (as it then was). The show is significant for the Danes, which are trying to demonstrate to the world that the breadth of their storytelling skills goes well beyond spooky police procedurals. Borgen went some way to proving that point, but 1864 shows a new side to Denmark’s production prowess. Also look out for Follow The Money, another DR series that has been acquired by BBC4. Coming soon, this is billed as “the story of speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.”
Sue Deeks, the BBC’s head of programme acquisition, says: “Follow The Money is a stylish, intelligent, thought-provoking and complex multi-stranded drama. We are delighted to have another superb series from DR on BBC Four.”