Tag Archives: Stephen Poliakoff

Ready for lift-off

Espionage thriller Summer of Rockets is the first screen work from acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff to draw on his own life, set in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. He and executive producer Helen Flint talk to DQ about merging fact and fiction.

As a writer and director for the screen over the past four decades, Stephen Poliakoff has been behind work that has amassed numerous Bafta, Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody awards. The playwright, who learned his craft in the theatre, counts series and films such as Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince, Friends & Crocodiles, Gideon’s Daughter, Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary, as well as recent dramas Dancing on the Edge and Close to the Enemy, among his extensive credits.

Yet for all his fascination with the past – among many examples, Dancing on the Edge trails a black jazz group in 1930s London and Close to the Enemy is set in the aftermath of the Second World War – his latest series is the first to draw on his own family and life experiences.

Written and directed by Poliakoff, Summer of Rockets is a semi-autobiographical drama set during 1958, a year that marked the height of the Cold War as fear and suspicion clashed with the start of the mobile revolution and the Space Race. It was also the last time debutants were presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace and the year of the Notting Hill riots in West London.

Stephen Poliakoff, writer and director of Summer of Rockets, pictured during filming

Poliakoff says the fact it is partly based on his own life marks Summer of Rockets out as “significantly different” from anything he’s done for the screen before.

“My first real memories are from this time – I was five in 1958 – so I could feel, even as a small child, the apprehension in the air, the feel of nuclear war,” he says. “The Russians were the enemy and yet I was half-Russian, so that made me feel an extraordinary sense isolation as a child. I was also sent to boarding school, as we see in the story, and was the only Jewish boy there. That was why I was drawn to this time.

“There’s a lot of resonance for us now, as Russia again seems to be our enemy and there is also unfortunately, tragically, anti-Semitism in Europe and it’s coming back to the UK. Well, it never goes away. But above all, it was a sense of the absolute epicentre of the Cold War; the fact nobody could be trusted, especially if they were foreigners.”

Another parallel between that period and today, he notes, is the “humiliation” of the Suez Crisis in 1958, which left Britain “a laughing stock” on the world stage. “Things have happened since I’ve written the piece and we’ve become a laughing stock for very different reasons, with people harking back to a sense of our past glories, which also plays a part in the story,” Poliakoff says. “This is not a story about Brexit or a metaphor for it, but nevertheless there are resonances in the piece.”

Toby Stephens (Black Sails) stars as Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian Jewish émigré modelled on Poliakoff’s father Alexander, an inventor and designer of hearing aids, whose clients include former UK prime minister Winston Churchill. The series also focuses on Samuel’s wife, Miriam (Lucy Cohu), and their children, Hannah (Lily Sacofsky) and Sasha (Toby Woolf). In the show, having developed a new paging system for hospitals, Samuel is is approached by the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 to demonstrate his work.

Set in 1958, the series stars Toby Stephens as Samuel, who is based on Poliakoff’s father

However, it’s not his inventions the agency (led by Mark Bonnar’s mysterious Field) is interested in but his fledging friendship with MP Richard Shaw (Linus Roache) and his wife Kathleen (Keeley Hawes), who also introduce him to Lord Arthur Wellington (Timothy Spall). As Samuel’s life becomes intertwined with his mission, he is left to question how far he is willing to let things unravel for his cause and who he can trust.

It was Poliakoff’s discovery that his father had been suspected of bugging Churchill’s hearing aid, a revelation he first heard when a journalist contacted him about newly released government papers in 2007, that sparked the story behind Summer of Rockets,

“It took me a long time to think about writing it because it meant revisiting my youth and a very traumatic time at boarding school,” he says. “I also tend to write slightly away from my immediate family experience because I find it easier to invent like that. But, after quite a considerable while, because the story kept haunting me, I broached it to the BBC.”

His father’s work, he explains, is truthfully reflected in the story by his hearing aids business, the deaf workers he employs in the factory and his invention of the paging system, which he created for St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

“But I always saw that as a jumping-off point for Keeley’s side of the story,” Poliakoff continues. “My father was besotted with everything English; he was a real anglophile. He was a Russian Jew but he wanted to be an English gentleman, so there’s the story of him being involved in this English upper-class family who have their own darkness and trauma hidden away in a magnificent house. They have charm and grace, they entertain people, but this covers a deep unhappiness.

“My father would have loved to have been entertained in such a house, so that was what led me from that jumping-off point for the fictitious side of the story, but it’s based on the sort of things my father loved and was attracted to by English life and aspired to. The story curve shows Samuel learning that he doesn’t want to be the perfect English gentleman.”

Bodyguard and The Durrells star Keeley Hawes plays Samuel’s wife, Miriam

Through the first episode, the story is laid bare against the backdrop of rockets being launched and rising anxiety over what might lie ahead, coupled with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that stem from the still-raw fallout of the Second World War. Samuel’s technological achievements also shine a light on how industry was set to move forward rapidly over the next decade.

“When you have six hours of television drama, it’s a big canvas. The joy of longform is that you can build a complex world and you can delve deeper into character than you can in a two-hour movie,” Poliakoff says. “It’s great to try to be ambitious when you’re given that length of screen time.”

Helen Flint, MD of Little Island Productions and Poliakoff’s long-time producing partner, admits the writer’s outlines need very little development as they are often fully formed, “very detailed and very ambitious” by the time she becomes involved.

“The thing is to identify where and how you’re actually going to make it happen,” she says. “Both of us have been around far too long. Therefore, between us and the heads of department, we can work out how to put this on the screen, which is our craft.”

With all of Poliakoff’s work filmed on location, the first task on Summer of Rockets was to find the house belonging to Richard and Kathleen Shaw, which is a constant presence during all six episodes. They eventually settled on Benington Lordship, a grand setting close to Stevenage, 35 miles north of London, which is notable for the Norman keep adjoining the 17th century house and expansive gardens.

Catastrophe’s Mark Bonnar plays the head of MI5

“The other important thing was when to film it, because getting lucky with sunshine in this country is not a given – so the schedule is everything,” Flint says.

Finding London streets that could double for the time period also proved problematic, with the slums of Notting Hill in 1958 far removed from the affluent neighbourhood it is today. Another set piece saw a queue of 1950s cars lined up along The Mall, leading to Buckingham Palace, which was filmed early in the morning to avoid the crowds of tourists usually occupying the area.

“It takes a huge amount of work, more work than anybody would imagine, weeks and weeks, and then huge amounts in post-production just to paint out silly lines and stuff like that,” Flint says of filming in London. “After that, it’s all of the countryside, the driving [scenes] and the minutiae. But because we’ve got a cast that is working all the time, we have to try to jigsaw them all in, which is very complicated at certain points. Once you have those actors, the schedule is dictated by that. Then other problems come to the fore because if they’re not available, you can’t do the locations. London exteriors are the hardest, and then piecing it together is a massive jigsaw.”

In some cases, however, the reality on which some of the series is based was too extreme to be dramatised. Poliakoff decided to tone down scenes where Sasha is at boarding school, as his own experiences at school were too “draconian” to be depicted exactly as he remembered.

Summer of Rockets debuts on BBC2 tomorrow

“When I started writing it, I realised it had to be more interesting and more inventive than the actual thing I experienced, which in reality was relentlessly grim,” he says. “A little bit of that was fine, but I didn’t think an audience would stand for that being repeated in each scene. So, oddly enough, the bit that was closest to reality was the most difficult to write.”

The series sees Poliakoff reunited with Stephens, who starred in his 2001 family reunion drama Perfect Strangers, while this was his first time working with Hawes despite having known her since she was just 19. “She starred in my wife Sandy Welch’s adaptation of Our Mutual Friend 20 years ago,” he recalls of the actor, who has recently starred in Line of Duty, The Durrells and Bodyguard. “I’ve known her for some time and we’ve always wanted to work together. She’s phenomenal in her role, which is a really very juicy role, so I’m thrilled. I think she gives one of her greatest performances.”

Following Summer of Rockets’ launch on UK pubcaster BBC2 tomorrow, all six episodes will be made available on the pubcaster’s VoD platform iPlayer. The drama is distributed internationally by BBC Studios. “‘Bingeable’ is not the prettiest word but, actually, I think my work was born to be binged,” Poliakoff notes. “People over the years have always told me they’ve sat down to watch something like Perfect Strangers, which is only four hours long. They tend to watch the first part and then they’re there four hours later.

“So I very much hope the story has that effect. It does have quite a powerful story that gathers and evolves and changes. It’s great for people to watch it in a linear way or in an immersive way. Either way, I hope people will really get into it.”

tagged in: , , , ,

Know your Enemy: Stephen Poliakoff discusses his new show

Look to the past to find a good story, says Stephen Poliakoff, as a bomb-damaged hotel in post-war London provides the stage for his latest BBC drama, Close to the Enemy.

In this burgeoning world of multinational, cross-cultural scripted drama – where Canal+ makes Versailles as an English-language show, Deutschland 83 plays on US primetime and Scandinavian writers and directors are in charge of half the UK’s output – there’s a risk that nations will forget exactly what’s unique about their home-produced drama.

In the UK, if they ever forget, they can simply watch the latest from Stephen Poliakoff: the patron saint and reigning heavyweight champion of high-quality British drama.

In a career that’s ranged from radical 1970s theatre through intense movies about incest to scathing assaults on the nation’s disregard for its own culture and history, Poliakoff’s early years were spent writing for the stage and the big screen.

Poliakoff: 'I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC'
Poliakoff: ‘I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC’

For the past 20 years, however, he has concentrated on writing and directing for television. Quirkiness and eccentricity have always been present in Poliakoff’s work – his love of elaborate montage sequences, odd juxtapositions of sound and image, and extended narratives have always seemed more comfortable on serialised television than his earlier, slightly over-complex movies.

For his latest project – Close to the Enemy, pictured top – the writer effectively mounts a dramatist’s investigation into the post-war recruiting of Nazi scientists to serve the West. It’s becoming a theme of Poliakoff’s work – revisiting the crucible of the 20th century with ambitious projects about appeasers in the British ruling elite like Glorious 39 or the overlap between the Jazz Age and fascist princes in Dancing on the Edge. Where do such ideas begin?

“I usually start with a moment in time – in this case when the victorious Allies, the Americans, the Russians and the Brits, were literally seizing scientists off the streets of Germany, bringing them over here and giving them new identities so the world didn’t discover what they’d been up to during the war,” he explains.

What follows is a period of intense research from the sweeping vista of history to the daily minutiae of life. Poliakoff worked through the history of these street snatches – the British nabbed several hundred, which was dwarfed by the industrial scale of the Americans and the Russians, who took thousands – but also realised that, despite the tradition of post-war movies showing London as grey and foggy, the reality was that the absence of so many buildings meant the light was blindingly bright, and this shapes the look of the show.

“I start with the situation but then try to develop it into a gallery of memorable characters facing complex decisions in difficult situations. At seven hours, this is the longest thing I’ve ever done so the story has to be as compulsive as you can make it. I try to work purely through character, rather than making ranty points about torture or war crimes. I mean, it is fascinating that we were torturing people after the war but it’s not the real journey of the show.”

Many of Poliakoff’s scripts, it’s interesting to note, are about the perfidy of the British establishment. It’s a problem he returns to partly because of his own curious relationship with the British elite. “A lot of people would say I was very much a member of the British establishment,” he says. “I was brought up in very English landscapes and had a classic public-school, Cambridge education.”

Dancing on the Edge
Dancing on the Edge was nominated for three Golden Globes in 2013

The son of a Russian émigré businessman and aristocratic Anglo-Jewish actor, Poliakoff was packed off to boarding school in Kent at the age of eight, where he encountered plenty of low level anti-Semitism – both putting him at the heart of the elite and giving him an outsider’s perspective.

Some argue that his education explains the leeway he has at the BBC – suggesting a sort of old boys’ favour system that allows him the scope to deliver slow-moving but compelling dramas like Shooting the Past, which flew in the face of accepted broadcasting wisdom at the time.

Although it’s true, Poliakoff concedes, that the BBC grants him an enormous amount of freedom, he insists he won this himself: “I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. The great thing about that freedom is that I can cast whom I like and I actually have a very good track record of discovering stars – I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC.”

Poliakoff gave early breaks to Gemma Arterton, Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Ruth Wilson, Clive Owen and Emily Blunt, who won a Golden Globe for her role in Gideon’s Daughter. The BBC consulted him over casting Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who’s most recent assistant, Clara, after he helped discover her in Dancing on the Edge.

In Close to the Enemy, produced by Little Island Productions and Endor Productions for BBC2, he has cast Jim Sturgess as an intelligence officer charged with recruiting August Diehl’s German scientist to help the RAF develop the jet engine. Freddie Highmore plays Sturgess’s shellshocked younger brother, Charlotte Riley plays his best friend’s fiancée and Phoebe Fox plays a tough war crimes investigator, keen to bring Diehl to justice.

“There are one or two people in the show I have worked with before – Lindsay Duncan and Alfie Allen, for instance – but I’m new to Highmore, Sturgess and Riley and I think I’m giving them breakthrough roles,” Poliakoff says. “They’re all strong talents but I think you’ll see them differently after this piece.”

Poliakoff has cast and directed all his own work for the past 25 years. “It’s always an interesting exercise in a project when you move from being its writer to its director, but it does mean all my work is made on a brutal schedule,” he explains. “That’s partly why I do a lot of rehearsal. Some people do a week, but I do three weeks and I do everything in my power when we hire actors to persuade them that is part of their contract,” he says with a quick grin.

The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who
The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who

“I’m slightly surprised more people don’t do that. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, because the actors get rehearsal pay that isn’t reflective of their fees for the main shoot. So it’s quite a small investment but it pays off enormously. It helps to build up the actors’ confidence and it helps me to realise what I have written, too. It’s a sleight of hand really. You can achieve the quality of a feature film on the budget of a TV series.”

Another trademark Poliakoff technique is his extensive use of location – to keep costs down and to avoid overusing CGI. With Close to the Enemy, this was especially complex, as the show is set in heavily bombed post-war London.

“I was very keen to make a period show with hardly any CGI because I think CGI tends to make all period drama look a little bit the same,” he argues. “You show panoramas that are like animated paintings and viewers don’t quite believe it. A bombed London with virtually no CGI meant shooting among real destroyed buildings – and there are none in London so we shot most of it in Liverpool with other wrecks around the country. That posed a lot of problems with the schedule but it was worth it – the places really looked like they were bombed.”

Poliakoff is hands-on when it comes to location scouting – in part because a good location can influence his writing. In the case of Close to the Enemy, the team found the hotel at the centre of the story before he’d finished all of the scenes set within, and the building shaped the script to some degree.

“The danger of looking for locations before you’ve written them is that, if they fall through, you’ve already written rough sequences and you then have to adapt the whole script,” he says. “But that’s the great advantage of being a writer-director – you can swim with the tide of the production more easily.”

Despite these local details, Poliakoff is keen to stress that Close to the Enemy isn’t just a British story – he’s cast German actors in all the German parts, including Inglourious Basterds star Diehl as an ex-Nazi jet expert. The same goes for US parts, although Brit Charlotte Riley takes the prime American role.

It’s tempting to think it’s this global element that persuaded US broadcaster Starz to coproduce with the BBC. In fact, Poliakoff has already done surprisingly good business for the Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons network, with Dancing on the Edge picking up three Golden Globe nominations back in 2013. Is this Anglophilia pure and simple? Poliakoff doesn’t think so.

“If you tell good stories about the past, they resonate with people today,” he insists. “If you look at the events in Close to the Enemy and compare them to the situation in the Middle East now, you can see that the sense of your enemy becoming your immediately useful friend as soon as circumstances change never leaves us and is as perilous to the world now as it ever was.”

The key thing for any creative in this time of opportunity, Poliakoff argues, is to stick with your tried and tested ways – without trying desperately hard to please the entire world, tempting though such success may seem. “Everyone wanted a sequel to Dancing on the Edge,” he points out. “The BBC in particular was keen on another chapter, as it did quite well for it. But I don’t like sequels – I like to keep moving, to visit new stories and characters. As long as they are colourful and compelling, people want to watch.”

tagged in: , , , , ,

Writers go global

Hans Rosenfeld
Hans Rosenfeld is currently writing Marcella

At timing of writing this column, the C21 Drama Summit is taking place at the British Film Institute in London. In among the numerous producers, broadcasters and distributors attending the event, there has also been a star-studded line-up of screenwriters.

In no particular order, the summit attracted the likes of Stephen Poliakoff, Frank Spotnitz, Harlan Coben, Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps, Paula Milne, Anna Winger, David Farr, Hans Rosenfeld, James Dormer, Charlie Higson, Simon Mirren, Clive Bradley and Chip Johannessen.

What’s interesting about these scribes is the unusual and idiosyncratic journeys that many of them are currently embarked upon. Rosenfeld, for example, is one of the main architects of acclaimed Scandinavian series The Bridge. But now he is writing an English-language crime series set in London, called Marcella. Winger, meanwhile, is an American who lives in Germany with her husband Joerg. Between them they created the well-reviewed period spy drama Deutschland 83, currently airing in Germany on RTL and around the world.

If it seems odd that an American co-wrote D83, then consider that British writer Paula Milne (The Politician’s Wife) has just done something similar, delivering The Same Sky to ZDF in Germany. In this case, she wrote scripts in English that were then translated into German by director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Clive Bradley, meanwhile, is an English screenwriter who has just finished working as the co-writer on Trapped, a pan-European coproduction set in snowy Iceland.

Deutschland 83
Deutschland 83, created by married team Joerg and Anna Winger

Harlan Coben, a novelist, has just written his first TV drama, The Five, in collaboration with Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off). Farr, meanwhile, is a playwright adapting a John Le Carre novel The Night Manager for TV. In one of his anecdotes at the Summit, Farr talked of meeting Le Carre in a north London pub and having to pluck up the courage to tell the great man the last 100 pages of his novel wouldn’t work on TV. Sarah Phelps must have felt just as nervous when she met Hilary Strong of Agatha Christie Ltd to discuss how she would go about adapting Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None.

Poliakoff’s session was enlightening, providing an insight into the way he has honed his skills as a writer-director. While many would think of him first and foremost as a playwright and screenwriter, Poliakoff spent much of his session discussing the directorial dimension of his latest project Close to the Enemy. Casting, rigorous rehearsals and location selection were as significant to the realisation of Poliakoff’s vision of the series as story and dialogue.

Stephen Polliakoff
Stephen Polliakoff is working on Close to the Enemy

Frank Spotnitz, an American residing in Europe, was at the summit to discuss his latest project for Amazon, The Man in the High Castle, while Chip Johannessen provided insight into the adaptation of Israeli show Prisoners of War into his hit series Homeland. Simon Mirren was in town to talk about the creation of Versailles, the English-language, French production of a quintessentially French subject. That seems a long way from where his career started – as a writer on Casualty.

So what does all the above tell us? Well, it shows that the idea of the writer as a solitary creature is something of a myth. While part of the job inevitably involves shutting the study door and blocking out distractions, just as much is dependent on a willingness and ability to interact with other parts of the production chain.

At the same time, the shift towards international coproduction (in order to realise ambitious creative ideas) means writers have to be surefooted on the international stage. It’s noteworthy just how many of the above scribes have had to collaborate across borders or set scenes abroad. Milne talked about watching rushes of The Same Sky after her words had been translated in German, and having to make a judgement on whether the emotional impact of the dialogue had survived the shift to a new language. Rosenfeld, meanwhile, discussed the support he needed to ensure Marcella’s London life was authentic.

Chip Johannssen
Chip Johannssen turned Prisoners of War into Homeland for Showtime

Another theme throughout the summit has been the way the current era of ambitious international drama production allows writers to cut loose creatively. Farr talked about how writers used to be scared to set a scene outside – let alone in a foreign country. But this concern has been blown away as dramas head for increasingly exotic climes.

This freedom is also evident in the range of literary reimaginings currently on show. Charlie Higson’s interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde (in which he injects his own mythology), Tony Jordan’s literary mash-up Dickensian and James Dormer’s reworking of the Beowulf saga are all examples of how traditional budgeting and commissioning constraints have fallen away.

Of course, a key implication of the above is that writers need to be trusted to deliver against bold objectives. And this is creating a challenge for the scripted business. Understandably, the broadcasters and distributors that put up millions of dollars to make drama projects a reality are anxious to ensure they work with proven writers. This is causing a logjam, with the best writers often booked up for years to come.

While this is good news for those writers who are in demand, the clear message is that the industry needs to improve the flow of new writing talent coming through. C21 and Red Planet are both playing their part with scriptwriting competitions, but there needs to be a more formal solution to this issue if the drama business is to keep up its extraordinary creative momentum.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Master adapter gets real

Andrew Davies
Andrew Davies

Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies is primarily known for his superb adaptations of literary classics. Among his many, many TV credits are To Serve Them All My Days, House of Cards (the original version), The Old Devils, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Doctor Zhivago, Tipping The Velvet, He Knew He Was Right, Bleak House, A Room with a View, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit and the in-production War and Peace.

To this list must be added film credits such as Circle of Friends, The Tailor of Panama, the two Bridget Jones movies and Brideshead Revisited – confirming the view that Davies could probably adapt any book on the planet.

In a 2014 interview Davies was asked why he invested so much time on adaptations and came up with a beautifully succinct answer – that “fuck all happens to you” when you are a full-time writer. “There was plenty of material in the early days about infidelity, friction and all those kind of things. But I’ve settled down to a very even plane. So I haven’t really got material I would want to write about from my own life.”

As if to support this observation, one of Davies’ most famous original creations was A Very Peculiar Practice, a 1980s drama about a young doctor who takes up a post as a member of a university medical centre. This series, reportedly, was based on Davies’ experiences as a lecturer at Warwick University. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Davies didn’t become a full-time writer until 1987, aged 50 – juggling his teaching responsibilities with a burgeoning career as a TV writer.

War and Peace is currently in production
Davies’ adaptation of the classic novel War and Peace is currently in production

While Davies’ work on War and Peace shows that he continues to be in demand as a novel adapter, he has entered an interesting new dimension in his work in recent years – dramas based on real lives. The link is obvious, which is that both areas provide source material to work with. But the beauty of the real-life/biopic format is that Davies can take greater liberties with storytelling. On the one hand, he doesn’t have to try to shoehorn any book-based dialogue into his screenplay. On the other, he can enter the central character’s story wherever he chooses, taking a pivotal period in their life and using it as the starting point to provide a coherent character analysis.

ITV’s Mr Selfridge, for example, focuses on Harry Selfridge as he begins setting up Selfridge’s department store in London. But TV movie A Poet in New York looks at Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as he moves towards his untimely death (aged 39).

The idea for the Dylan Thomas project was initially brought to Davies by comedian/presenter/producer Griff Rhys Jones via his indie company Modern TV. Davies has talked about it in affectionate terms because of similarities between his own upbringing and that of Thomas. With both Welsh and born into teaching families, Davies says Thomas was “very big in my life.”

Now, Davies is writing another film-length biopic about a Welsh icon, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Once again the idea, entitled A Nation’s Health, has come to him via Modern, and once again he will take a tangential look at his central character’s life.

A Poet in New York focused on Dylan Thomas's last days
A Poet in New York, another Davies show, focused on Dylan Thomas’s last days

Bevan is best known as the post-Second World War health minister who founded the UK’s National Health Service in 1948. But that could potentially make for quite a dry piece of TV. So Davies is going to drive the narrative along by focusing on Bevan’s fiery romance with his wife Jennie Lee. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: “I want it to be both personal and political. They would argue a lot. She kept him socialist and would have the last word on political matters, last thing at night in bed.”

The timing of the project is interesting, given the polarisation of British politics being witnessed at present. With the BBC also at loggerheads with the UK government over its future funding model and the question of impartiality, telling the story of an ardent Tory-hating socialist could be seen as bear-baiting. So the way Davies handles the story will attract close attention. That said, Davies is the man who adapted Michael Dobbs’ wicked political satire House of Cards for TV, so if anyone can steer a steady course through political controversy it’s him.

There was good news for another of the UK’s screenwriting titans this week with Stephen Poliakoff’s Closer to the Enemy being picked up by pay TV channel Starz in the US.

The six-part series, distributed by All3Media International, is a post-Second World War thriller that sees actor Jim Sturgess playing British intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson. Ferguson’s final task for the Army is to convince a captured German scientist (August Diehl) to hand over cutting-edge military technology crucial to national security – the jet engine.

The show will premiere in the UK on BBC2 before appearing next year on Starz, which previously picked up The Missing from All3. Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at the distributor said: “Stephen Poliakoff and this wonderful cast of actors are creating a thrilling miniseries that will enthral audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. We look forward to announcing further deals in the near future.”

The movie version of Time After Time
The movie version of Time After Time

Still in the US, there was news this week that Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) has been commissioned to write the script for Time After Time, a TV adaptation of the 1979 novel of the same name by Karl Alexander.

Time After Time, which has already been adapted as a movie, imagines a world in which author HG Wells has invented a time machine that is then stolen by Jack the Ripper. Wells pursues the Ripper to 1979 in a bid to bring him to justice. Williamson is writing the script for Warner Brothers TV with Disney-owned ABC the commissioning network.

Another interesting story to come out of the US is a new Directors Guild of America (DGA) study that shows TV series with female showrunners are more likely to employ female writers, directors, editors and actresses than those exclusively run by men: “The findings suggest that creators and executive producers play an instrumental role in shifting the gender dynamics,” says the report’s author, Dr Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

“For example, on broadcast programmes with at least one female creator, women comprised 50% of writers. On programmes with no female creators, women comprised 15% of writers.” It’s not too surprising, but this kind of statistic clearly warrants attention.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , ,

Where are they now?

Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy last year for the thrilling Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias
Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy last year for the thrilling Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias

Few people would be surprised to learn that Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and DB Weiss were nominated in last year’s Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. But how many of us would know who won without resorting to Google? Well, the answer is Moira Walley-Beckett, who became the first solo woman to win in this category since 1994. Ironically, perhaps, Walley-Beckett won for a Breaking Bad episode called Ozymandias, thus beating Gilligan.

Walley-Beckett started her career as an actress and dancer, which probably explains why her first post-Breaking Bad project, Flesh and Bone (which she created), tells the story of a young dancer who has just joined a New York ballet company. Scheduled to air on Starz from November 8, the series features Sarah Hay (Black Swan) as “an emotionally wounded but transcendent ballerina navigating the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.”

Part of the challenge with projects like Flesh and Bone is ensuring the dance sequences look real – a bit like trying to write a script about footballers or stand-up comedians. Recognising this, Walley-Beckett made heavy use of real-life accomplished dancers.

While this will undoubtedly provide Flesh and Bone with an air of authenticity, it does present logistical difficulties in terms of renewing the show – because it’s hard for professional dancers to juggle their day jobs with their acting commitments. This may explain why Starz has already decreed Flesh and Bone will come to an end after a run of eight one-hour episodes. Chris Albrecht, the channel’s CEO, told Deadline: “Moira is one of the most talented auteurs in television today, and the work she and her team have done on Flesh and Bone is nothing short of spectacular (but) after seeing all the film, we realised this is not serialised TV, but rather an eight-hour movie.”

The Flesh and Bone trailer suggests the show will further enhance Walley-Beckett’s credentials, so it will be interesting to see what direction she heads in next.

While the Writing for a Drama Series Emmy category was dominated by US talent last year, Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special resulted in a win for British scribe Steven Moffat. His work on Sherlock: His Last Vow trumped rivals on titles such as American Horror Story, Fargo, Luther, The Normal Heart and Treme.

Steven Moffat is working on a Sherlock special set in the Victorian era
Steven Moffat is working on a Sherlock special set in the Victorian era

Moffat has become something of a screenwriting icon thanks to his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock – and it is these projects that continue to occupy his time. His most recently finished Sherlock project is a special that will place the show’s central characters in the Victorian era, rather than the contemporary setting that has been used for the first three series. Commenting on this at a recent event, he said: “The special is its own thing. It’s not part of the run of three episodes… It’s Victorian. [Co-creator Mark Gatiss] and I wanted to do this, but it had to be a special, it had to be separate entity on its own. It’s in its own bubble.”

When not working on series four of Sherlock (due in 2016), Moffat’s remaining time is largely taken up with Doctor Who, which will return for series nine later this year. Although Moffat shares screenwriting duties on Doctor Who with a number of others, he has already confirmed that he is writing the first two episodes of the new series, a double-header. Titles for his episodes are The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

The other Emmy-winning writer last year was comedian Louis CK, whose sitcom Louie secured him the Writing for a Comedy Series award. That’s quite an achievement when you see that he was up against writers from Episodes, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley and Veep. However, it’s not the first time CK has picked up this award, having previously won it in 2012.

Louie, which airs on FX, is an unusual show that combines stand-up and scripted comedy, often involving special guest stars. Echoing the earlier observation about Flesh and Bone, it manages to pull this off because CK is a genuine stand-up, not an actor pretending to be one. This blurring of genres is exacerbated by the fact that the show doesn’t always feel like a comedy. Its slow pacing and lack of rapid-fire gags make it much more like an indie film than a traditional sitcom, with some comparing Louie to Woody Allen’s work. This was certainly the case with So did the Fat Lady, the episode that won CK his 2014 Emmy. The last section of that episode was a poignant insight into the psychology of dating that barely resorted to jokes.

Louis CK has twice won Emmys for his show Louie
Louis CK has twice won Emmys for his show Louie, which airs on FX

The recent fifth season of Louie finished on May 28, taking the total number of episodes to 61. There have been no announcements yet about the possibility of a sixth run. But alongside his commitment to this franchise, CK also has a deal to create new comedy series for FX. This has led to a greenlight for Baskets, a 10-part comedy that CK is co-writing with Zach Galifianakis. The series, which will also star Galifianakis, is scheduled to air on FX during 2016. It tells the story of Chip Baskets as he haphazardly pursues his dream of becoming a professional clown.

The Emmys, it should be noted, have a slightly less well-known sibling called The International Emmys which, as the name suggests, are for shows from outside the US. The International Emmys don’t have a specific award for writers, but 2014’s winner Utopia owed a lot to the unique voice of Dennis Kelly, who created and wrote the show. Kelly’s work to date has mostly been for theatre – with his best-known project being Matilda the Musical, co-written with musical comedian Tim Minchin. However, he also co-wrote sitcom Pulling for BBC3 with Sharon Horgan and, more recently, wrote Black Sea, a Kevin Macdonald film starring Jude Law.

Utopia is the story of five comic-book fans who become targets of a shadowy organisation called the ‘Network’ after they discover an unpublished manuscript for The Utopia Experiments, a sequel to a cult graphic novel that appears to predict a range of global catastrophes. It ran for two series on Channel 4 and was then cancelled, much to the irritation of its fans. C4’s response was that “it’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love, but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which is launching on the channel throughout 2015.”

There’s no word yet on what Kelly’s next screen project might be, but Utopia is set to get a new lease of life in the US. HBO, no less, has ordered a US version that will be directed by David Fincher (Se7en) and written by Gillian Flynn, who worked together on the film version of the latter’s novel Gone Girl. All it needs now is for Scarlett Johansson and Carey Mulligan to sign up as stars and it would be the coolest conspiracy drama in the history of Hollywood.

Drama heavyweight Stephen Poliakoff is among the confirmed speakers at this year's C21 Drama Summit
Drama heavyweight Stephen Poliakoff is among the confirmed speakers at this year’s C21 Drama Summit

And finally, C21’s Drama Summit has started revealing the identities of this year’s speakers. One standout session will see writer Stephen Poliakoff examine his present and past work and discuss the challenge of writing drama in the 21st century.

Poliakoff started his career as a playwright, coming to prominence in the 1970s. While he still writes the occasional work for the stage, the balance of his output has moved much more towards film and TV in recent years. Among his best-known works (all for the BBC in the UK) are Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and Dancing on the Edge, which was nominated for three Golden Globes, winning one. His latest project, which he will discuss at the Drama Summit, is Close to the Enemy.

A six-part series for BBC2, Close to the Enemy is a Cold War drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. It stars Jim Sturgess (One Day) as an intelligence officer trying to persuade a captured German scientist to work for the British RAF on developing a jet engine. The production is being shot in London and Liverpool with planned transmission in 2016 on BBC2. International rights are with All3Media International.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,