Tag Archives: Steve November

November reign: How did the now ex-ITV drama boss do?

Following Steve November’s exit from ITV, Stephen Arnell assesses his tenure as the commercial broadcaster’s head of drama.

The news of ITV drama director Steve November’s departure brought to a close the first stage of new ITV director of television Kevin Lygo’s shake-up of senior commissioning roles at the network.

For the commercial broadcaster, drama is the most important genre in terms of cost, peaktime value and ratings.

Although Lygo’s background is chiefly in entertainment (his skills will be crucial in reinvigorating that critical part of the schedule), one shouldn’t forget that he was, under pseudonym Ruby Solomon, the writer of the one-off comedy-drama Walter, commissioned and broadcast by BBC1 in 2014.

And when Lygo was Channel 4’s director of television and content, drama successes under his regime included Shameless, The Devil’s Whore, Skins, Elizabeth I, Dead Set and Any Human Heart.

With characteristic speed, Lygo poached BBC drama chief Polly Hill to replace November – no doubt fulfilling a dual purpose in both attracting proven talent and inconveniencing the BBC during a period when drama is its strongest genre.

So how should we assess November’s tenure at the helm of ITV drama?

November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde - but the show has been picked up abroad
November oversaw some expensive flops, including Jekyll & Hyde – but the show has been picked up overseas

He was very fortunate in inheriting a department in rude health thanks to the previous team of Laura Mackie (director) and Sally Haynes (controller), who were responsible for a slate of hits including Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Whitechapel, Appropriate Adult, Mr Selfridge, Scott & Bailey and Vera – all contributing to ITV’s Channel of the Year win at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2013.

The pair rescued ITV’s reputation for quality drama, which had taken a major hit under then ITV director of television Simon Shaps, when new series such as Rock Rivals, Harley Street, Demons, Brittania High, Moving Wallpaper, Echo Beach, The Royal Today and The Palace proved major disappointments for both viewers and critics.

At the same time, Shaps axed ratings bankers Foyle’s War and Rosemary & Thyme in an attempt to change perceptions of the then-beleaguered network.

Once Shaps left ITV in 2008, his successor Peter Fincham swiftly recommissioned Foyle’s War, which continued to enjoy healthy ratings until the series eventually ended last year.

November’s tenure hasn’t had the same level of critical or ratings success as the Mackie/Haynes era, but neither has it plumbed the depths of the Shaps years; so it’s more of a qualified success.

November (pictured top at last year’s C21 International Drama Summit) was dealt a good hand in inheriting shows that still had a lot of mileage left in them; the reception given to his commissions, however, was mixed.

November's tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella
November’s tenure ended on a strong note with the launch of Marcella

He enjoyed critical success with the likes of Peter Morgan’s The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries and Jeff Pope’s Lucan, while new commissions including the single film Cilla and the series Grantchester, Home Fires, Safe House, Prey, Unforgotten and Black Work all attracted strong ratings and broadly favourable notices.

All these achieved audiences high enough to warrant sophomore seasons.

The strong 6.4 million (29% share) debut enjoyed by The Durrells on Sunday, April 3 will give ITV hope for a long-running pre-watershed hit in the vein of the Darling Buds of May and Wild At Heart.

With a very healthy 6.1 million viewers (27.6% share) for it’s opening episode, Nordic Noir-style crime drama Marcella also gave November a high note on which to bid farewell to the network.

But balanced against these achievements were a run of high-profile misfires. The strategy of commissioning early-evening drama for a move into territory previously solely occupied by the BBC (Doctor Who, Atlantis, Merlin and Robin Hood) proved a costly misjudgement.

Both Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands returned low ratings accompanied by poor reviews, with many feeling the dramas fell between the two stalls of early-evening and post-watershed drama; too adult in tone for younger viewers and too juvenile for more mature audiences.

One wonders if doubts were expressed during development over whether commissioning apparently family-friendly ‘light’ takes on Penny Dreadful (Jekyll & Hyde) and Game of Thrones (Beowulf) would work for the Sunday early-evening ITV audience, but other considerations no doubt came into play.

With US cable-style orders of 10 and 12 episodes respectively, the underperformance of Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf left sizeable holes in ITV’s peaktime share.

Both shows found a home in North America, with Jekyll & Hyde on Canada’s CBC and Beowulf on The Esquire Network – both transmitted post-21.00.

Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in the schedules
Doctor Thorne was well received but struggled to compete against the BBC in its slot

It appears unlikely that ITV will venture this far from its comfort zone in the near future, as the last attempt to crack the pre-watershed weekend drama market was also a bust – the aforementioned Britannia High (2008) and Demons (2009).

Some of November’s dramas also failed to connect with audiences over the most recent Christmas holidays, avalanched by the traditional dominance of BBC1 over the period, which appeared to be the case with both Harry Price: Ghost Hunter and Peter & Wendy, which were otherwise critically well received.

Period miniseries The Great Fire, which aired in 2014, was seen as an attempt by ITV to explore an area not usually associated with the channel, but unfortunately for the network, reviews and audiences were largely indifferent.

Scheduling has been a problem for ITV when launching new dramas, with BBC1 able to overwhelm the opposition with an unusually strong slate of shows. Midwinter of the Spirit was crushed by Doctor Foster, Jericho was taken out by established hit Death in Paradise and Doctor Thorne was similarly dealt with by the huge success of The Night Manager.

In some cases, such as Doctor Thorne, ITV introduced shows after BBC1 had already established its new dramas in the slot with a number of episodes, making the task of winning viewers more difficult than if they had simply clashed head-to-head on their debuts.

With pay channel ITV Encore, it’s difficult to quantify what counts as a success in the limited universe of Sky subscribers – 2015’s Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles returned respectable consolidated figures and was picked up by A+E in the US.

Reviews were generally favourable but there’s no word yet on season two.

In recent weeks, Encore’s Edwardian detective mash-up Houdini & Doyle’s opening episode was given a preview on ITV to kickstart the show. It’s probably too early to see if this has paid off in terms of the ratings for the series on Sky, but reviews have been fairly poor, although production values were praised.

The casting of comedian Stephen Mangan as Arthur Conan Doyle in particular came in for criticism; it was also noted that this was the second ITV drama in to feature Doyle as a character in a year (Arthur & George being the first).

Now with Hill in the top drama job at ITV, Lygo will be hoping she can continue her run of hits, which include The Night Manager, Poldark and Doctor Foster.

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Bigger and better

Steve November, drama director at ITV, promises a bigger drama slate over the next two years and wants to make the channel the ‘place of choice’ for established producers and fresh talent alike.

Now that juggernaut period drama Downton Abbey has come to an end – the final sixth season bowed out with just under nine million viewers, while a one-off Christmas Day special drew almost seven million – the Sunday 21.00 slot has opened up opportunities for ITV to cast its net wider for new dramas.

Steve November, director of drama, is not actively seeking to replace the Edwardian drama with more period pieces. Instead, he has identified a growing viewer appetite for contemporary stories. “We’ve approached it saying we’ve no idea what the new Downton is going to be,” he says. “It’s going to be a show that captures the public’s imagination… that viewers fall in love with over several series. But whether that’s a contemporary show or a period show, or even a Sunday night show, we don’t know.”

Steve November
Steve November

The commercial broadcaster, which turned 60 last September, has to make its broad, mainstream content mission appeal to rapidly shifting viewer patterns, yet “it’s always, always popular mainstream,” says November. “That’s unashamedly what we are and want to be, but of the highest quality. There’s absolutely no disconnect between popular and the highest quality, so it’s aiming to be as broad in our appeal as we can be, accessible to everybody, but delivering something unexpected, something fresh, and real truths so that when you come to ITV you get what you want but you also get something more.”

ITV also relies on big returning shows to collectively build its drama brand. These programmes represent the majority of its drama output, “but we can’t have a schedule that’s only familiar,” says November. “We need to be constantly offering new things that are moving the ITV experience forward, evolving it, developing it. So it is a constant mix.”

In fact, post-Downton, this year ITV will swing much more in favour of new dramas, says November. “It’s going to look like quite a new and fresh schedule and we hope a portion of those dramas will be returners, but there’s always room for the new.”

November says ITV’s drama strategy is built around a “collective vision” for the channel. Alongside his five-strong commissioning team, “viewers can dictate as much as we do where the market is going, what they’d like to see, and we’re trying to predict and supply that,” he says. “So it’s about responding to many things around us, to what viewers seem to be wanting, to what other channels are doing, to our brand and identity and how we can evolve that. This is 60 years of history to work with so it’s a very purposeful redefining and evolving of the brand that’s so well established.”

Jekyll and Hyde failed to meet expectations
Jekyll and Hyde failed to meet expectations

But with global multiplatform players now providing increasingly credible alternatives outlets to producers and viewers, ITV needs to open up its range. “We’re in a very, very competitive market for ideas nowadays,” says November. “Obviously the opportunities for UK writers and producers to be taking their ideas abroad or to new competitors in the market, to be working with players like Amazon and Netflix, mean that in order to get those fresh new takes, we have to be very proactive and make sure that we are, as far as possible, the best place and the place of choice for writers and producers to work.”

The bigger challenge for all broadcasters, he notes, “is keeping people watching scheduled live TV, keeping our viewers, making drama and programming generally that demands attention from viewers.”

A development at ITV last autumn was the return of drama to early peak on Sundays with the launch of Jekyll and Hyde at 18.30 in late October. The 10-part period drama from in-house production arm ITV Studios caused a stir among some viewers for content deemed unsuitable for younger children. But November insists the show was right for the slot and that “most importantly” it was “doing something quite different to other shows at that time, particularly those on the BBC.”

The end of Downton Abbey has left ITV with a hole to fill
The end of Downton Abbey has left ITV with a hole to fill in its 2016 drama line-up

It might have been different, but Jekyll and Hyde ultimately failed to achieve what ITV wanted, with creator Charlie Higson announcing on Twitter in early January that it would not be back for a second season. “It was a grand adventure while it lasted,” he wrote.

ITV plans to increase its drama output in each of the next two years, says November. The channel has already lined up a varied slate of new series, including Victoria (8×60’, pictured top) from Mammoth Screen (Poldark, Endeavour), focusing on the early life of the British monarch. It also marks the screenwriting debut of novelist and producer Daisy Goodwin.

November says his drama commissioning team is committed to fostering new writing talent. “We’re all feeling pressure in that you can’t wait for the traditionally successful names. But it’s exciting for us and it’s incumbent on the business to create opportunities for talent,” he says, citing Chris Lunt, whose first 21.00 drama commission was crime miniseries Prey, which returned for a second season before Christmas; and Daisy Coulam, who got her first authored show on ITV with Grantchester. “Good writing is good writing and we pride ourselves as a team on judging writing solely on its quality, not on who wrote it. We’d love to hear from new talent across the board, it’s exciting.”

However, ITV continues to mine its back-catalogue for returnables. After 12 years off air, Cold Feet is being revived as a new eight-part series, while Tennison is a prequel to Lynda La Plante’s iconic crime drama Prime Suspect, which starred Helen Mirren and ran to seven series. The six-part latter, written by La Plante and coproduced by Noho Film and Television and La Plante Global, is being lined up to coincide with this year’s 25th anniversary of the launch of Prime Suspect.

“Of course, we’ve got to balance that with the absolutely new and the fresh. We can’t load our schedule with old brands and old IP,” comments November. “It’ll be very selected shows that we think have got a real chance of a genuine new life.”

The original Cold Feet
The original Cold Feet, the cast of which is reuniting for a revival this year

Dramas on this year’s slate appear to fulfil that mission. Adding to Cold Feet and Tennison are several from ITV Studios, including the 12-part warrior drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands and eight-part historical drama Jericho (both now on air) and four-parter Tutankhamun. The latter follows the discovery of the tomb of the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh and stars Max Irons and Sam Neill.

External commissions include crime drama Marcella from Buccaneer Media, written by Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) and starring Anna Friel; three-part drama Doctor Thorne, Julian Fellowes’ next project for ITV after Downton, adapted from Anthony Trollope’s book series and made by Hat Trick Productions; and The Halcyon (8×60’) from Left Bank Pictures, a drama set in a five-star London hotel in wartime 1940.

Hillbilly Television will also produce six-parter The Level, about a police officer leading a double life, while CPL Productions is behind 80s-set Brief Encounters.

The slate also includes several new single dramas, like Churchill’s Secret, produced by Tinopolis-owned Daybreak Pictures and starring Michael Gambon as Sir Winston Churchill and Lindsay Duncan as Clementine Churchill.

While ITV’s peaktime drama commissions are not slot-driven, November says the common denominator is “21.00 primetime, post-watershed drama. Even if you’re talking about a two-hour piece drama like Endeavour that might start at 20.00, we still want it to have a 21.00 emotional and narrative sensibility. It’s got to fit that taste and tone.”

In particular, November highlights “a real desire and hunger for contemporary at the moment.” ITV has commissioned several new period pieces and the exec says he is looking for a “light, bright, exciting contemporary hit” to balance with these, pointing enviously at BBC1’s Doctor Foster. “I wish we had that show. Big, romantic thrillers and family relationship dramas are real priorities for us at the moment.”

Jericho is airing now
Jericho is airing now

ITV remains entirely focused on commissioning for British viewers. “The international aspect can bring funding, talent and all the other parts of the equation. But first and foremost I only want to look at shows that are going to work for our audience in the UK on their UK broadcast,” November adds.

The drama director says ITV’s licence fees are very competitive and realistic against the backdrop of rising budgets, typically ranging between £500,000 (US$745,700) and £800,000-plus per hour, depending on the show.

“Excitingly for me and hopefully for producers, our commitment to drama remains absolutely solid and is, in fact, growing,” November says. “We have more hours in 2016 than we had in 2015, and it will be the same again in 2017. In 2017 we’re looking at a schedule with plenty of opportunity and a real commitment to drama, knowing that’s what we need to drive our brand and viewers.”

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ITV’s Endeavour pays off

Endeavour
Endeavour consistently attracts in excess of six millions viewers

Among the many different TV drama formats that exist on the international market, one that seems to work consistently well for the British TV audience is the feature-length story-of-the-week drama (circa 100 minutes) based around a recurring character. Examples over the years include Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, Cracker, Prime Suspect and Sherlock.

UK broadcasters don’t commission these shows in very big numbers, usually in batches of three to five on an annual basis. But the successful ones are so durable that, before you know it, there’s a huge library of episodes that can be repeated ad infinitum and sold to broadcasters around the world. Midsomer Murders, would you believe, now runs to 109 episodes, while Morse – starring the unforgettable John Thaw – racked up 33 episodes.

ITV’s Morse, of course, has given birth to a dynasty of dramas. After the initial series (based on the novels by Colin Dexter), ITV launched a franchise around his sidekick Lewis. And then it turned its attention to the adventures of the young Morse in series called Endeavour – written by Russell Lewis, whose many credits include Kavanagh QC, Sharpe, Hornblower and Marple.

When ITV first announced it was making a pilot of Endeavour in 2012, it would have been easy to complain about broadcaster risk-aversion. But the combination of Morse folklore and 1960s Oxford seemed a dead cert to succeed. And so it has proved – after attracting around 8.2 million viewers for the pilot, the first batch of four films in 2013 pulled in an average audience of around seven million.

Ratings have dipped slightly since then, but not enough to damage the franchise. In 2015, for example, the fourth series attracted an average of 6.3 million viewers and a 22% audience share – which is better than most dramas on British TV. So it’s no real surprise that ITV has just announced a new series will go into production in Spring 2016.

Commenting on the decision, ITV director of drama Steve November said: “We’re delighted with the audience’s reaction to Endeavour. It was an easy decision to recommission due to the quality of the scripts from Russell Lewis and the excellent production values from (producer Mammoth Screen).”

Happy Valley
Sarah Lancashire’s performance in Happy Valley has won wide acclaim

While SVoD and pay TV platforms are currently in the golden age of drama experimentation, the success of Endeavour (when contrasted with ITV’s lacklustre ratings for Jekyll & Hyde and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands) is symptomatic of how difficult it is for mainstream commercial networks to be adventurous in their programming choices. This isn’t just an issue in the UK, but also in markets like the US, Germany and France, where there’s a clear difference in audience tastes between the established free networks and subscription TV.

Another positive point worth noting about Endeavour is that is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment (ITVSGE). This means the show is a revenue generator twice over for ITV (unlike Downton Abbey, for example, which was distributed by NBC Universal).

Mammoth Screen’s involvement is also interesting. An ITV-owned production company, Mammoth Screen has developed the kind of track record that would make it very tempting to back if it were a horse. Aside from Endeavour, it has also made Poldark, And Then There Were None and Black Work in recent times. All of that must make ITV feel pretty confident about the prospects for upcoming series Victoria – also produced by Mammoth Screen.

Still in the UK, this week saw the return of Happy Valley, from Red Production for BBC1 and written by Sally Wainwright. The first series is widely regarded as one of the best British dramas of the last few years – so there was some anxiety that the second series might prove to be a let down. However, the new run has started incredibly strongly, attracting 6.5 million viewers for its first episode, the highest for the show so far.

The X-Files
The X-Files’ debut on Channel 5 in the UK brought in 3.35 million viewers

Not only that, the second series is drawing critical acclaim. IMDb’s rating of 9.2 puts the show right up among the best dramas in the business, while The Daily Telegraph was also effusive in its praise. In a five-star review, the paper said: “The plot is already full of suspense and possibilities. Performances were uniformly excellent. Sarah Lancashire was charismatic: fast-talking and teak-tough at work, bursting into tears of anguish when she got home. The cast additions were promisingly classy, too.”

Another strong performance in the UK came from the reboot of Fox US’s iconic series The X-Files, which is airing on Channel 5. The first episode of the six-part show attracted 3.35 million, the highest launch of any US drama on the channel since 2009. In the US, meanwhile, episode four of the new X-Files attracted 8.3 million viewers, very similar to the previous episode’s figure.

Another series that deserves some credit for its remarkable consistency is The CW’s highest-rated show, The Flash. Over the course of a 23-episode first season, the show averaged 3.84 million. Season two started slightly softer, around the 3.5 million mark, but has got stronger as the series has progressed. Now on episode 13, it has just recorded a season high of 3.96m viewers and its highest share of 18- to 49-year-olds to date.

Flash
The Flash continues to draw strong audiences for The CW

The Flash is based on the DC Comics character and is part of a much broader alliance between The CW and DC that is working incredibly well. At the time of writing, The CW’s number-two show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (which launched in January), while number three is fellow DC-based show Arrow. The CW, it should be noted, is 50% owned by Warner Bros, which also owns DC.

Linking all three shows are writer/producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg, who were also both involved in CBS’s reboot of DC’s Supergirl. CBS owns the other 50% of The CW, creating another nice link back into the extension of the DC franchise.

Finally, on the programme acquisition front, UK channel BBC4 has acquired Nordic Noir drama Modus from FremantleMedia International. Commenting on the Miso Films-produced drama, Cassian Harrison, editor of BBC Four, said: “BBC Four continues to bring the very best international drama to its audience. With its gripping storyline and rich, complex characters, Modus is a clever, entertaining Saturday night treat.”

Jamie Lynn, FMI exec VP of sales and distribution for EMEA, said the BBC4 pick-up would help boost his company’s international sales effort on the show: “BBC4 is recognised by the international broadcast community for its quality foreign drama and has landed and launched some of the industry’s biggest Scandi titles in its Saturday night slot, all which have gone on to receive worldwide acclaim. This prestigious slot has become a beacon, and when searching for the next big non-English language hit, the international world looks here.”

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ITV checks into The Halcyon hotel

Spain's Gran Hotel
Spain’s Gran Hotel

Hotels are great places to set dramas. Not only do you get to see the behind-the-scenes activities of the staff, from lowly bellboy to entrepreneurial owner, you also have guests coming in and out every week.

As with hospitals and shops, this means a constant turnover of stories and characters as the series progresses.

Hotel dramas are nothing new – think back to the UK’s iconic soap Crossroads, for example – but in the last few years they have certainly been in vogue.

There was, for example, the BBC’s Hotel Babylon, set in the world of a luxury five-star hotel. And then came ZDF period drama Hotel Adlon. In the US, we have seen American Horror Story’s most recent season set in a hotel, while Spain has given us the best example of them all with Grand Hotel.

An opulent series set in the early 20th century, the show has proved a big hit at home and in the international distribution market. Not to be overlooked either is Stephen Poliakoff’s new spy drama Close to the Enemy, set in a run-down hotel after the Second World War.

American Horror Story's current outing is based in a hotel
American Horror Story’s current outing is based in a hotel

And so to the point of this preamble, which is that ITV in the UK has commissioned The Halcyon, a series set in a London-based five-star hotel during the Second World War. Produced by Left Bank Pictures and written by Charlotte Jones, it will focus on the guests and staff of the hotel in 1940. As such, it adds the unsettling backdrop of conflict to the transitory nature of hotel life – bombs overhead, staff going to war, soldiers passing through and perhaps even spies.

The eight-hour drama will be produced by Chris Croucher, who also produced the last two seasons of ITV’s period hit Downton Abbey. So there is clearly a hope that The Halcyon can go some way towards replacing that show.

ITV director of drama Steve November said: “A hotel is the perfect place to show ambition in telling the story of the Second World War. It was an extraordinary time in our country’s history, and London was a transforming city. The Halcyon takes us right to the heart of this as the hotel is busy, energetic and vibrant, which reflects how people carried on with their lives with defiance in the air.”

ITV's Steve November
ITV’s Steve November

Left Bank CEO Andy Harries added: “1940 was one of the most dramatic years in our island’s history. Who could have imagined London would survive the blitz and Luftwaffe’s attempted destruction of the city? What was it like to be in a five-star hotel in the West End through this extraordinary period? It’s such a compelling idea for a drama. The world of The Halcyon has to carry on through thick and thin and against all odds. The bedrooms have to be made safe, the bars have to stay open and the band has to play on. People have to sleep, eat and survive.”

Left Bank is owned by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), so the likelihood is that SPT will hold the international distribution rights to the show. If so, this will echo the business model of Downton Abbey, which was commissioned by ITV but produced by NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films. The series will begin filming in London and surrounding areas from April 2016.

It’s been a good week for Left Bank, which has also been commissioned by ITV to make a fifth season of crime drama DCI Banks. The series, which premiered in 2010, is based on the novels by Peter Robinson and stars Stephen Tompkinson. It is set and filmed in the county of Yorkshire.

Stephen Tomkinson in DCI Banks
Stephen Tompkinson in DCI Banks

Harries said: “I’m delighted we are producing a fifth season of DCI Banks, one of ITV’s best-loved dramas. The stunning backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside is contrasted with the uncompromising storylines the team is dealing with.”

Left Bank isn’t the only indie to have benefited from ITV’s voracious appetite for new drama this week. Indie producer CPL Productions has been given the greenlight to make Brief Encounters, a six-parter looking at a group of four women who get into the lingerie and sex-shop business in the 1980s.

The series is inspired by chapters telling the story of the early days of the Ann Summers party plan business found in Good Vibrations, the memoir by Ann Summers boss Jacqueline Gold. “Brief Encounters is a refreshingly different domestic drama taking us back to the wonderful world of the 1980s,” said November. “We’re really excited by this commission – it’s full of heart, story and great new characters.”

Executive producer Arabella McGuigan added: “Brief Encounters is gutsy, emotional, warm and surprising. Like the real Ann Summers saleswomen, through their camaraderie our women discover hidden strengths and an ability to come out fighting no matter what life throws at you. As wives, mothers and businesswomen, they unleash talent – and they blossom.”

Luther creator Neil Cross's new show is set in a pre-apocalyptic London
Luther creator Neil Cross’s new show is set in a pre-apocalyptic UK

CPL belongs to Red Arrow Entertainment, which presumably means distribution will be handled within the Red Arrow family.

Still in the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has commissioned a new detective series from Euston Films called Hard Sun. The six-parter is being written by Neil Cross, creator of Luther and a writer on Doctor Who. FremantleMedia International is handling sales.

It’s described as a pre-apocalyptic drama, meaning it is set against the backdrop of a dying world. “Imagine the world you see when you look out your window… except it’s been given a death sentence,” Cross said. “There’s no hero to come save us; no contingency plan. What’s it like, trying to keep order, trying to enforce the law in a city that, day by day, slips closer to certain destruction? How do you get up in the morning? How do you get out of bed and leave your family and go out there, putting your own life at risk? And what about the predators? What about the murderers, the rapists, the thieves? What about the psychopaths, the religious nuts, the cult leaders, the serial killers? Who would fear a prison sentence?”

Meanwhile, comic books continue to be a fruitful source of TV ideas, with US cable channel Syfy developing a new series based on the Dark Horse comic Harrow County. The story focuses on a teenage girl who finds ghosts, goblins, and the restless dead in a nearby forest. She subsequently learns she is the reincarnation of a powerful witch.

Blood and Water has been renewed by OMNI Television in Canada
Blood and Water has been renewed by OMNI Television in Canada

The series is being written by Becky Kirsch, who has previously worked on Syfy’s Dominion and 12 Monkeys.

Discovery is also reported to be working on an anthology drama series. According to Deadline, the broadcaster is developing a show called Manifesto, which will explore how the FBI caught infamous criminal masterminds, with each closed-ended season following a different case. The show sounds similar in structure to Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story on FX.

Finally, in Canada, OMNI Television has announced that it has renewed crime drama Blood and Water, just a month after the first season’s debut. The show, which is set in Vancouver, is unusual because it delves into the lives of Chinese immigrants and is produced in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

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International Drama Summit: Round-up

The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.

On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.

Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.

Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.

Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21's International Drama Summit
Figures from all areas of the drama industry descended on London for C21’s International Drama Summit

Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”

There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.

Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”

Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.

Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.

“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”

DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show
DQ editor Michael Pickard (far left) discusses ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde with the team behind the show

Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.

And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.

Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.

He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.

“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”

Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.

BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.

Sky Anne Mensah
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah took to the stage alongside commissioning editor Cameron Roach

Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.

Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”

Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.

The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.

ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.

And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.

ITV drama director Steve November
ITV drama director Steve November

“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”

Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).

Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”

Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.

As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.

There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.

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Tut-Tut: Two Tutankhamun tales take to TV

DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.

As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.

Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.

Spike TV's Tut will air later this month
Spike TV’s Tut will air later this month

The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).

The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.

Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.

Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.

The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.

At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”

Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.

ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.

ITV's Steve November: 'Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions'
ITV’s Steve November: ‘Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions’

The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.

However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.

From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.

Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”

“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”

Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.

In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.

Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.

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