Tag Archives: Stewart Harcourt

British writers display their dark side

Today is the last day of BBC Showcase, an annual event that sees around 700 programme buyers from around the world descend on Liverpool in the UK to view and potentially acquire BBC Worldwide (BBCWW)-distributed content.

At this year’s event, BBCWW has had a lot of its success with crime drama, selling around 900 hours of programming to markets including Europe, the Middle East and Japan. It’s a reminder that the Nordic nations aren’t the only ones capable of producing compelling noir.

Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBCWW, commented: “British crime drama is hugely popular around the world and accounts for over 40% of our drama revenue.”

The fact that the UK does so well is a testament to the quality of TV crime writing in the country, so this week we’ll take a look at some of the talent driving the international hit machine.

luther-5Luther, which stars Idris Elba as DCI John Luther, was acquired by German public broadcaster ZDF, Star India and also by platforms in South Korea and Africa. The fourth series, which aired in the UK during December 2015, consisted of two feature-length episodes. What it lacked in volume, it made up for in ratings, with the two episodes attracting around 7.5 to eight million viewers. All 16 episodes of Luther have been written by New Zealand-based Neil Cross, who has also written episodes of Doctor Who for the BBC. Cross has also been commissioned by the BBC to write Hard Sun, a six-part apocalyptic crime drama set in contemporary London.

lynleyThe Inspector Lynley Mysteries was also picked up by ZDF for its ZDFneo channel. Originally broadcast from 2001 to 2008, the series (based on the novels by Elizabeth George) has proved a decent performer on the international market. In the US, for example, all 23 episodes have aired on PBS. Several scribes have written episodes, including Pete Jukes, Simon Block, Lizzie Mickery, Valerie Windsor, Kate Wood, Francesca Brill, Valerie Windsor, Ann-marie di Mambro, Kevin Clarke, Simon Booker, Julian Simpson, Mark Grieg and Ed Whitmore. Whitmore also wrote a large number of episodes for fellow long-running BBC crime drama Waking the Dead. His other credits include Silent Witness (which was also picked up by TV4 Sweden at Showcase), Arthur & George and Identity, an ITV production that was subsequently sold as a format to ABC in the US. Whitmore also has a couple of episodes of CSI to his name.

happy-valley-dvdHappy Valley season two, was picked up by French PayTV broadcaster Canal+ (which also acquired the fourth season of Luther). The show’s first run was a strong seller overseas and there’s no reason to suppose the new outing will fare any less well. The show is produced by Red Production Company and written by Sally Wainwright. Wainwright also created Scott & Bailey, another popular female-led crime series that has been airing since 2011 on ITV.

prey-series-2Prey is broadcast by ITV in the UK but is distributed internationally by BBCWW. The first batch of three episodes aired in 2014 and starred John Simm, while a second run of three aired in late 2015 and starred Philip Glenister. The latter has just been sold to broadcasters including NRK Norway, YLE Finland and Canal+. Prey was created by Chris Lunt, who wrote all six episodes. Lunt’s success is a reminder that it’s never too late to break into the TV writing business. After 10 years of knocking on doors and pitching more than 80 projects, Lunt finally got his break at age 43. Media reports suggest he is also working on a modern-day adaptation of The Saint with the aforementioned Ed Whitmore.

sherlockSherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, has sold very well around the world since it debuted in 2010. At the start of this year, Gatiss and Moffat created one-off special The Abominable Bride, in which much of the action took place in the Victorian era (though a scriptwriting sleight of hand meant the story was actually linked back to the contemporary setting of the series). Broadcasters that picked up the special at Showcase include Degeto (Germany), SVT Sweden, Czech Television and Channel One in Russia. A fourth series of Sherlock is on the way in 2017, with stories for a fifth season also sketched out by Gatiss and Moffat. The show is very slow to come to market because of the busy schedules of Gatiss, Moffat and the lead cast members.

maigret_itvMaigret, based on the books by Georges Simenon, is a new ITV series starring Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr Bean). At Showcase it was picked up by Germany’s Degeto, which also acquired Sherlock: The Abominable Bride. The writer on this one is the experienced Stewart Harcourt, whose other credits include Agatha Raisin: The Quiche of Death, Love & Marriage, Treasure Island, Inspector George Gently, Poirot and Marple. So if anyone can handle a book-based period detective story, it’s Harcourt.

unforgottenUnforgotten, like Prey, is an ITV series distributed worldwide by BBCWW. Aired in October 2015, the first six-part series focuses on four people whose lives are rocked when the bones belonging to a young man who died 39 years ago are discovered below a demolished house. At Showcase, the drama was picked up by France 3 and YES DBS Satellite in Israel. The show was produced by Mainstreet Pictures and written and created by Chris Lang. Lang started his career on The Bill and has had a successful writing career since, with credits including Amnesia, Torn, A Mother’s Son and Undeniable. The ratings success of Unforgotten convinced ITV to commission a second series. There’s no information yet on the plot but it looks like it will be another cold-case drama, with Lang saying there will be “a new story, where long-buried secrets will once again be slowly brought to light.”

deathinparadiseDeath In Paradise was part of a package of 232 hours of crime drama sold to SVT in Sweden. Produced by Red Planet Pictures, the show has also been given the greenlight for a sixth series this week by Charlotte Moore, controller of BBC1, and Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning. All told, that will mean there are 48 episodes, which is a good number for the international market. Maybe that explains why it has sold to 237 territories worldwide including China, South Africa, the US and the Caribbean countries close to where the show is set and filmed. Echoing some of the other BBC dramas, Death In Paradise is written by a number of people. But the best-known name is series creator Robert Thorogood, who came to Red Planet’s attention via its scriptwriting competition.

fatherBrownFather Brown is based on the books by GK Chesterton and perfectly fits into the British tradition of eccentric or unusual amateur sleuths. The central character, played by Mark Williams, is a Roman Catholic priest. Unusually for a British drama, the 1950s-set show is already up to 45 episodes after just four series. At Showcase it was picked up by PBC (PTV) in South Korea and ABC Australia. Given the high number of episodes, it’s no surprise Father Brown is an ensemble-written afffair, with credited writers including Tahsin Guner, Rachel Flowerday, Nicola Wilson, Rebecca Wojciechowski, Jude Tindall Dan Muirden, Lol Fletcher, Paul Matthew Thompson, Dominique Moloney, David Semple, Rob Kinsman, Stephen McAteer, Jonathan Neil, Kit Lambert and Al Smith. Particularly prominent has been Guner, who wrote the very first episode and the last one in series four (among others). Repped by David Higham Associates, Guner was selected for the 2009/10 BBC Writers Academy and has written scripts for dramas including Holby, Casualty and New Tricks. He is currently developing original drama series Borders.

ripperstreetRipper Street was licensed this week to Multichoice VoD service Showmax. The show, which was famously saved by a financial injection from Amazon, is a period crime drama set in Victorian England. With four series of Ripper Street already produced and released, Amazon has already committed itself to a fifth season – taking the total number of episodes above 30. Another team effort, the key writer name attached to this is creator Richard Warlow, who tends to deliver about half of the episodes in each series. Warlow’s previous writing credits include Waking the Dead and Mistresses. Other writers on the show have included Toby Finlay (Peaky Blinders) and Rachel Bennette (Lark Rise to Candleford, Lewis and Liberty).

coronerThe Coroner is a daytime drama series about a solicitor who takes over as a coroner in the South Devon coastal town she left as a teenager. At Showcase it sold to AXN Mystery in Japan and Prime in New Zealand. The show was created by Sally Abbott, who also wrote three episodes of the first series. There’s a good blog from Abbott about how she got her break in the business here.

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Sutter leaves his bikers behind

Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)
Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)

American showrunner Kurt Sutter got his big break as a writer on FX crime drama The Shield. But it was his next project, Sons of Anarchy, that established him as one of scripted TV’s most acclaimed auteurs. Across seven series (again on FX), Sutter created a cult following for his gritty tale of an outlaw motorcycle club. A strong ratings performer, the show’s finale attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers when it aired last December.

There was talk for a while that Sutter would move on to a Sons prequel next, set in the 1960s. But instead he elected to write a pilot for FX called The Bastard Executioner, about a traumatised 14th century warrior who quits the battlefield and becomes an executioner. This week, FX announced it had greenlit a 10-part series, presumably hoping Bastard will be its answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’ Outlander (without the soppy bits).

Commenting on that decision, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden, whose Fox 21 TV Studios (Fox21TVS) will produce the project with FX Productions, said: “The Bastard Executioner, written by Kurt and directed by the talented Paris Barclay, is dangerous, brilliant, emotional and undeniable. This is the perfect follow-up to Sons and another huge event series for FX. Viewers are in for a wild and spellbinding ride.”

Sutter's Sons of Anarchy ended last December
Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy ended last December

Sutter, according to industry folklore, spent time with motorcycle clubs while researching Sons Of Anarchy – the writer equivalent of method acting. So it will be interesting to see how he gets under the skin of this subject (hopefully without too many casualties). Explaining why he has opted for swords and sandals, he said: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. I love working with FX and Fox21TVS. They’ve been my family for 15 years. They not only tolerate me, they embrace my extremely disturbing storytelling sensibilities.”

Biopics and based-on-true-story dramas are stalwarts of the scripted business, though they invariably court controversy. Such is the pressure to create narrative jeopardy and shades of dark and light that writers generally end up turning some of their characters into villains, in order that their heroes and heroines can be thrown into sharp relief. So it will be interesting to see how Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski manage this process on American Crime Story, a true-crime TV franchise they are creating for FX.

First up is a series entitled The People v O.J. Simpson, a retelling of the murder trial that gripped the world in 1995. With Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson and a supporting cast including John Travolta and David Schwimmer, this looks like a dead cert ratings hit.

The trial of OJ Simpson (pictured) is to be dramatised on FX
The trial of OJ Simpson (pictured) is to be dramatised on FX

Alexander and Karaszewski have a long, illustrious and critically acclaimed track record as writing partners on offbeat biopics, usually in the form of movies. As far back as 1994 they worked with Tim Burton on Ed Wood. Subsequent projects included The People vs Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Auto Focus, before they came full circle and made another biopic with Burton last year, called Big Eyes. All this will stand them in good stead for the Simpson project, though the challenge will be how they harness their distinctive humour in a way that works with such tough material.

A biopic is also making headlines in the UK this week, with ITV announcing plans for a drama called Churchill’s Secret, set during Winston Churchill’s second stint as prime minister in the 1950s. Based on Jonathan Smith’s book The Churchill Secret: KBO, the two-hour drama will star Michael Gambon as the ailing political icon.

The writing job has been handed to Stewart Harcourt, who has built up a formidable array of production credits over the past two decades. After writing on shows such as Peak Practice, Jericho, Marple, Poirot and Treasure Island, Harcourt was named as lead writer on ITV’s Love and Marriage in 2013. As well as Churchill’s Secret, he is also in the process of writing two Maigret detective stories for ITV. The latter project stars Rowan Atkinson, though today’s fun factoid link is that Michael Gambon played Maigret in a previous TV adaptation in the early 1990s.

Linda Woolverton has been tasked with adapting The Clan of the Cave Bear for the small screen
Linda Woolverton has been tasked with adapting The Clan of the Cave Bear for the small screen

Another big US scripted project grinding into action is Lifetime’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which is based on the first book in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series. The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those books that neither you nor your friends have ever read, but which has somehow established itself as a global publishing phenomenon. At last count, the six books that make up Auel’s epic caveman saga had sold around 45 million copies worldwide. The story was also turned into a film starring Daryl Hannah in 1986.

The new TV version is only at pilot stage right now, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those projects that could run for years if the writer, Linda Woolverton, pulls it off.

Her credentials suggest she’s got as good a chance as anybody. Hit machine Woolverton was the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney when she penned Beauty and the Beast. She also wrote screenplays for The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent – all very successful projects with plenty of strong female characters (which will be crucial to her interpretation of Cave Bear). When not discovering her inner cavewoman, she will be writing the screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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