Tag Archives: The A Word

A-nother Word

Howard Burch, creative director of scripted at prodco Keshet UK, looks at the challenge of repeating the success of hit drama The A Word with its forthcoming second season and discusses the development process behind the follow-up.

The first series of The A Word was a standout success, attracting a consolidated average audience of 5.5 million and a 22% share on BBC1 in 2016. It also aired on SundanceTV in the US, which is also the US broadcaster for season two.

What can one hope for with a second season of a successful show? That it expands on the original? That it whets the audience’s appetite for more? Maybe even that it is better than the first? Or simply that it doesn’t disappoint a loyal audience eager for more?

Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, and based on an original Israeli series by Keren Margalit called Yellow Peppers, The A Word is about a messy extended family living in the Lake District, whose youngest son, Joe, just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.

The A Word centres on an autistic boy Joe (Max Vento) and his family

But in writer Peter Bowker’s assured hands, the drama is never issue-led or ‘about’ autism. Audiences flocked to it because it was warm, accessible and light-hearted – and with a great soundtrack to boot!

The second season, coming to BBC1 and SundanceTV this autumn, picks up on events two years on – and Joe, played by Max Vento, is changing. Now seven years old, he has begun to look at the world and finds that he doesn’t fit in. It revisits the funny, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents, carers and lovers… and to work out what’s really important in the face of nothing ever feeling normal.

Bowker explains: “‘Autistic’ is a word Joe has heard but can’t yet understand. ‘Different’ is what he feels, and fears it might be something bad. It’s up to the whole family to help Joe make sense of who he is and his place in the world. But to do that, they must first be honest about themselves.”

The team, including executive producers Patrick Spence, Marcus Wilson and producer Jenny Frayn, again consulted with various bodies such as the National Autism Society and Anna Kennedy Online to make sure the scripts feel authentic. But the series has never tried to be reflective of every experience of autism in the family. It tells the story of every family through the prism of one family struggling to come to terms with their son’s unexpected diagnosis.

Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie play Joe’s parents

“Peter Bowker has extensive experience of working with families with children with autism and was able to draw on this wealth of knowledge to create a detailed and truthful portrait of a family with a child with autism at its heart,” says producer Frayn. “As well as drawing on Peter’s experience, we also spoke to a number of organisations involved in autism, as well as parents of children with autism. We kept in touch with them after the first series aired and we were pleased by the support we received and the largely very positive feedback.”

For the first season, we filmed in Manchester and the Lake District, just as Storm Desmond brought record rainfall to the North West. For the second season, we were blessed with calmer conditions, partly because filming was pushed back to the spring and summer of 2017. “Although, the weather in the Lake District doesn’t follow the typical laws of the seasons,” notes Frayn. “We started filming in March with snow on the hilltops, and in June we faced torrential rain and high winds.

“We tried to film a fell-running festival with outdoor stalls, people in skimpy running gear and young children licking ice-creams as tents were being blown away and rain lashed the bouncy castle. The cast and crew were all real troopers about coping with the weather, but in the end we had to come back on a sunnier day and stage the fell-running festival all over again. It looked glorious.”

One of the ingredients new to this season is an even greater verisimilitude. “A brilliant illustration of this,” says Wilson, “was the sequence in the special school. We took Max and his on-screen parents Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby into a real special-school classroom to film Joe’s first day because we wanted to portray an authentic environment.

The series also features former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston

“Producer Jenny and location manager Gary Barnes liaised in detail to work out exactly how this could be achieved by integrating a small documentary-style crew into the classroom and letting real-life action unfold around our characters. We had to make sure we were incredibly sensitive to the needs of the class and teachers, making sure they were comfortable with the equipment and that lighting and sound and all the usual noises of a set were attuned to what the class could cope with.

“Director Sue Tully managed the set beautifully, whispering directions and capturing genuine moments. To ensure the families felt comfortable with what was shot, Jenny [showed footage] to parents and teachers and discussed what we were trying to achieve and whether they were confident about what was seen in each shot.”

The show has sold around the globe, via our distribution arm Keshet International, to countries including Canada, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea, as well as a second-window VoD rights deal to Amazon Prime Video in the US. The series is proving over and over again how relatable and important it is, perhaps because it just really resonates with people – we all have a family, and families all have challenges to overcome. So it’s with comfort and pride that we envisage more viewers around the world watching something so worthwhile.

Hopefully viewers will find this season an even deeper and more rewarding experience than the first. As with any returning series, the writers and creators know the actors they are writing for and can play to their strengths. But, crucially, both cast and crew have spent longer in each other’s company, and that feeling of being one big, unconventional and sometimes fractious but mostly harmonious family filters through in every scene.

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Missing accomplished

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

Season two of BBC1’s crime drama The Missing ended this week after eight gripping episodes. Not everyone enjoyed the complexity or darkness of the show but those who stuck it out were rewarded with superb acting, compelling storytelling and a set of fresh and interesting locations, ranging from Switzerland to Iraq.

The show’s achievement is made all the more remarkable by the fact it is an English-language show with a French cop as its moral compass.

The show kicked off in October with an audience of 7.8 million (seven-day consolidated data). From there it dropped to around 6.5-7 million per episode, which is still a strong performance.

For the most part it was also warmly received by critics, who felt it managed to successfully tie up its numerous loose ends. Speaking of the final episode, The Guardian said it was “fabulous” and that it “builds and builds in stomach-clenching tension.”

The Telegraph’s critic was a mid-season convert, saying: “It turns out my cynicism was unfounded. The fast-paced, powerful denouement satisfied both heart and head; loose ends from the drama’s dual timelines were tied up; every plot thread reached its resolution. This was fiendishly plotted, stylishly delivered TV.”

With a strong UK performance in the bag, The Missing 2 will now go into distribution courtesy of All3Media International. Already onboard is US premium pay TV platform Starz, which also aired season one. Given that the first season sold well around the world, it’s likely the new series will do well.

The show, which was created by Jack and Harry Williams, is also likely to feature prominently on the awards circuit, given the response to the first season. Although The Missing season one didn’t manage to bag any high-profile awards, it did show up on several shortlists, gaining a nomination for Best Miniseries or TV Film at the Golden Globes in 2015.

The big question now is whether there will be a third season of the show, which is an anthology series linked by the presence of the French cop referred to above (Julien Baptiste). The actor who plays him, Tcheky Karyo, is keen to reprise. But the Williams brothers have not yet committed. They are busy with other projects and will only return to The Missing if they feel they have the right idea. One possibility is to pick up the story from season one, which does have the potential to be brought back to life.

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

In other Williams brothers news, there are reports this week that US premium pay TV channel Cinemax has jumped on board Rellik, a new limited series that the brothers are making for BBC1 in the UK. The title of the show is Killer spelled backwards, reflecting the fact that the new series will tell a serial killer’s story in reverse.

Another show in the headlines this week is the Franco-Swedish drama Midnight Sun, which has been sold to pay TV channel Sky Atlantic in the UK by StudioCanal. Created by Mårlind & Stein (Bron/Broen), the eight-part series is a thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.

It has already aired on Canal+ in France, where it was the highest rated Création Originale series launch in three years. It also did well on Sweden’s SVT, where it attracted an audience of 1.8 million (39.7% share).

Commenting on the deal, Zai Bennett, director of programmes at Sky Entertainment UK and Ireland, said: “Midnight Sun is a brilliant addition to our line-up in 2017, with new award-winning drama airing exclusively on the channel every month. I’ve no doubt our customers will love this clever and thought-provoking thriller.”

Sky Atlantic is the latest in a long line of broadcasters to pick up the Canal+/SVT/Filmpool Nord copro from Atlantique Productions and Nice Drama. Already onboard are ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel, NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RUV in Iceland, MTV3 in Finland, VRT in Belgium, and Lumière in Benelux. The show also received the Audience Award at SeriesMania.

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

Katrina Neylon, exec VP sales and marketing at StudioCanal, added: “Since its launch at Mipcom in October, Midnight Sun has gone from strength to strength on the international stage. Its high production values, alongside an absorbing and internationally relevant storyline, offer great appeal across multiple platforms.”

Also this week, DQ’s sister platform C21 is reporting that Amazon has picked up the US SVoD rights for critically acclaimed drama The A Word. The series, which looks at the impact on a family when their youngest child is diagnosed with autism, is based on an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers.

Distributed internationally by Keshet International (KI), the first season of the show was a surprise hit on BBC1 and a second season has been commissioned. In addition to Amazon, it will air on Sundance TV in the US, underlining a growing trend toward pay TV/SVoD rights sharing.

Commenting on the Amazon deal, Keren Shahar, chief operating officer at KI and president of distribution, said: “The fact that Amazon has acquired SVoD rights to both seasons of the series is a testament to its quality, appeal and performance to date.”

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

On the cancellation front, Showtime in the US has announced that Masters of Sex has been dropped after four seasons. The news is not that big a surprise. The show, which features Michael Sheen as William Masters, the real-life American gynaecologist who pioneered research into human sexuality, attracted an average of 453,000 for its final run.

This is down from the 595,000 who watched season three, the 800,000 who watched season two and the 1.07 million who followed the debut season in 2013. An IMDb score of eight reinforces the fact that the show never quite hit the heights of the other shows doing the rounds in pay TV/SVoD (Fargo, Stranger Things, Westworld, Game of Thrones etc).

The show also didn’t perform well when compared with other Showtime titles like Homeland, Shameless, Ray Donovan and Billions. Interestingly, another Showtime series, The Affair, has just come back for season three with pretty modest ratings — suggesting that it might also struggle to get a recommission at the end of this run. If this is the case, then it leaves Showtime very reliant on a small handful of moderately good scripted series.

Against this backdrop, a watershed moment for the channel will be the return of iconic drama Twin Peaks in 2017. Possibly it’s also time to listen to the fan chat and bring back Dexter, the serial killer drama that defined Showtime for so many seasons.

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Networks seek feel-good dramas

Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife has been given three more eight-episode seasons

One of the UK’s most popular dramas, Call the Midwife, has been renewed for three more seasons. The feel-good show, created by Neal Street Productions for BBC1, launched in 2012 and has so far run for five seasons. The new commission means three more lots of eight episodes as well as the bonus of three Christmas specials.

Commenting on the BBC’s  heavyweight backing for the show, which reflects a trend in TV towards multi-series commissions, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “I’m privileged to have Britain’s most popular drama series on BBC1, and this new three-series commission underlines our commitment. Call the Midwife continues to raise the bar with each series and is really valued by audiences. The quality and ambition of the storytelling is credit to the excellence of writer Heidi Thomas, who has brought the show into the 1960s with a diverse range of subjects.”

To date, the show has attracted an average of around 10 million viewers per episode each season. So far it has been rooted in the 1950s but will now tackle the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Heidi Thomas, creator, writer and executive producer of the show, said: “In the 1960s Britain was a country fizzing with change and challenge, and there is so much rich material – medical, social and emotional – to be explored. We have now delivered well over 100 babies on screen and, like those babies, the stories keep on coming!”

Interestingly, the recommission comes at a time when more and more executives in the industry are calling for entertaining, feel-good dramas. ITV director of TV Kevin Lygo recently told the audience at a Bafta event in the UK that he wanted to see more “happy, life-affirming dramas,” adding: “I’m a bit tired of endless murders where in the first five minutes someone, always a woman or a child, is abducted, raped, knifed, killed or bludgeoned.”

The Durrells
The Durrells – a ‘positive, happy’ show

Networks that have invested in feel-good shows have generally secured strong ratings. ITV, for example, enjoyed success with The Durrells, which Lygo said “was a positive thing, a happy, well-made, brilliantly performed show – perfect for Sunday evening.”

His network has recommissioned The Durrells and is also about to launch another feel-good show called The Good Karma Hospital. Produced by Tiger Aspect, the programme is set in a coastal town in tropical South India. It follows the story of a British-Asian junior doctor who arrives at the run-down Good Karma Hospital to join a dedicated team of over-worked medics.

The feel-good factor is also producing some positive results in the US this season. The best example of this is NBC’s comedy drama This Is Us, which launched this year. Eight episodes in, the show is attracting a rock-solid 9-9.5 million viewers and is generally regarded as one of the best new dramas of the year.

Younger
Younger was recently given a fourth run on TV Land

It’s too soon to call this a trend but there are a few other shows that suggest the US audience is receptive to shows that put a positive spin on life’s challenges. In the comedy arena, we’ve seen breakout hits like Modern Family, The Goldbergs (both ABC) and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), while in drama there have been successes like The CW’s Jane the Virgin and TV Land’s Younger. The latter show, which was recently renewed for a fourth season, is the channel’s top performer with an audience in the 500,000 to 600,000 range.

Around the world, the emphasis still tends to be on crime series, with France and Italy in particular making their mark with hard-boiled series such as Spiral and Gomorrah respectively, to name a couple.

Indeed, The Economist went as far as calling Italian political drama “the new Nordic Noir.” But there is a decent array of international shows that can be categorised as feel-good, inspirational or life-affirming.

Ku'Damm 56
Ku’Damm 56 airs on ZDF in Germany

Keshet’s Yellow Peppers was a big hit in Israel before being adapted successfully as The A Word for the BBC in the UK, while UFA’s Ku’Damm 56 has been one of the breakout shows of the last year for ZDF in Germany.

Even the gloomy Nordics have series like Rita and The Legacy in among their crime noir shows. One of the region’s recent hits is Next Summer, a comedy drama that satirises the idea of the idyllic, cosy family summer holiday at a getaway. A hit for TV Norge/Discovery in Norway, Next Summer is now up to three seasons and is being remade for Kanal5/Discovery is Sweden. (There has also been talk of a Fox remake coming to the US market).

Australia’s contribution to the feel-good revolution is Seven Network’s The Secret Daughter, a musical show that stars former Australian Idol contestant Jessica Mauboy as a part-time indigenous pub singer whose life changes forever when she meets a wealthy city hotelier. Produced by Screentime, the 10-episode first season started in October and received some positive notices from the press at launch. Now six episodes in, it’s posting a respectable one million viewers per episode (with consolidated viewing included) and has been renewed for 2017.

Next Summer
Norwegian feel-good series Next Summer

The Koreans also manage to make space for some upbeat shows – the best recent example being KBS2’s Oh My Venus. In this series, a Korean personal trainer working in Hollywood returns home after a scandal involving an American actress. Back on Korean soil, he becomes emotionally involved with a former teen star who is now an out of shape 33-year-old lawyer – cue romance.

There’s a similar ‘coming home’ vibe to Fox Turkey’s In Love Again (Ask Yeniden). In this case, two young people go to the US (separately) to start new lives, but the American Dream turns sour for both of them. They meet on the plane home and, embarrassed to admit the truth to their families, pretend to be married. Fox has also enjoyed success with Cherry Season, which focuses on the tangled lives and loves of a fashion designer and her friend.

Oh My Venus
Oh My Venus centres on a personal trainer

In the world of telenovelas, there has always been a steady flow of upbeat or uplifting shows such as Ugly Betty, The Successful Pells, Rebelde Way and the original Jane the Virgin. One title about to hit the market is Telemundo’s La Fan, which tells the story of a happy-go-lucky woman from a poor background who is a passionate fan of a famous telenovela actor. One day, a twist of fate brings the two of them together. At first, he hardly notices her, but before long he can’t imagine his life without her.

The big challenge with feel-good drama is making sure it doesn’t skew too heavily towards the female audience, with most of the shows in this area relying on strong female leads. However, many of the above examples have proved it is possible to create a cross-gender, cross-generational hit with the right story.

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Channel 4 cooks up first Hebrew drama

The Baker and the Beauty will air on Channel 4 in its original form
Israeli drama The Baker and the Beauty will air on Channel 4 in its original form

A few years ago, Israeli producers started to make serious inroads into the US market with local adaptations of their dramas. Exemplified by shows like In Treatment, Traffic Light and Homeland, we looked at this trend in a column in June 2015.

Subsequently, Israel has also started to have notable successes in other parts of the world. A good example is Keshet International (KI)’s The A Word, a comedy drama adapted by the BBC in the UK. Having secured strong ratings in BBC1 primetime, the show has now been recommissioned for a second season and is being adapted for the Greek market. It has also been licensed to broadcasters including Sundance in the US, CBC (Canada), BBC First (Australia) and, ironically perhaps, pay TV broadcaster YES in Israel.

It’s not just Israeli adaptations that are winning over buyers. Original Hebrew-language dramas have also started to generate interest. In October 2015, for example, Fox International Channels acquired KI drama False Flag – the first time it had bought a non-English-language scripted series for use on a global scale.

Federation Entertainment and Armoza Formats, meanwhile, have had a lot of joy selling Hebrew-language series Hostages internationally, and there is also an English-language version of the show. Additionally, Endemol Shine International recently sold Israeli thriller Mossad to Turner Latin America.

The A Word has met global success
The A Word has met global success

This week, there was another positive development for Hebrew-language drama, with the news that Channel 4 in the UK is to air Endemol’s Israel-produced comedy-drama The Baker and the Beauty – the first time C4 has ever aired an Israeli drama in its original form. The show, distributed by KI, was picked up earlier this year for use on the C4-backed foreign-language VOD service Walter Presents. But airing on C4’s main channel means it will get much greater exposure in the UK market.

The show, which has been adapted for Greece, The Netherlands and Russia, is a top performer in Israel and has been greenlit for a second season. It follows the love story between a female celebrity and a baker who still lives with his parents. A chance encounter results in their romance, but the big question is whether their relationship can survive her jet-setting lifestyle, her overbearing agent, his unworldly family, both their exes and media intrusion.

Elsewhere this week, there are reports that Sony PlayStation is cancelling superhero drama Powers after two seasons. The news was broken on Twitter by creator Brian Michael Bendis.

The ‘at least for now’ may mean Bendis is planning to look for another network home for Powers. But the show has not been especially well received by critics, so a season three revival seems unlikely. At least Bendis can console himself with the fact that Powers will continue in comic book form with Marvel.

Powers has been cancelled
Powers has been cancelled

Powers was PlayStation’s first original drama commission, so the fact that it has been cancelled may signal that the Sony-owned gaming platform is pulling back from investment in television. That wouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that Sony is now ploughing money into scripted productions for Crackle.

Another show in trouble this week is Houdini & Doyle, which we have discussed before in this column. The show’s first season aired on ITV Encore in the UK and Fox in the US earlier this year, drawing modest ratings. Fox has now said it won’t recommission it, so it remains to be seen if ITV will go searching for other partners to keep the franchise alive.

This week also saw the conclusion of The Secret Agent on BBC1. The three-part miniseries was an adaptation of one of Joseph Conrad’s finest novels. As far as I can tell, it’s the first Conrad TV adaptation since Nostromo in 1997. The Secret Agent itself was previously adapted as a film in 1996, with Bob Hoskins.

The Secret Agent has not received the reception the BBC would have hoped for
The Secret Agent has not received the reception the BBC would have hoped for

I was very much looking forward to the production – because Conrad is one of my favourite authors and lead actor Toby Jones (Verloc) is one of my favourite actors. But it seems to have missed its mark with the audience. The first episode came in below the slot average, which doesn’t bode well for the next two episodes (the ratings aren’t in yet). It also scored just 5.8 on IMDb, which is low. And entertainment critics weren’t exactly enthusiastic.

There appear to be two key problems with the show. The first is that the story is so bleak, a point well articulated by Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph. The second is that Conrad novels are not structured in a way that lends themselves to adaptation. So often in his works, key pieces of action happen early and then become the basis for extended psychological studies. This is very different, for example, from a Thomas Hardy novel – where there is usually a powerful setup, some unexpected twists and turns and a dramatic conclusion.

Ash vs Evil Dead is heading to Amazon in Germany
Ash vs Evil Dead is heading to Amazon in Germany

The strength of the acting and writing certainly make The Secret Agent worth watching  – it’s only three hours long, after all. But the show should be a warning to anyone thinking of adapting other Conrad novels. Those tempted should probably focus on his sea stories – and should perhaps look for a contemporary setting (echoing the way Francis Ford Coppola created Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness). Anyone interested in following up on this subject should see this Guardian article.

Finally this week, Starz Digital, the on-demand licensing arm of US cable network Starz, has licensed comedy-horror series Ash vs Evil Dead to Amazon in Germany. The first season of the show was a big hit for Starz in the US, reaching 8.7 on IMDb. Season two will hit US screens on October 2, while Amazon’s deal will see it air season one next month.

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BBC reveals diverse slate

David Nicholls' Us
David Nicholls’ Us is being adapted by Nick Payne

The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.

But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.

The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.

As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.

Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”

Barbara Windsor
Barbara Windsor

Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”

For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.

Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”

The Boy With the Topknot
The Boy With the Topknot is being made into a series for BBC2

Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”

On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.

Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.

Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”

The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.

To Be a Better Man
To Be a Better Man centres on a Chinese chef

Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”

In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.

The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.

Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.

Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.

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The A Word

The A Word is a six-part drama that tells the story of a family struggling to come to terms with their youngest son’s autism diagnosis. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it is coproduced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK for BBC1, and has also been acquired by SundanceTV in the US. Both the original and the adaptation are distributed by Keshet International. Here, writer Peter Bowker and director Peter Cattaneo describe their favourite scenes from the opening episode.

Aword1

Aword2

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Houdini & Doyle conjures tepid response

Houdini & Doyle stars Stephen Mangan (left) and Michael Weston
ITV Encore’s Houdini & Doyle stars Stephen Mangan (left) and Michael Weston

UK commercial broadcaster ITV launched pay TV channel ITV Encore in June 2014. Available exclusively on DTH platform Sky, the drama-exclusive channel is part of ITV’s attempt to build a stronger presence in the subscription TV business.

Much of ITV Encore is made up of repeats of shows that have previously aired on the flagship channel (Downton Abbey, Vera, Poirot). But in a bid to woo new viewers, Encore also airs the occasional original series or first-run acquisition.

Recent examples have included The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit, Gracepoint, Jordskott and The Americans (though this one, a US acquisition from Fox, actually started out on ITV).

Another new show currently airing on ITV Encore is Houdini & Doyle, a Canadian-British coproduction that imagines that escapologist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle teamed up to solve crimes together. Not a bad idea as far as it goes, but one that is not getting much exposure among UK viewers. With just a couple of episodes to go, it is attracting an audience of around 90,000 to 100,000 (based on BARB’s seven-day data).

This isn’t especially the fault of the show – which is actually ITV Encore’s top-rated programme at present. For some reason, the channel is not making much of an inroad with Sky’s subscriber base.

To put it in perspective, in the last week of April, Houdini & Doyle attracted 96,000 viewers compared with 2.2 million for Sky Atlantic’s top-rated drama Game of Thrones. If that comparison seems a little unfair, then it’s also worth noting that Sky1’s top-rated drama was The Flash (917,000), Fox UK’s was NCIS (909,000), Sky Living’s was Elementary (808,000) and 5USA’s was The Mysteries of Laura (574,000). Houdini & Doyle’s audience was actually lower than factual entertainment shows on Discovery and Lifetime.

Indian Summers has been cancelled after its ratings fell sharply in its second run on Channel 4
Indian Summers has been cancelled after its ratings fell sharply in its second run on Channel 4

ITV could argue that the channel is quite new (only two years old) and that competition in the UK pay TV market is intense. But its cross-promotion from its flagship channel (and others in its portfolio) ought to be having more of an impact.

So what conclusions can we draw? Well, it looks like ITV has two choices. Firstly, it could really invest in making ITV Encore a competitor to the channels mentioned above. This would require more investment in original programming and acquisitions, so that viewers would routinely check the channel on the EPG.

At the moment there simply isn’t enough new content flowing through Encore to make it a habit. To illustrate this point, the fact that The Walking Dead airs on Fox at 21.00 means I am now in the habit of looking at Fox for new shows, which is how I discovered 11.22.63. In a similar vein, Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude was the reason I went on to discover The Affair.

I’ve also watched The Frankenstein Chronicles and Midwinter of the Spirit but not found enough additional content on ITV Encore to develop the same kind of brand engagement (there’s actually a kind of profile mismatch, since I have little interest in shows like Vera).

Of course, more heavyweight content is expensive. So an alternative would be to settle for a more modest proposal – in which case ITV would be better airing shows like Houdini & Doyle on the main commercial channel and then passing them on to ITV Encore as repeats. Houdini & Doyle is only getting around 20,000 more viewers than repeats of Vera on ITV Encore, so the broadcaster wouldn’t be losing much through this approach.

But what of the show itself? While the modest UK performance of Houdini & Doyle is primarily down to ITV Encore’s lack of traction, it has to be said that the series isn’t performing very well by other measures.

BBC has found a hit with The A Word, based on a Keshet format
BBC has found a hit with The A Word, based on a format from Israel’s Keshet

In the US, it has started slowly on Fox. With 2.6 million viewers for its opening episode and a poor response from 18-49s, it is one of the channel’s lowest performers of the year (about the same as Minority Report – and we know how that ended up). Combined with a low score on IMDb and some pretty poor reviews (see this one from The Telegraph), it looks like Houdini & Doyle will go the same way as Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde.

While we’re on a downer, we may as well deal with the death of Channel 4’s £15m epic Indian Summers. C4 says it is “incredibly proud” of the show but took the decision to cancel it after the audience dropped from around three million in season one to 1.7 million in season two.

There has been a suggestion that the falling ratings are the result of tough competition from shows like The Night Manager. But the critics have, for the most part, responded negatively to the latest run. While they have enjoyed “the sumptuous settings,” the prevailing view is that it lacks substance and suffers from a plodding plot. Hopefully, though, there will be plenty of job offers for Nikesh Patel, who has soldiered on throughout the series as Aafrin Dalal.

For good news stories, we have to return to the BBC, which has been on fire this year. Its latest success story is The A Word, which chalked up a remarkably consistent audience of 5.5 million during its recent run on Tuesday nights at 21.00.

Adapted by Peter Bowker from a format by Israel’s Keshet, the show tells the story of a couple who learn their son is autistic. It has been warmly received by critics and is certain to pick up more format deals after its run in the UK.

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Bringing its A game: BBC1 tackles autism in The A Word

A family struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism in BBC1 drama The A Word – the latest international drama to be inspired by a hit Israeli series.

Israeli dramas have inspired a host of successful international remakes, most notably In Treatment and Homeland – based on Be Tipul and Hatufim (Prisoners of War) respectively.

Now comes The A Word, a BBC1 series that finds its origins in Yellow Peppers and tells the story of a family that struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism.

The cast is led by Christopher Eccleston, Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby and also includes Greg McHugh and Vinette Robinson. The series also introduces six-year-old newcomer Max Vento as Joe, whose diagnosis with autism proves to be the catalyst for an emotional, thought-provoking and often funny family drama penned by Peter Bowker (Marvellous, Capital).

From Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word is executive produced by Bowker, Patrick Spence, Jenny Frayn, Sara Johnson, Avi Nir, Lucy Richer and Yellow Peppers creator Keren Margalit. Keshet International distributes both the original series and the BBC version.

The A Word has been adapted from Keshet's Yellow Peppers
The A Word has been adapted from Keshet’s Yellow Peppers

Having worked as a teacher of children with learning disabilities for 14 years and known for putting social issues at the heart of his writing, Bowker had been interested in writing about autism when Johnson approached him with a proposal to adapt Yellow Peppers.

“I went in to see Keshet worried they just wanted me to transcribe it (into English) and the first thing they said was they didn’t want a cover version, they wanted something brand new,” Bowker says.

“I always want to write about how families see themselves, how the myth of the perfect family pervades our culture and puts great pressure on people to appear that way. A lot of my writing is about people who are, for other reasons, unable to express the most profound emotions. That for me is what’s interesting in drama, when you are not articulate enough to express that.

“It’s already in the ballpark of what I like to write about, but what I wanted to do here was take a family that, on the surface, is aspirational, fairly comfortably well-off, smart, funny and articulate but that still can’t talk about this stuff.”

The series opens with young Joe, played by Vento, walking alone through the scenic Lake District carrying nothing but a pinwheel spinning in the wind (pictured top), his headphones blasting the Arctic Monkeys. Later it becomes clear there’s something more to his love of music than is first apparent, while he also becomes the subject of arguments between his family, leading to his diagnosis.

The show follows the impact on his family of a young boy's autism diagnosis
The show follows the impact on his family of a young boy’s autism diagnosis

Bowker purposefully keeps Joe’s diagnosis hidden from viewers at the start, preferring instead to initially present him as a young boy who simply doesn’t quite fit in.

“I wanted to write about hidden disability, hidden difference,” the writer explains. “I felt if you had a child pretending to be a child with severe autism, it would be both unwatchable and exploitative. I wanted to get under the bells and whistles of visible disability and look at what happens when there are a number of behaviours that don’t quite fit.”

Another key character in the drama is the setting – the Lake District in North West England provides a picturesque backdrop to The A Word, which takes in a number of outside scenes and even sees some characters running through the hills.

“I chose the Lakes very early because in the original, they’re living on the edge of a desert,” Bowker says. “I chose somewhere where it looks like you’re raising a child in paradise until the problems for the child arise, in which case how do you access resources? And the Lake District is both pretty and threatening so suddenly you start to see the landscape in a completely different way.”

Behind the scenes, Bowker enjoyed collaborating with lead director Peter Cattaneo (Rev), who helms the first three episodes in the six-part series.

While he has no aspirations to get behind the camera – “People ask me if I want to direct and I don’t” – he says Cattaneo immediately understood the style and tone of The A Word that he had written into his scripts, all played out to a pulsating indie soundtrack.

The UK version has been written by Peter Bowker
The UK version has been written by Peter Bowker

“I loved Rev. It was brilliant in so many ways but, particularly, I’m an atheist and yet he made me care about faith – and I wanted a director who could make this special to someone who had had nothing like these kinds of experiences,” Bowker says. “It’s no use to me if just parents of children with autism watch it. It’s preaching to the converted anyway. It needs to be more universal than that.”

Working on The A Word, Cattaneo enjoyed finding a similar balance between comedy and pathos that he employs in Rev. Visually, he also makes the most of the sweeping vistas offered by the Lake District setting in which the action plays out.

“It’s like life,” he explains. “Life is about laughter and tears and it was about trying to not go too maudlin with the sad stuff but ensure it was poignant, and not to go too gaggy with the comedy but hopefully to make deft moves from one to the other. For this, authenticity felt key.

“Pete was brilliant. He let me get on with it but it was great to have someone to turn to as a collaborator. He let me direct and we’d talk about my notes here and there to open it out visually. He was very respectful.”

Bowker is already thinking of a second season of The A Word – and beyond: “My ambition for this is to ‘do a Boyhood’ (Richard Linklater’s acclaimed film tracking 12 years of a boy’s life) and watch him grow up, because the challenges change over time and I’d love to follow a family for that length of time.”

Until then, he’s concentrating on an epic Second World War drama called World on Fire, produced for the BBC by Mammoth Screen. He also has aspirations to work with producer Julian Farino on a “gritty but sweet” series based on the real-life story of a group of Syrian refugees who are rehomed on the Scottish island of Bute.

“Perhaps not for new writers, but for established writers, it feels like a great era of television,” he adds, citing Russell T Davies (Cucumber), Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Andrew Davies (War & Peace) as scribes at the top of their game. “The ambition and the understanding that an audience doesn’t have to be spoon-fed is incredibly encouraging.”

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Israel’s international impact

Fauda – 'so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street'
Fauda – ‘so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street’

Israeli scripted series first had a significant impact on the global stage towards the end of the last decade, when Hot Broadcasting’s BeTipul was reinvented for the US market as In Treatment. Launched on HBO in 2008, the US version of the show ran for three series (106 episodes) and focused on the personal and professional life of a psychologist played by Gabriel Byrne.

The next Israeli scripted show to break into the US was Ramzor, a 30-something comedy from Keshet that was remade as Traffic Light for Fox. This show only ran for one season, in 2011, but provided further conformation that Israeli was a country worth scouting.

The big breakthrough came later that year when the Keshet show Hatufim, which tells the story of two Israeli soldiers who are released after 17 years in captivity, was reinvented as Homeland for Showtime. In English, ‘hatufim’ means ‘abductees,’ though the Israeli show is generally referred to internationally as Prisoners of War (except in the US). Homeland has just entered production on a fifth series and is regarded as one of the standout scripted series of the last five years, mentioned in the same breadth as Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

Echoing the situation with high-profile Latin American telenovelas like Ugly Betty and Nordic Noir series like The Bridge, the success of Homeland in the US has turned the Homeland/Prisoners of War franchise into an industry in its own right. Both versions are available to the international market as completed shows. And Prisoners of War is also available as a format, having already sold to Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea.

Homeland is the US version of Keshet's Hatufim
Homeland is the US version of Keshet’s Hatufim

Homeland injected a new level of intensity into the search for adaptable Israeli shows. For example, in the case of Bnei Aruba, CBS in the US struck a deal that allowed it to develop a US version of the show in parallel with the creation of an Israeli version for Channel 10. Called Hostages, the US version actually aired three weeks before the original. Like with Homeland, this also helped kickstart international interest in the original Hebrew show, which sold to BBC4 and Canal+.

Of course, not all Israeli series have been hits in the US. Espionage drama Ta Gordin (The Gordin Cell), which aired on Yes, was a hit on home soil but didn’t make it to the end of the first season when NBC remade it as Allegiance. Launched Stateside in February 2015, it was axed five episodes later due to low ratings. But even this result wasn’t a total negative for the show – because it gave it international exposure. Korean company IMTV, for example, elected to produce a version for its highly competitive market.

When Israelis are asked to analyse why their shows have generated so much interest, they cite three main factors. First, they explain, Israeli audiences are highly critical and get bored easily – which means there is a high turnover of original stories and a constant quest for fresh insight. Second, Israel is a small country operating on tight budgets. So if a show can work in this environment, it will have no problem once it secures a bigger budget. And finally, there is an authenticity and honesty to Israeli scripted shows that comes from living on the front line.

The question, of course, is whether they can keep up the momentum. So what is coming down the line that might catch the attention of the international market? Well, one new title that has already caught the attention of the US market is Beit HaMishalot, a Channel 1 series about a psychiatrist who makes clients’ wishes come true. Presumably buoyed by its success with In Treatment, HBO is remaking the show as House of Wishes.

Keshet, meanwhile, has secured international interest in Pilpelim Zehubim, a poignant but humorous story about a family that learns to adapt after discovering their five-year-old son is autistic. Critically acclaimed in Israel, the show is now being remade in the UK under the title The A Word. The six-part drama series will air on BBC1 and will be coproduced by Fifty Fathoms Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions and Keshet’s UK arm.

HBO's In Treatment, adapted from Israel's BeTipul
HBO’s In Treatment, adapted from Israel’s BeTipul

Brazil is also riding the Israeli wave. In November 2014, cable channel TNT Brazil announced plans to remake Allenby. Based on a novel by Gadi Taub and originally produced for Channel 10 in 2012, this series is a sex industry crime drama that follows the story of a nightclub on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street and one of the strippers working there. Explaining why TNT picked up the show, Rogério Gallo, movies and series VP for Turner International Brazil, said: “The similarities between Allenby Street in Israel and Rua Augusta (in Sao Paulo, Brazil) are magnificent; both are a part of each city’s history and the centre of a sizzling nightlife. These are great ingredients for a remarkable television show.”

The Israeli press has also started to get excited by Fauda, a new show from co-creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz that has only recently finished airing. Broadcast by cable platform Yes, Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’) is a typically Israeli no-holds-barred series about a group of undercover operatives trying to capture a notorious Hamas terrorist. Commenting on the show, The Times of Israel said: “It’s been just three months since Fauda brought the chaos of the West Bank to Yes viewers, but the show has become so popular that its actors can’t walk down the street without being stopped by fans.”

The series stands out because it makes a genuine effort to be even-handed about the Israel/Palestine conflict, casting Arabic actors and creating storylines that deal with the pain of being on the receiving end of Israel’s military might. With a second series on the way and US interest, the Times of Israel said Fauda “has been lauded for its realism, its extensive use of Arabic and the empathy viewers are forced to have for the Hamas characters.”

We’ll finish this week’s column by crossing the border into Egypt, which, like the rest of the Muslim world, is about to embark on Ramadan (from June 18). For those unfamiliar with Muslim culture, Ramadan is an important holy period that is marked out by fasting during daylight. Ramadan is also important in TV terms, because countries like Egypt spend large sums of money producing TV dramas to entertain people during Ramadan.

Allenby is being remade in Brazil
Allenby is being remade in Brazil

One show that catches the eye this year is Haret al-Yahood (The Jewish Quarter). Set in 1952 to 1956, it tells the story of Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a Jewish woman, who fall in love. Their romance is played out against the backdrop of rising Egyptian nationalism and tensions over the creation of Israel.

Speaking to local Egyptian media outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm, series writer Medhat al-Adl, a respected figure within the Egyptian creative community, said he wanted to depict a cosmopolitan Egypt in which all religions and languages coexist. “(The series) talks about how Egypt once coexisted with all religions and embraced people from all over the world because it was a cosmopolitan country. Egypt was great then. The Jews were of Egypt’s fabric. They were Egyptians. They were traders who lived with Muslims and they contributed to the Egyptian economy. The stereotypical portrayal of Jews in Egyptian films is that they are penny-pinchers (but) they were the best merchants of Egypt.”

Here’s hoping that Fauda and Haret al-Yahood both prove successful, because they are an antidote to the kind of extremism and bigotry that characterises 21st century politics and media.

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Sara Johnson

Sara Johnson is executive producer and head of coproductions, scripted, at Keshet International UK. Opting to give DQ a whopping 10 shows instead of the usual six, Sara adds Keshet titles Prisoners of War and The A Word to her ‘nostalgic’ list of top dramas.

My list is nostalgic, dominated by series from the beginning of my career and others that have, in recent years, managed to persuade me to come back repeatedly after my habitual ‘one-episode watch.’

Cracker unnerved me, opening my eyes to the possibilities of a returning series drama and how it could grab me week by week, stretching across my timeline as an English student considering a career in TV drama and a producer’s secretary who was newly on her way. Growing up in a BBC household, this was ITV showing all it had to offer and it opened my eyes to how to portray darkness without causing people to look away.

Our Friends In the North inspired me. Back in 1996, as a reader at the drama series department at the BBC, this show empowered me to pursue my ambition of being a script editor. I still remember how obsessed I was by the characters and how the names involved in its making became a beacon for me going forwards.

Cardiac Arrest gripped me. I loved the darkness and how very different this was from Casualty or any other medical series I had watched or worked on. I also liked that it wasn’t softened for our TV screens.

This Life hooked me. My friends and I would watch it religiously, with the characters and their lives echoing our own yet pushing boundaries that we would never dare to. I stayed with these characters across the series and felt both bereft and relieved when the last episode finally came.

Queer As Folk shocked me. I needed TV drama to do that for me at that time, and I loved how it showed my native Manchester in ways I’d never seen it before, throwing away the rule book on who and what could be seen on screen, and how it could be shown.

Pride and Prejudice romanced me, taking one of my favourite books that I had studied for both my GCSEs and my A-levels and bringing it to life on screen. Unlike many other programmes I was watching at the time, I could share this with my mum and aunties, and we all got to disappear into the world of Jane Austen together.

ERER was a series I followed weekly for its entire run. It took over from the Hill St Blues and St Elsewhere favourites of my childhood and continued my love of American TV drama formats. I watched it as a student, a secretary, a script editor, a commissioner and an exec producer; as a single woman, a married one and a mum. It crossed over my life and had George Clooney in it. Perfect TV.

mad-menMad Men is another show of which I’ve seen every episode and one of the first series, post kids, that became addictive viewing that my husband and I could enjoy together. It is still an appointment-to-view for us, even though other shows have found their way into our together TV time. The style and single vision behind the series carry us through some of the weaker episodes and seasons.

Sherlock delighted me because it found me slightly jaded, languishing in development hell. It made me smile, think and enjoy TV drama all over again. Stylish and modern but with traditional and expert storytelling, it caught a nerve and grabbed its audience with verve and confidence.

The-A-Word_KeshetHatufim (Prisoners of War)/The A Word (pictured) continue to inspire me. Both telling stories from another country, with nuances, characters and stories that belong to their own time and place, but also with huge global appeal, crossing borders and opening eyes. These series are impossible to choose between and are the reason I came to work in my current job. Written and directed by two very different genius talents, I could watch them again and again.

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