Tag Archives: The Night Manager

Happy endings

Where once flagging TV series would have been quickly axed, now they are getting more time to establish themselves. Are TV bosses getting sentimental or are other forces at play?

The scripted TV business has never really been known for its sentimentality. Year after year, decent shows have been brutally axed the moment they show any fragility in the ratings.

But recently this approach has been tempered by a slightly more tolerant attitude among commissioning editors. Increasingly, shows that a few years ago would have been cancelled in the middle of their first season are being allowed to bow out gracefully at the end of their run.

Similarly, series that might have been shelved after a season or two are being given extra runs – either to achieve narrative closure or to allow more time to try to pick up a sustainable audience.

This shift has come about for a few reasons, but is primarily the result of competition between channels and the increased clout of SVoD services.

“For me, it’s fundamentally about SVoD’s appetite for scripted content,” says Joel Denton, MD of international content and partnerships at A&E Networks. “The revenue from the SVoD window means networks don’t need to be so quick to close down shows. This can create a virtuous circle where the two platforms feed off each other in a way that builds shows. Something that starts life as a modest critical success may develop into a big hit.”

Did the early announcement that Mad Men’s seventh season would be its last help Jon Hamm (second from right) finally win an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper?

Clearly, some shows still disappoint and need to be dropped – examples being HBO’s much-hyped Vinyl and FX’s The Bastard Executioner. “But if you have a good instinct about a show then there’s a financial logic to sticking with it – even if it needs fixing in some way,” says Denton. “Cancel it after five episodes and you’re throwing US$30m to US$40m down the drain. Stick with it and you may be able to turn it into a franchise that has long-term value in both domestic and international markets.”

A classic case in point, says Denton, is AMC’s acclaimed 1960s drama Mad Men, which debuted in 2007 to the kind of ratings that would have got it cancelled on a lot of cable networks. When it ended seven seasons later, its contribution to AMC’s brand was immeasurable. And it continues to win fans around the world via Netflix, which underlined the value of supporting shows when it acquired the rights to the series in 2011 for US$90m.

Linked to all of the above is the growing fear of pulling out of a show before it has had a chance to really establish itself as a profitable franchise. “Because of the range of choice in the market, a show’s audience doesn’t necessarily find it straight away,” says Denton. “Shows like Longmire have been cancelled by networks and then brought back to life by SVoD platforms. So perhaps networks are more cautious about doing all the hard work and seeing Netflix [which resurrected Longmire after it was axed by A&E] or Amazon benefit.”

Stephen Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory and producer of one of 2016’s hit dramas, The Night Manager, agrees SVoD is the key factor: “It may look like the broadcasters are changing, but these soft landings are the result of the new economic model introduced by the SVoD second window.”

This, however, is “reinforced by evolving expectations among audiences,” adds Cornwell. “In this post-broadcast world, viewers are attracted to limited series with clear conclusions. That’s why we have seen such a lot of interest in shows like The Night Manager, Fargo and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. When the audience is looking for narrative completion, commissioning editors need to ensure they are meeting their expectations.”

Networks would undoubtedly be keen to extend the The Night Manager, but the people behind the show decided against continuing the series

This may explain the growing tendency for broadcasters and platforms to announce their intentions for a show well in advance. Increasingly, says Cornwell, audiences are reluctant to invest time and emotion in a series if there is a risk it might be cancelled before the creative team has finished telling the story.

Cornwell also believes the trend towards soft landings may have something to do with a power shift in the relationship between channels/platforms and creative talent: “Our company is built around changes in the market that have put the creative at the centre of the process. The TV business is so noisy now that the calibre of creative talent is, more than ever, the key differentiator between productions. At the same time, audiences don’t care anymore if a series is two seasons, five seasons or an anthology series, as long as it’s great TV.”

One implication of this is that broadcasters need to be prepared to fully back a creative’s vision. It’s difficult, for example, to entice the likes of Cameron Crowe (Roadies), M Night Shyamalan (Wayward Pines), Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and John Logan (Penny Dreadful) into the TV business, only to shut down their shows before they’ve built momentum.

The tendency for broadcasters and platforms to prematurely announce their intentions for a show is not just something we are seeing with new series. It’s also become increasingly common for them to flag up the end of long-running, successful franchises such as Pretty Little Liars, Bates Motel, Person of Interest, Teen Wolf and Black Sails.

Creator John Logan was behind the decision to end Penny Dreadful after three seasons

So what’s this about? If a network knows a show is going to come to an end next year, why not just get on and give it the chop? Christian Vesper, FremantleMedia’s executive VP and creative director of global drama, who last year left AMC-owned art house channel SundanceTV, recalls how the latter gave notice that Rectify would end after season four: “I don’t think any channel is going to recommission a show unless it makes financial sense, but I do think there is a respect for storytelling at play. I know that was very important to the producers and to us.”

There is also a PR value to this kind of early announcement, Vesper adds. For example, warning audiences that the end is nigh is a way of galvanising them into action. It gets social media buzzing with the news that a climax is on its way. In terms of career management, it also puts the talent back in the shop window, telling the rest of the industry approximately when they will next be available.

Maybe, on a subtle level, it also has an impact on a show’s prospects on the awards circuit. For example, it wasn’t until the final season of Mad Men that John Hamm finally won a Best Actor Emmy – despite having been nominated in every single season.

Cornwell’s point about the shifting balance of power can even be taken a stage further. Perhaps the current trend towards soft landings is not just broadcasters and platforms treating creatives with kid gloves. There may also be more situations where the decision about when to end or extend a show is not being driven by the network or platform – but by the creative partner. The Ink Factory, for example, could get the greenlight for a second season of The Night Manager tomorrow if it wanted — especially after stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman won Golden Globes earlier this month — but Cornwell says the prodco would only go back to the show if it felt there was a good story to tell.

It’s this creative-led thinking that has also brought us anthology dramas such as American Horror Story and series like Penny Dreadful, whose creator John Logan was responsible for the decision end the show after three seasons. There’s also the emergence of prequels like Bates Motel and Black Sails, which – if the creatives have their way – need to finish at the point the source material begins.

Bates Motel is among shows to have been granted a ‘soft landing’ as opposed to immediate cancellation

Orphan Black (pictured top) is another show that underlines this point. At last year’s Comic-Con, the creators of the BBC America series explained why they had decided to end the show after five seasons. According to co-creator Graeme Manson, it was because they wanted to end it on their own terms: “We sort of had five seasons in mind, and the thing we didn’t want to do was get kind of soft around the middle. We think it’s better to cancel than to get cancelled, than to peter out.”

A by-product of such scenarios, then, is that the broadcasters and platforms have a pretty good idea of when a show is going to end. This means it becomes easier to turn the conclusion of a series into some kind of cultural event. The fact that it may be ending sooner than they might have liked is not such a problem given the longevity of scripted series in the new on-demand world. Better to have three perfect seasons repeating for a decade than seven with a short shelf life.

Speaking from a producer’s perspective, Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady says her company has enjoyed being given visibility of the future of its shows: “The BBC commissioned seasons four and five of Peaky Blinders together, and we were given advanced warning that Ripper Street [Amazon/BBC] would finish after season five. That’s brilliant for us because it means we can finish telling stories the way we want. It also shows a respect for the audience and the auteurs involved.”

None of the above is to suggest we are witnessing the end of the sudden axe – especially from commercial networks, which remain notoriously quick to remove deadwood from their schedules.

While the business models associated with SVoD platforms, premium cable channels and public broadcasters tend to favour soft landings, ad-funded networks have less room for manoeuvre. ITV in the UK would probably have liked to have spent more time fixing Beowulf and Jekyll & Hyde, but below-par ratings made that impossible. There’s also the possibility we may soon start to see a contraction in the scripted business that results in more cancellations. For now, however, here’s to happy endings.

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Brits conquer the Globes

Matt Smith and Claire Foy in The Crown

A quartet of British stars have another trophy for the cabinet this morning after triumphing at the 74th Golden Globes in Hollywood last night.

Claire Foy, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie each came out victorious on a night when UK dramas The Crown and The Night Manager went head-to-head with some of the best US dramas of recent years.

With a reputation as the wild and eccentric sibling of the more straight-laced Emmys, the Globes has a reputation for bucking the trend with its winners – look no further than recent prizes for Lady Gaga (for American Horror Story: Hotel), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin.

Nevertheless, all eyes this year were on Game of Thrones – arguably coming off the back of its strongest ever season – and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story scooping prizes across the board, as they had done at the Emmys last September.

FX’s The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

But perhaps it should come as no surprise that a ceremony presided over by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) once again took a different path and instead showered awards on international series and their stars.

Netflix’s royal epic The Crown – the SVoD firm’s first UK original – took home the biggest prize of the evening, winning Best Drama against competition from Netflix stablemate Stranger Things, HBO duo Game of Thrones and Westworld and the fall’s standout network series, This Is Us (NBC).

Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth in the Peter Morgan-penned drama, was also named Best Actress ahead of Winona Ryder (Stranger Things), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld), Catriona Balfe (Outlander) and Keri Russell (The Americans).

In the Limited Series/TV Movie category, The People v OJ Simpson came in ahead of The Night Of, The Night Manager, American Crime and The Dresser.

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Sarah Paulson was also named Best Actress in a Limited Series for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the same show, beating competition from Felicity Huffman (American Crime), Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience), Charlotte Rampling (London Spy) and Kerry Washington (Confirmation).

But there was to be no repeat of The People v OJ’s dominance at the Emmys, when it also picked up trophies for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series.

Instead it was UK drama The Night Manager – coproduced by the BBC and US cable channel AMC – that picked up the highest number of prizes of any TV show at the Globes. Tom Hiddleston was named Best Actor in a Limited Series/TV movie, ahead of Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Bryan Cranston (All the Way), John Turturro (The Night Of) and Emmy winner Courtney B Vance (The People vs OJ Simpson).

Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie completed an acting treble for The Night Manager, picking up best supporting actress and actor awards respectively for a limited series/TV movie.

The Night Of picked up several nominations but did not win any awards at the event

Goliath star Billy Bob Thornton won the other acting prize for a drama, picking up Best Actor in a Drama TV Series ahead of Mr Robot’s Rami Malek, Matthew Rhys for The Americans, Better Call Saul leading man Bob Odenkirk and Liv Schrieber (Ray Donovan).

It’s not unusual for the Golden Globes to step out of the shadow of the Emmys with some different winners. In fact, The Crown wasn’t even in contention in 2016, only debuting in November several months after the Emmys were handed out, so it could be the series to watch when those statuettes are handed out again later this year.

Yet the Globes could also be a precursor for another awards ceremony, the Bafta TV Awards, which will take place in London in May. Back on home soil, The Crown and The Night Manager are dead certs to be in the running for every major category, both on screen and behind the camera, and their success stateside is unlikely to go unnoticed.

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A global tour of 2016’s best new dramas

It would be easy to fill a 2016 review with the huge volume of excellent US scripted shows that have been pumped out this year. But for the final column of the year, we’re looking back on some of the new shows from around the world that have made their mark, be it in terms of audience, sales or critical acclaim.

Baron Noir: There were some heavyweight French TV productions this year, including Section Zero, Marseille and France/Sweden copro Midnight Sun. But the one that has secured the highest rating on IMDb is StudioCanal’s Baron Noir. A Canal+ Création Originale, Baron Noir follows French politician Philippe Rickwaert’s thirst for revenge against his political enemies. Launched to critical acclaim in France, with a second season now in development, this “French House of Cards” has been picked up internationally by SBS Australia, Amazon Prime Video in the UK and Ireland and Sony Channel in Germany. “Baron Noir is a gripping political thriller and a masterpiece of French storytelling,” said Carsten Fink, VP of German-speaking Europe at Sony Pictures Television Networks.

Cleverman: This New Zealand/Australia/US coproduction was a clever fusion of aboriginal mythology and dystopian sci-fi. Backed by funding from Screen NSW, the six-part show debuted in June 2016 on ABC Australia, achieving an audience average of around 300,000. It also aired on Sundance in the US, which joined the production during development. While Cleverman wasn’t a huge ratings hit, it did get a positive response from critics. The Boston Herald said it was “unlike any other TV miniseries you’ve seen before. The gritty Australian production uses a sci-fi backdrop to test notions of racial identity and integration with a twist of supernatural terror.” Red Arrow International has sold the show to broadcasters including BBC3 in the UK. It has also been greenlit for a second season, with Sundance again on board.

The Crown: Some would argue that Netflix’s best new series this year was Stranger Things. But the show that has undoubtedly attracted the most attention is The Crown, a US$100m dramatic exploration of Queen Elizabeth II’s early life. Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry, the show has received pretty much universal acclaim and is currently sitting pretty with an IMDb score of 9. The success of The Crown has even encouraged some analysts to raise their share price targets for the SVoD platform. A second season has already been commissioned and the ambition is that the series will run for five or six seasons. For more about The Crown, see this DQ feature.

Descendants of the Sun: The most-hyped Korean drama of the year was Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. But the series that seems to have really done the business is this love story between a special forces soldier and a female doctor. Descendants of the Sun was a major hit for KBS in Korea and then sold to more than 30 countries around the world. It was especially popular across Asia. In China, it aired simultaneously with the South Korean broadcast, achieving 2.3 billion streams on iQiyi. Its popularity in China caused concern with the country’s Ministry of Public Security, which warned viewers that “watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and even lead to legal troubles.”

Insider (Icerde): It’s been another prolific year for Turkish drama. One of the standout shows of the year was Ay Yapim’s Insider, about two estranged brothers who end up on opposite sides of the law. The show debuted on Show TV on September 19 and proved a big ratings hit. Gaining an audience share of almost 12%, Insider beat everything except for Orphan Flowers (Kirgin Cicekler), a popular ATV series that was launched in 2015 to great acclaim. The show is distributed by Eccho Rights. For more on Turkey, read this DQ piece.

Ku’Damm 56: This UFA drama centres on a group of young women seeking to break free from stuffy social conventions in 1950s Germany. The show, which aired on ZDF, was a major hit, attracting 6.3 million viewers for its season finale (an impressive 19.6% share of the audience). The show was developed and written by Annette Hess, whose previous successes include Weissensee. It was one of the 12 new dramas featured at the Mipdrama Screenings.

Medici: Masters of Florence: This show provided an illustration of how Italian broadcasters are now flexing their muscles on the international stage. Although produced in English and distributed by a French company (Wild Bunch TV), Medici was originally commissioned by Italian public broadcaster Rai. The show, which features Dustin Hoffman, debuted well on Rai Uno, securing an audience of 7.6 million. It has now been renewed for a second season and licensed to the likes of Sky Deutschland and Netflix (US, UK, India).

The Night Manager: A huge hit for the BBC in the UK, this was a six-part adaptation of John le Carre’s novel of the same name. The limited series also aired on AMC in the US and has been sold to around 180 countries worldwide by IMG. With a cast headed by Tom Hiddlestone, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, the show was indicative of a couple of key trends – first, a shift towards Anglo-American drama coproductions; and, second, a realisation that some stories are better told through the medium of TV than film. At time of writing the show is in the running for a Golden Globe, having previously picked up a couple of Primetime Emmy Awards. One of these went to talent Danish director Susanne Bier. For more on The Night Manager, see this DQ feature.

Pasión y Poder (Passion & Power): This Mexican telenovela comes from the Televisa stable. A remake of a successful 1988 telenovela, it centres on the rivalry between two families. The show aired on Televisa from Autumn 2015 through to Spring 2016, comprising 80 episodes. It also aired on Univision in the US and became the channel’s number one telenovela of 2016. The finale was especially strong, attracting 5.2 million viewers – more than rival shows on CBS, NBC and Fox. Also airing on Hulu, Passion & Power was a big winner at the 2016 TVyNovelas Awards.

Public Enemy: Nobody knew much about Belgian drama Public Enemy until this year’s MipTV. All that changed after the Zodiak Rights-distributed show won the market’s first-ever Coup De Coeur. Sarah Wright, director of acquisitions at Sky and one of the executives that selected the show, said: “We chose Public Enemy because we felt it was brave, it was strong, it was fresh, it had twists and turns. It feels like something that will travel.” After its MipTV boost, that’s exactly what happened, with the show being picked up by Sky Atlantic in the UK and Germany and TF1 in France among others. Producer François Touwaide, Entre Chien et Loup, said: “Public Enemy is the result of a great initiative launched jointly by Wallonia Brussels Federation and RTBF in 2013 to develop Belgian talent across TV series. After a significant success in Belgium we are very happy with the international response to the show and the great job done by Zodiak Rights.”

This Is Us: On the US network front, Dan Fogelman’s family drama for NBC has been one of the most talked-about new shows of 2016. The show, which is currently on a winter break, averaged 9-10 million viewers per showing across its first 10 episodes and is expected to keep up that momentum when it returns for eight more instalments on January 10. Another Golden Globe nominee, it would be a major surprise if This Is Us doesn’t get a second season. Indeed, Fogelman recently said he has four seasons’ worth of stories sketched out. A marathon of the first 10 episodes will air on USA Network on January 7 ahead of NBC’s next episode. The show has been licensed overseas to broadcasters including Channel 4 UK. Click here for the Guardian’s assessment of the first season.

Trapped: This Icelandic drama actually aired on RÚV on 27 December 2015, but it seems churlish to exclude it from the class of 2016 on that basis. Created and directed by Baltasar Kormakur, the show has subsequently aired across Scandinavia and on BBC4, France 2 and ZDF in Western Europe. Other markets to acquire the show included Australia, Poland and the US, where The Weinstein Company purchased the rights. The tense thriller is part of a second wave of Nordic noir series that has seen Iceland, Norway and Finland all become significant international players. In September 2016, RÚV Iceland announced that a second 10-episode season had been commissioned for release in late 2018.

Westworld: There’s such a lot of great US drama in the market that it’s difficult to single out just one or two shows. But HBO’s movie reboot Westworld certainly deserves a mention. With a budget of around US$100m, the show is shaping up as a potential successor to the channel’s monster hit Game of Thrones. Nominated for a Golden Globe, Westworld recently finished its first season with an average audience of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date at 2.2 million. All of which bodes well for the second season, which is likely to air in 2018.

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Westworld and The Crown head Golden Globe noms

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed the nominations for its annual Golden Globe film and TV awards – the next edition of which will be held in February 2017.

Some TV shows on the shortlists seem to have become permanent fixtures, notably Game of Thrones, Transparent and Veep. But there will also be stiff competition from a range of excellent new shows.

Westworld’s viewing figures improved as the debut season reached its climax

A key contender in the Best Television Series – Drama category is HBO’s Westworld, which also picked up nominations in two other categories. Created by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show has just finished its first season with an average of 1.8 million (same-day viewing). However, the most encouraging thing about the show is that its audience has been rising since episode five, with the finale achieving the show’s best ratings to date (2.2 million). All of which bodes well for the second, which is likely to air in 2018.

Also in the running is Netflix’s royal epic The Crown, which we discussed last week. Written by Peter Morgan, the show is up for Best Television Series – Drama as well as two acting gongs. It’s 10 years since Morgan received an Oscar nomination for The Queen, so perhaps now would be a fitting time for him to win a top award for his royal endeavours. With an IMDb score of 9.0 and superb reviews, it’s another incredibly strong contender.

Arguably the surprise package of the year has been another Netflix show, Stranger Things, which also finished its first season with an IMDb score of 9. Up for awards in two categories (including Best TV Drama), the show follows the disappearance of a young boy at the same time as the appearance of a girl with telekinetic powers.

The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things was one of the hits of the year

The show was created by the Duffer Brothers, who featured in this DQ feature on 1980s-inspired TV. Commenting on the Netflix relationship, Ross Duffer said: “They have been incredibly supportive of our vision from the very beginning, and they’ve placed so much trust in us. We also just love Netflix as a platform, because it allows people to watch the show at their own pace. This story is not necessarily intended to be watched over eight weeks. The hope is that people will get hooked and the crescendo will feel even more impactful when it’s watched over a relatively short period of time. We want the audience to feel like they’re watching an epic summer movie.”

The Best TV Drama category is rounded out by the much feted Game of Thrones (David Benioff and DB Weiss) and This Is Us, the only one of the five shows that airs on a free-to-air network in the US (NBC). The latter has been one of the strongest-performing new shows of the 2016/2017 season and is very likely to be renewed for a second season.

It was created by Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Tangled, Cars and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Fogelman also wrote Fox’s new drama Pitch and is waiting to see if that show has done well enough to secure a renewal.

Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us

Battling it out for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television are American Crime, The Dresser, The Night Manager, The Night Of and The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

ABC’s American Crime, recently commissioned for a third season, is the creation of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is pretty well regarded by critics but is unlikely to come out ahead of some of the other shows in this category.

FX’s American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, winner of five Emmys, is probably the one to beat. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it has been nominated in three categories at this year’s Globes.

That said, the Golden Globes isn’t shy of choosing outsiders – as it did last year when it gave Mr Robot, Mozart in the Jungle and Wolf Hall the top drama awards. Wolf Hall’s success in this category last year provides encouragement for the British nominees – The Night Manager, written by David Farr based on the John Le Carre novel; and The Dresser, the latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed 1980 play of the same name (written for screen and adapted by Richard Eyre).

David Farr

However, both of them will have to go some way to beat HBO’s The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Of course, if The Night Of does win it will owe a debt to the Brits, because it is based on Peter Moffat’s excellent series Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008/2009).

As referenced above, Mozart in the Jungle was the surprise winner of Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy category at last year’s Golden Globes. So it’s hard to predict which show will come out on top this time out. Mozart, created by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Weitz, is in the running again, as are Jill Soloway’s Transparent and Armando Iannucci’s Veep, both of which are strong contenders.

This is, however, a category where the Globes could make a positive statement in favour of diversity, with both Atlanta and Black-ish on its shortlist.

Donald Glover’s Atlanta has been a success for FX this year, generating an 8.7 rating on IMDb and bedding in with a respectable 880,000 average audience for season one. ABC’s Black-ish is now in season three and hovers around the five million mark. Created by Kenya Barris, the show has been a solid performer but would be a surprising winner.

Donald Glover

The five dramas that received nominations in Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Drama were Mr Robot, Better Call Saul, The Americans, Ray Donovan and Goliath. In other words, a completely different line-up to the overall best drama category. This contrasts with Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy, where the only divergence from the overall category was a nomination for Graves instead of Veep. This is explained by the fact that the heartbeat of Veep is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, nominated in the actress category. If there’s a conclusion to be drawn out here, it’s that there is generally closer alignment between creator and cast in comedy series.

In terms of shows that have been overlooked this year, the Globes didn’t pay much attention to Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s much-feted Orange is the New Black. The mood also seems to have moved away from Shondaland dramas for the time being.

In fact, viewed from the perspective of writers, it’s been a pretty poor year for women, with Lisa Joy and Jill Soloway the only two high-profile female figures to be involved in the headline categories. It’s a reminder that supporting diversity has many dimensions.

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China opens up to outside influences

The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou
The Night Manager brought 40 million views on VoD platform Youku Tudou

About once a year the media reports that the Chinese government is planning to clamp down on the amount of foreign drama that appears on the country’s TV channels and streaming platforms. But developments in the past few months suggest that this is either inaccurate or isn’t having much of an impact.

This summer, for example, critically acclaimed BBC-AMC series The Night Manager generated an impressive 40 million views on streaming platform Youku Tudou. More recently, we reported Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group. And last week we reported how Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s on-demand platform Crackle has joined forces with another leading internet TV service, iQIYI, on a three-part Mandarin-language drama.

Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide
Tencent Holdings acquired fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide

There’s more activity this week that suggests China is continuing to open up to outside influences. Firstly, in a deal announced at Asia Television Forum in Singapore, China’s Tencent Holdings picked up fashion drama The Collection from BBC Worldwide. Secondly, UK producer/broadcaster ITV revealed that it has formed a partnership with Chinese producer Huace Film & TV that will see the latter remake an ITV scripted show for China. Discussions are still underway as to which show, but the deal is being heralded as a breakthrough by the UK company.

Commenting on the news, Mike Beale, executive VP of global development and formats for ITV Studios, said: “Much like the rest of the world, the demand for drama in Asia continues to grow, and our relationships with some of the world’s best producers and writers positions us perfectly to take advantage of this.”

Left Bank Pictures' reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast
Left Bank Pictures’ reboot of Strike Back will feature a largely new cast

Elsewhere, Sky1 in the UK and Cinemax in the US have announced that there is to be a new series of action-adventure drama Strike Back. As with previous series, the show will be produced by SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, but there will be a largely new cast.

Based on a novel by Chris Ryan, Strike Back centres on the activities of Section 20, a secret branch of the UK defence forces that undertakes high-risk missions around the world. The show ran for five seasons until 2015 – a total of 46 episodes. It then had a hiatus, with production of the new series starting in 2017.

The previous series of the show did well on Sky1 and Cinemax and was also sold into markets like Australia, Canada and France. Commenting on the show’s comeback, Adam MacDonald, director of Sky1, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Cinemax again to deliver more edge-of-your-seat action-adventure. At such an interesting time in global politics, this series delivers a compelling take on world events and the murky world of espionage.”

Executive producer Andy Harries added: “Strike Back is the show that took Left Bank Pictures onto the international stage and we are thrilled to be back with such an exciting cast and a world-class team of writers, directors and producers. With a fan base spread over 150 countries, Strike Back is TV at its very best, where the military comes first. Our new stars have amazing physical skills, which, combined with their training, will make the show rock.”

Leaving aside the long-running success of Homeland on Showtime, Strike Back’s mix of action and espionage is something of a rarity in the international market right now, with broadcasters having moved in the direction of sci-fi, superheroes and fantasy. However, there are a few upcoming titles that suggest the market is shifting back in this direction. These include History Channel’s Navy Seal drama Six and Fox’s reboot of 24. There are also a few new shows coming out of Israel such as False Flag and Fauda, the latter having been picked up globally by Netflix.

Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case
Fox is said to have committed to a script based on Basket Case

In another interesting move, Fox is reported to have given a script commitment to Basket Case, a TV drama based on the 2002 novel by Carl Hiaasen. Although a terrific writer with around 15 novels and five children’s books to his name, Hiaasen’s work has rarely been adapted for film or TV. His 1993 novel Strip Tease was turned into a film in 1996 and his 2002 kids book Hoot received similar treatment in 2006. But other than that, there is little to report.

Basket Case centres on a former hotshot investigative reporter, Jack Tagger, who’s now an obituary writer. It will be adapted by White Collar and Graceland creator Jeff Eastin, and Life in Pieces executive producer Jason Winer. Presumably if it’s a hit we can expect Hiaasen novels to become another regular source of inspiration for the scripted TV trade.

Still in the US, Fox drama Pitch has just come to the end of its first season. The show, which tells the story of the first woman to play for a Major League Baseball team, was well received by critics but delivered pretty poor ratings – 4.23 million at the start falling to 2.89 million at the end of its 10-episode run. This puts it down among the weaker scripted performers on Fox, such as Scream Queens, The Exorcist and the rapidly-fading Rosewood.

Pitch could perform better on a new network
Pitch could perform better on a new network

With its low ratings, Pitch would be an easy cancellation for Fox. But the fact is that the channel doesn’t have many hits at the moment – with Empire and Lethal Weapon some way ahead of the pack. So it may decide to back a second season of Pitch.

If Pitch is cancelled, there is talk of it moving to another network. Of course, there is always talk of series moving network when they are dropped, but Pitch really does seem like a show that could do a job in a less ferocious competitive scenario. If the show doesn’t survive in any form, then it just goes to prove how hard it is to make dramas that have sports as their backdrop.

Finally, Australian pubcaster ABC and Screen Australia have teamed up again to uncover the next generation of home-grown comedy talent through their Fresh Blood talent initiative.

Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am
Aussie comedy Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am resulted from a Fresh Blood pitch

The first wave of Fresh Blood launched in 2013 with 72 comedy sketches created by 24 teams. Five of those teams were selected to make TV pilots for ABC and two of them were then launched as six-episode half-hour series: Fancy Boy and Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. A new wave of Fresh Blood sees 20 up-and-coming comedy teams each awarded US$15,000 to produce three sketches. During 2018, four of those teams will be selected to produce a TV comedy pilot.

Mike Cowap, investment manager at Screen Australia, said. “For new comedy writers, performers and directors, Fresh Blood is a launchpad like no other, providing opportunities and exposure that can set up ambitious creators for successful futures.”

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Managing expectations

DQ sits down with Stephen and Simon Cornwell, co-CEOs of The Ink Factory, to look back at their Emmy-winning drama The Night Manager and discuss how they hope to follow its success.

If 2016 proves to be a vintage year for television drama, one series that helped to raise the bar was The Night Manager.

The six-part adaptation of John le Carré’s classic spy novel starred Tom Hiddleston as former British soldier Jonathan Pine, who is recruited as a spy to infiltrate the inner circle of lethal arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).

Directed by Susanne Bier, the cast also included Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki and David Harewood.

The series was an immediate hit for UK broadcaster BBC1 on its February 21 debut, with an average (overnight) audience of 6.3 million tuning in each week, while 1.6 million (Live+3) tuned in for the first episode on US cable network AMC – a jump of 70% from overnight figures.

Distributor IMG has since sold the show around the world including to Amazon Prime in the UK, US and Japan, France TV and Chinese VoD platform Youku Tudou.

Bier subsequently won an Emmy for Best Director of a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special, while Victor Reyes was also celebrating a win for Outstanding Music Composition. Hiddleston, Laurie, Colman and writer David Farr were all nominated, and additional Golden Globe and Bafta nods surely await in 2017.

The series was produced by The Ink Factory, which is run by le Carré’s sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell (pictured right and left respectively above). They have so far resisted talk of turning The Night Manager, which was a standalone book, into a returning series and have instead returned to their father’s work for their next TV project – an adaption of his 1963 Cold War thriller The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) will write the series, which is being coproduced with Paramount TV and Character 7.

Speaking to DQ, Stephen and Simon look back on the success of The Night Manager – their first TV project – and discuss how they hope to stand out in the increasingly competitive world of television drama.

Did you know you were creating something special from the outset?
Stephen: It became special very early on. When David [Farr] first came on board, it immediately began to feel shockingly organic. We had very positive momentum every step of the way.
Simon: It worked really well. Hugh [Laurie] came on board really early, Tom [Hiddleston] followed rapidly after that and then Susanne [Bier] joined. Once we had a really good start to the script, an incredible cast and brilliant director, all the rest of it started to slot together. It was a long shoot in lots of countries and it was hot – that all sounds lovely, but at 46C in the middle of the night on your 14th hour, you feel it’s hard work.

Tom Hiddleston on set with Susanne Bier (far right)

How did Hugh and Tom become involved?
Simon: Hugh is genuinely passionate about the book. He tells a story that he and I met and he basically said he would do anything to be involved [he once tried to buy the rights to the book]. It’s a great story but it is actually true – that’s exactly what he said!
Stephen: It was almost like something he was compelled to be involved in. Originally he wanted to be Pine but then it migrated very organically to Roper. And then Tom was very close behind. Tom was a le Carré fan anyway and became a fan of both the script and the book. He really enjoyed the idea of being opposite Hugh. They are older and younger versions of each other in lots of ways so they were good for those two roles.

What did you see in Susanne that you felt would merge well with David’s scripts and your ambitions for the series?
Simon: Susanne’s storytelling is very much storytelling through character, through relationships, and The Night Manager – while it’s a great story and an important and relevant plot – is a very simple plot. Tom goes into the bad guy’s lair and brings him out – that’s basically the plot! But it’s on multiple levels with different relationships and that’s what Susanne uses to tell stories. She was exactly the right person to do it. She’d never done television before and she was unsure about doing television as an Oscar-winning filmmaker [she won an Oscar in 2011 for In a Better World]. But very quickly she approached it as if films are short stories, while this was a novel.
Stephen: She’s a phenomenal director of camera, she has a very distinct authorship and there was something incredibly dynamic about the way she directed. At the same time, there is a female voice in there that is really interesting. Le Carré’s worlds are traditionally quite male, with men talking in rooms to one another, and she really elevated the love story and relationship components and female characters. The whole emotional level rose in a very accessible way so you really connected with those characters in a really compelling way that, for a thriller, is a really unusual thing. That was part of the magic of The Night Manager – it had this character engagement.

The main cast from left: Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Laurie
The main cast, from left: Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Laurie

Olivia Colman’s intelligence officer Angela Burr is a man in the book. Why did you decide to change the character?
Stephen: It was an interesting evolution. It really emerged after that first hour had been written and when we began speaking to US broadcasters. In those conversations as we pitched the story, we had the early drafts of the script and it suddenly became apparent Burr could be a woman and that it would be really interesting and add another female voice to the show. Olivia was ideal vision of that. By the middle of the series, she’s really the emotional heart of the story – and when she gives that speech about Roper’s involvement in chemical attacks in Iraq, she’s the soul and the conscience of the piece.

Was there one piece of the shoot that you’re most proud of, or that was most challenging?
Simon: The explosions – you only get to do them once! We had a wonderful special-effects guy, Pau Costa, and he realised we had enough space to do something that was quite big and he went for it. It’s really good. You can do amazing things digitally, but actually doing it gives you a real sense of it and it’s very dramatic. People will be surprised by the amount of fire and brimstone that was real. Yes, we did bits of digital duplication to beef it up. When we blew up a row of trucks at the end, we only really blew up one truck – but we really did blow it up and then we duplicated the explosion. It was all real. We had six or eight cameras covering it, a couple of which burned up in the explosion! There’s one great shot in there from a camera that burned up that we still managed to get from the memory stick. Other big undertakings for us were building Roper’s camp, which was shot in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and Roper’s lair [filmed in Mallorca] was just stunning. Some of the choreography that went into the series when you have to time people getting up from the dinner table and walking around with a helicopter flying overhead, it just shows the logistics of managing a shot like that. Like a lot of Suzanne’s directing, it looks incredibly fluid and organic and then you actually think about those shots as a piece of choreography and they’re incredibly complicated. It’s virtuoso directing in the truest sense.

How do you now hope to follow the success of The Night Manager?
Simon: For us, doing big TV has been fabulous at every level, whether it’s attracting great storytellers, great writers, amazing directors and actors… We have major film stars coming to us saying they want to be in the next TV show we do. And lots of film stars are thinking that way [about TV] too. Tom had done TV before but not for a long while, and he found it truly fulfilling to round out a character across a six-hour format. Essentially it’s a six-hour film. There were days we were shooting scenes from four episodes so it was absolutely constructed like a film. It was a military operation going from place to place – you couldn’t shoot in Mallorca and then pop back to Switzerland, as much fun as that would have been!
Stephen: What’s happening in television is a very exciting convergence of possibility and audience. It works enormously well to tell a certain kind of story; there is no prohibition. I don’t see a division of mediums [between film and television], it’s longer-form narrative and it’s a different way of telling stories. Cinema has a totally different experience. A really interesting question now that television is so strong is: what defines cinema? If we can figure out what pure cinema is, there’s a lot of potential, but how do you justify bringing people together in a shared collective experience and make that unique?

How do you choose the writers you work with, and are you looking to work with new writers?
Stephen: David Farr, who is a phenomenal writer, had done Spooks, Hanna, lots of theatre, and was someone we really wanted to work with and had spoken to before about other things.
Simon: We work on both sides of the Atlantic and there’s a desperate shortage of great writing on each – no news there. But in the US, there’s a deeper pool, without question. In the UK, we are working now with a pretty good range of writers including Simon Beaufoy, Sir Ronald Harwood and Bill Moynihan. There are Oscar-winning screenwriters at one end and, at the other, we’re now working with a couple of very smart younger writers. We have a responsibility to work with younger writers and find the right projects to bring them on. Also, if you give younger writers very strong IP to work with, just in terms of taking that to broadcasters, it works well.
Stephen: There’s a relatively small group of established brilliant writers in the UK. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of them. We’re trying to find emerging talent below them and if we can enable and work with them, it speaks to the future. With acting talent, there’s now really no division between television and film writing. There’s barely a top US writer who isn’t interested in writing in longer form. You can talk to anyone about anything and one of the lucky things about the le Carré IP is that it’s introduced us to a lot of people at a high level and we get access to a lot of interesting talent, and that’s only building. We want to use those relationships in really interesting ways.

What are the challenges facing the drama industry?
Simon: We need to be more international in outlook. That’s partly about producers being more international, but also broadcasters. International coproductions are great for broadcasters because essentially you can pay for a fraction of the budget and get something that’s really quite big. But it means you have to be ready to work with international partners. It means the UK isn’t always the centre of the world, and sometimes that’s a bit of a mind shift.
Stephen: Obviously it’s a time of extraordinary possibility, which is very exciting. The flip side of that is a lot of people are rushing into that space and there’s a lot of drama being made – a lot of excellent drama. A lot of things are very good right now so the interesting challenge is how to take those opportunities and do something exceptional enough to be noticed. It’s a very high bar, you’re pushing towards excellence.

How will storytelling change in the future?
Simon: One of the strengths of The Night Manager, although it’s modern and contemporary in lots of ways, is that it’s actually a very traditional piece of storytelling. It was our first piece and quite a voyage of discovery. Having known how big it would have been, we would have done more additional content.
Stephen: We see ourselves as a storytelling company, so we have to be excited and interested about where narrative is going. Contrary to the ‘miserablists,’ we feel there’s a more engaged, literate, exciting audience in the future and it’s getting smarter, more global and more diverse. How you tell stories that remain relevant for that audience within the context of new media is really exciting. That’s where the future sits, and you constantly need to be thinking about it.

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Fiction favourites

Contemporary novelists have featured prominently in our last couple of columns. So in this week’s Writers Room, we take a look at some of the TV industry’s favourite authors when it comes to adapting novels for the small screen.

The only criterion for this list is that the writer is still alive, so that rules out anything involving popular sources such as Henning Mankell, Michael Crichton or Philip K Dick.

George RR Martin
George RR Martin

George RR Martin is the genius who gave us Game of Thrones, a phenomenal work of fantasy that spawned the hit HBO series of the same name. This week it was announced that he is now working with Universal Cable Productions on Wild Cards, a series that is based on another of his mythological worlds. On his personal blog, Martin described the project as “a series of interlocking books, graphic novels, games… but most of all it is a universe, as large and diverse and exciting as the comic book universes of Marvel and DC (though somewhat grittier, and considerably more realistic and more consistent), with an enormous cast of characters.”

Finding You
Finding You

Marc Levy battles it out with Guillaume Musso for the title of best-selling French author (though Levy is currently number one in terms of international sales). Both have had their novels adapted into films but so far only Levy has seen one of his novels adapted for the small screen. The title in question was Finding You, a 2001 work that was adapted for M6 in 2007. The French market’s recent renaissance in TV drama might lead to more book-to-TV adaptations for French authors.

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel published her first novel in 1985 but it was 2009’s Wolf Hall that really established her in the front rank of contemporary novelists. This book, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, was then transformed into an award-winning BBC miniseries. Mantel is currently working on the third book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, which is called The Mirror and the Light. Both her and the BBC are keen for this to be turned into a sequel to the Wolf Hall miniseries. In the meantime, the BBC is developing another Mantel novel called A Place of Greater Safety, which is set during the French Revolution.

The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom

Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of novels was adapted for TV in the 1990s and was briefly revived in 2006/2008. All told, it led to 16 TV movie length productions –  all starring Sean Bean. That might have been the last we saw of Cornwell’s work on TV, but in 2015 the BBC and Carnival Films created The Last Kingdom, based on his Saxon Stories. The show has been recommissioned for a second season and has the potential to run for a while, given that Cornwell is just about to publish the 10th book in the series. Cornwell has also written novels about Arthurian Britain, the American Civil War and The Hundred Years War, so don’t rule out another epic TV adaptation from this prolific writer.

Beck
Beck

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, from Sweden, are part of the rich tradition of Nordic crime writers that also includes Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson (who died in 2004) and Henning Mankell (who passed away in 2015). Their great creation is detective Martin Beck, the star of 10 novels written between 1965 and 1975 (the year Wahloo died, aged 48). The 10 Beck novels have been adapted numerous times for film and TV and have also spawned TV productions based on the central character. The most recent example was a series of eight TV films that aired on C More across 2015 and 2016. These were picked up by the BBC in the UK and rated pretty well. Sjowall is now 80.

zoo-cbs
Zoo

James Patterson, the world’s best-selling novelist, is working on a true-crime limited series with US cable network Investigation Discovery. However, his novels are also a regular source of inspiration for TV series. CBS’s Zoo, for example, is based on a 2012 novel by Patterson. His books have been used as the basis for TV and film productions since 1991 and include Women’s Murder Club, a series for ABC. In 2015, there was talk this show might be revived by USA Networks. Also on the cards is a CBS legal drama based on his novel Now You See Her. In 2015, another Patterson adaptation, For Justice, was piloted by CBS.

Mukul Deva has been described as India’s answer to Tom Clancy. A former army officer, he has written highly authentic military thrillers such as Lashkar, Salim Must Die, Blowback and Tanzeem. Given the strength of the Bollywood business in India, movie adaptations are most likely to be the first port of call for Deva’s books. Currently, there are plans for Lashkar to be turned into a film by Planman Motion Pictures. “Lashkar started getting offers from Bollywood within days of its release,” said HarperCollins India in a statement. “Deva is a very visual writer and his military background brings a lot of realism to his books. We had been waiting for a filmmaker with the right vision and drive and have full confidence that Planman will make a blockbuster movie.”

Elena Ferrante is a fascinating novelist who has written a number of acclaimed books. Despite being named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time in 2016, no one knows who she is – since Ferrante is a pseudonym. There has been speculation that the author is Italian professor Marcella Marmo, though this has been denied. Two of Ferrante’s novels have been turned into films. However, the big news is that FremantleMedia-owned Wildside and Fandango Productions are turning Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels into a 32-part TV series.

Flügel der Liebe
Pilcher’s Flügel der Liebe

Rosamunde Pilcher, born in Cornwall in 1924, is a romance writer whose novels are very popular in Germany. Public broadcaster ZDF has responded to this with a huge number of TV adaptations of her work. Starting with Day of the Storm, ZDF has adapted more than 100 of her stories, usually as TV movies. Pilcher, whose works are mainly set in Devon and Cornwall, retired from writing in 2000, but she continues to be popular with German audiences. In fact, a German film crew was in St Ives last spring to film a new story – one of many regular trips German crews make to the UK. Some Pilcher productions are also available via Acorn Media.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
The Night Manager

John Le Carré is not only a giant of contemporary fiction, he is also one of the most adapted novelists ever – possibly only outdone by horror maestro Stephen King. His novels have been made into films pretty consistently for the last 50 years. In TV, he had a purple patch from 1979 to 1991 but then went quiet. This year, however, he came back with a bang as The Night Manager became one of the year’s most talked-about dramas. Now, The Night Manager producer The Ink Factory is planning a TV version of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. To date, Le Carre’s film count is 10 and his TV series count is five. He has written 23 books, so there is plenty of potential for new stories (or updates of some of the older screen adaptations).

Nermin Bezman wrote bestselling novel Kurt Seyit ve Sura in 1992. A lavish period piece, it was transformed into a TV series for Star TV by Ay Yapim in 2014 and ran for two seasons. Turkey has a rich tradition of novelists, but the best-known living authors (Orhan Pamuk, Selcuk Altun, Elif Safak) are rarely adapted for TV. A key reason for this is that their work is often too politically sensitive for the tastes of Turkey’s TV censors. In general, Turkish broadcasters tend to turn to historical writers like Halit Ziya Usakligil for inspiration. Bezman has written a number of novels, including The Wings of my Mind and The Devil’s Failure.

Cloudstreet
Cloudstreet

Tim Winton burst onto the Australian writing scene in 1981 and has never looked back. Outside Australia, his reputation received a major boost when Dirt Music was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2001. However, he was already a major success at home thanks to his 1991 novel Cloudstreet, the story of two working-class families rebuilding their lives. Cloudstreet was turned into a TV miniseries in 2011, with Winton writing the script alongside Ellen Fontana. Winton’s children’s books, the Lockie Leonard series, was also adapted by Nine Network. More generally, Winton’s work is adapted for film (Shallows, Breath), though some of his works have also been made as operas.

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Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.

 

David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

The-Secret-Agent-27
Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.

A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.

So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.

Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.

At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.

The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.

After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).

The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.

The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.

This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.

The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.

As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.

With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.

Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.

Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.

Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.

Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX
Fargo secured 18 nominations for FX

The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.

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BBC’s blind faith in Knight

Peaky Blinders will have at least two more seasons
Peaky Blinders will have at least two more seasons

The BBC has ordered two more series of Steven Knight’s gangster series Peaky Blinders, which is set in 1920s Birmingham in the UK. The show is currently four episodes into season three, which means it will now run for at least five seasons – though Knight has expressed a desire to keep going long after that.

Like the first three seasons, the new commissions will both consist of six hour-long episodes, which means a total of 30 hours of TV.

Caryn Mandabach, executive producer of the show for Caryn Mandabach Productions, said: “It’s a fantastic vote of confidence in the show and Steven Knight’s writing that the BBC has ordered two more series following the first episode’s overnight figures. We’re proud of, and grateful for, the BBC’s support of the show.”

Will Gould, who also works on the show as an exec producer for Tiger Aspect, added: “Peaky has become a global hit. Steve’s vision resonates with audiences the world over, and what a privilege it is that we get to make more.”

Knight, who will continue to write all episodes, said: “I am thrilled at the response to the third season. The prospect of writing season four and five is truly exciting. This is a real passion project for me, and I look forward to telling more stories of the Shelby family.”

To be completely frank, the audience for season three of Peaky Blinders hasn’t been massive. It opened with 2.95 million (BARB) for episode one and then dropped to 2.43 million for episode two. So it’s not in the same league as BBC2’s Line of Duty (circa five million) or Channel 4’s Humans, which hit six million last June.

The Americans will conclude with season six
The Americans will conclude with season six

A possible reason for the modest audience is the show’s graphic violence, which won’t be to everyone’s taste. Another is the esoteric nature of the season three plot, which revolves around the fallout from the Russian Revolution (angry White Russian exiles and so on).

But judging Peaky Blinders solely on the basis of its ratings would be a bit like castigating a Man Booker Prize winner for not muscling JK Rowling off the fiction best-seller list. The fact is that Peaky Blinders is superb – comparable to the best scripted series coming out of the UK, US, Nordics, Spain, Israel and elsewhere.

IMDb ratings back this up. The first episode of season three, which was slightly meandering, only managed 8.8. But the show really kicked into gear after that, with its IMDb rating jumping to a very impressive 9.5 by episode four. Critics are also pretty unanimous in their approval, with the Daily Express going so far as to call Knight’s show “this generation’s Godfather.”

The beauty of Knight’s formula is the way he plays different interest groups off against each other, blurring the line between criminality and legality, gangsters and establishment. The result of his complex plotting is that central character Tom Shelby is constantly saved from what looks like certain death by individuals or organisations that suddenly find they have a use for him.

Alongside the sophistication of Knight’s writing, the show is beautifully directed (by Tim Mielants in season three) and, of course, superbly acted. Cillian Murphy, as Tommy Shelby, is delivering a performance that, by this week’s episode four, is similar to the standards set by Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad. And Paul Anderson, as his brother Arthur, grows in stature with every season.

AMC's Preacher has opened strongly
AMC’s Preacher has opened strongly

Murphy’s comment on the new commission is that: “Tommy Shelby is one of the most intense, challenging characters I’ve had the opportunity to play. I’m particularly grateful that Steven’s original, dynamic writing and the longform series allow me to explore Tommy in depth. I look forward to Tommy’s evolution over the next two chapters.”

Peaky Blinders’ graphic violence (Tarantino-like in its intensity at times) inevitably limits the kind of channels/slots where it can air. But as Gould says, the show has established a solid fanbase around the world. Netflix in the US, for example, will offer season three from May 31. And Arte in France has also aired the show. Peaky is distributed by Endemol Shine International, which will be pleased that it can now go to the global market with 30 episodes.

Another quality show in the news this week is FX’s Cold War spy drama The Americans, which has also been given a new two-season order. The difference with this one, however, is that these two seasons will be the last, with The Americans ending in 2018 after six seasons. Season five will have 13 episodes and season six will have 10, bringing the total volume to a very respectable 75.

“Through its first four seasons, critics have lauded The Americans as one of the best shows on television and, remarkably, a series that keeps getting better every year,” said FX original programming president Eric Schrier.

“All credit for that achievement goes to everyone who has worked on the show, and especially co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, (executive producer) Graham Yost, our brilliant stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Allison Wright, Holly Taylor and Annet Mahendru, and the ensemble cast for their incomparable performances. We have no doubt that this two-season order will allow Joe and Joel to tell this story to its perfect conclusion.”

Rush Hour has been canned
Rush Hour has been canned

Again, the show isn’t what you’d call a ratings hit. Season four is currently averaging around 930,000, which is down a little on season three. And it rates lower than a number of other FX shows, including The Bastard Executioner, which was cancelled after one season despite having a higher audience and better 18-49 demo.

Nevertheless, The Americans is a good show for FX because it attracts critical acclaim and gets a fair share of award wins and nominations – all useful for a cable subscription service. It has also had a decent life internationally, airing on Network Ten Australia, FX Canada, RTE Ireland and ITV/ITV Encore in the UK.

For Weisberg and Fields, there is no particular downside to the show ending, because they have also signed a new overall deal with FX Productions to develop their next scripted series.

Meanwhile, AMC’s latest new show, Preacher, has got off to a good start, with episode one securing an audience of 2.38 million. This puts it at number four on the channel behind The Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands.

Preacher was helped by being scheduled after FTWD – so episode two will be an important benchmark for the show. But it could shed a significant amount of viewers and still be regarded as a hit by AMC.

By contrast, six-part espionage drama The Night Manager has just ended its run on AMC with a modest 790,000 average audience. It picked up slightly for the last episode but made nowhere near the impact it had on British television. This is a bit of a surprise considering that lead actor Hugh Laurie has a good profile in the US with his long-running lead role in House. However, it may indicate that the show wasn’t right for AMC.

One programme that has had an abject first season is CBS’s movie adaptation Rush Hour. Just eight episodes in, the show is delivering around four million viewers and has already been cancelled.

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The Durrells delight on Sunday night

The opening episodes of The Durrells have won over critics and viewers alike
The opening episodes of The Durrells have won over critics and viewers alike

These days, a lot of emphasis is placed on the audience’s ability to time-shift TV. But there’s no question there is still an important role for dramas that can do a job in a particular slot.

Right now, for example, The Durrells (based on Gerald Durrell’s classic Corfu Trilogy of novels) is doing a brilliant job for ITV in the UK at 20.00 on Sunday evenings.

Although the show is only three episodes old at time of writing, it already feels like it has been sitting in ITV’s schedule forever – offering exactly the kind of escapism many of us crave the day before the working week kicks in again (depending, of course, on the country where you reside).

Not that The Durrells should be regarded simply as popcorn TV. It is beautifully adapted by Simon Nye and the acting is really, really good. Keeley Hawes, who plays the mother (Louisa) of author Lawrence Durrell, naturalist Gerald Durrell and their two siblings, is superb, displaying immaculate comic timing and eye-watering sensitivity. Also impressive is Daisy Waterstone as Gerald’s sister, Margo (none of which is to disparage the other cast members).

The show is currently scoring a rating of 8.0 on IMDb, which is pretty good – and it is proving popular with critics. Gerard O’Donovan in The Telegraph applauds it for its “warmth, nostalgia, beautiful locations” and calls it a “gem.” Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail gives it five stars, adding: “Perfect Sunday night viewing requires period costume, exotic locations, a dash of sex (but nothing explicit) and lashings of laughs. Sounds simple on paper… but it’s pretty near impossible to achieve on screen. But The Durrells was a masterclass in ideal Sunday telly – never too demanding, and yet completely satisfying.”

Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has been given a third season on AMC
Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul has been given a third season on AMC

All of this positive feeling is backed by great audience figures. The first episode launched with 6.4 million viewers, making it ITV’s best-performing new drama since Cilla in September 2014. It has since consolidated to 8.2 million viewers (33% share) – showing that it is also possible to transfer the Sunday night feeling to other times of the week.

ITV knows it’s on to a good thing and has commissioned a second season from producer Sid Gentle Films. Sid Gentle CEO Sally Woodward-Gentle said: “The combination of Gerald Durrell’s warm, witty stories and Simon Nye’s brilliance at adapting them meant we knew that we had created something special. The reaction has been fantastic and I am delighted we are able to continue the story and reunite the fantastic cast and crew who have become a close-knit ‘family’ on and off screen.”

Filming on season two will take place later this year in Corfu. In other news, the show has been picked up by SVT Sweden, which may have been tempted by the fact that one of the central characters is a hunky Swede called Sven (Ulric von der Esch).

In the US, AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul finished season two on April 18 with a season average of 2.16 million viewers across 10 episodes. The show stayed pretty solid around the two million mark for the whole season and has been rewarded with a third season during which Breaking Bad’s urbane drug dealer Gus Fring will return.

In terms of comparative performance, the show rates better than Mad Men (which ran for seven seasons) and Hell On Wheels (five). It also has an impressive 8.8 rating on IMDb.

The Night Manager's US debut was somewhat disappointing
The Night Manager’s US debut was disappointing

Last week, we looked at the success of John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager on BBC1 in the UK and asked how it would fare when it switched to AMC in the US. The show has now started airing stateside, where the same-day showing of episode one attracted 0.93 million.

This is a fairly modest opening that suggests it isn’t going to make much impact with US audiences. As a comparison, Humans debuted with 1.73 million on AMC after a strong showing on Channel 4 in the UK. It then fell to around the 1.1 million mark for episode two and stayed there for the rest of its run.

In other words, its retrenched position was stronger than The Night Manager’s opener. The Night Manager also scored quite low with the 18-49 demographic on its AMC debut.

Of course, a modest US opening shouldn’t detract from the quality of the show. It may just be that AMC’s audience is attuned to a different style of scripted content.

It’s also worth noting that The Night Manager has been sold to networks all around the world. The latest deals for the show include agreements with Chinese streaming service Youku Tudou and French public broadcaster France Télévisions. The drama has previously been sold to the likes of Tele München Gruppe for German-speaking Europe, C More and TV4 for the Nordic territories, DR for Denmark, Sky Italia for Italy, BBC First and SBS for Australia, TV3 for New Zealand and AMC International for Iberia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The Shannara Chronicles
The Shannara Chronicles has been renewed despite middling performance

This week has also seen MTV in the US renew its fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles, despite the fact that the series has not achieved especially high ratings. The first run of 10 episodes came in at about 890,000 on average, with the back end occasionally falling below the 800,000 mark.

Mina Lefevre, executive VP and head of scripted development at MTV, said the production team “delivered a beautiful, ground-breaking show with compelling stories and character journeys, which brought in new viewers.”

Further underlining Lefevre’s ‘new viewer’ argument, part of the reason MTV is sticking with the show is its performance on digital platforms, “where it garnered 16.6 million streams across all MTV’s digital properties and brought significant traffic growth to the MTV app,” according to the company. “The series also ranks as the highest-grossing digital download for a single season on MTV ever.”

As we’ve reported in previous weeks, a number of shows see their performance improve dramatically when time-shifting and digital viewing are added to the total. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson on FX had a huge three-day ratings gain for its finale episode (up by 2.91 million viewers to 6.18 million).

In the UK, it was a similar story for new Sky1 crime drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, starring James Nesbitt. Episode one of the 10-part series launched in January and delivered an overnight audience of 600,000. But the total figure for the episode rose to 1.74 million as the audience took the opportunity to watch via Sky+ recordings, On Demand and Sky Go.

This increase of 1.14 million was the biggest growth in viewing figures that the first episode of any Sky original drama series has ever achieved in the week after transmission. It also made it the best performing original drama series launch on Sky1 for nearly four years. This underlines the point that, in the new TV economy, there are some shows that are perfect for certain slots (such as The Durrells) but others seem to work well as schedule-neutral programming.

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Outlander outdoes itself on Starz

Outlander
Outlander’s season two premiere delivered its best ratings performance yet

It’s not quite Games of Thrones, but adventure/romance/time-travel series Outlander is proving to be an ace in the pack for US pay TV channel Starz. The first episode of season two aired last Saturday and attracted an audience of 1.46 million (Nielsen’s live plus same-day ratings).

Not only is this a record for the show, it translates into a 50% increase on its season one finale. This suggests that a lot of people played catch-up on the series and have now been converted into hardcore same-day fans.

The show also set a Starz record for a season premiere, beating Power’s second-season opener by a fraction. All of these metrics bode well for Outlander, and suggest Starz may have managed to get its claws into a female audience, with a lot of its shows to date – the likes of Black Sails and Spartacus – having felt quite male-skewing.

Starz also launched its new Steven Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, on Sunday. Because it’s Hollywood director Soderbergh, the critics have taken this show very seriously, mostly coming out in favour (though The New Yorker reviewer Richard Bordy wasn’t a fan). Less clear-cut is the feedback from IMDb, where the show has scored a 7.4 rating, which suggests the audience is either ambivalent or polarised.

Riley Keough stars in The Girlfriend Experience
Riley Keough stars in The Girlfriend Experience

In terms of TV ratings, The Girlfriend Experience launched with back-to-back episodes – averaging around 350,000 viewers across the two. The numbers look stronger if you add up the various staggered showings of the new episodes, but it’s not an outright success – especially when you consider there’s a lot of raunchy content to lure viewers in. So we’ll need a few more weeks to see if the show can build.

Season two of AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) also launched last weekend. With an overall audience of 6.67 million, this is in a similar ballpark to the ratings it was achieving at the end of season one. True, FTWD saw a slide in the number of 18-49s watching the show, but it is so far ahead of AMC’s other series (with the exception of The Walking Dead) that it seems nitpicky to point that out.

It’s also in a league of its own compared with the rest of the US cable universe. Keep in mind that FTWD also has a Talking Dead chatshow brand extension, which brings in a further 2.36 million viewers just after it finishes. On the whole, AMC must be ecstatic about the show’s numbers.

Fear The Walking Dead
Fear The Walking Dead looks to be picking up where its first season left off, securing strong numbers

The network has delivered some superb US-produced shows over the years (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Into the Badlands to name but a few). But it was notable that it didn’t do quite so well in ratings terms with the UK version of Humans (although this is also a good show). Against that backdrop, it will be interesting to see how the channel does when it airs the six-part adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager.

The Night Manager recently aired in the UK, where it was a resounding success for the BBC – achieving an audience of eight to nine million for every episode (Live+7 days: BARB). In terms of its AMC showing (which begins on April 19 at 22.00), one thing it has in its favour (compared to Humans, for example) is an internationally recognisable cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston.

If the show were on PBS (or maybe even A&E) it would be a dead cert to succeed. But whether the AMC audience will be as enthusiastic is an open question. Hopefully for British-based producers, it will be a big hit.

The Night Manager was a resounding success on BBC1
The Night Manager was a resounding success on BBC1, but how will it fare on AMC?

Meanwhile, US cable channel Bravo’s first foray into scripted TV was Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, which recently completed its second season with an average of 660,000 viewers per episode – reasonable, but not amazing. Nevertheless, it’s clearly doing a good enough job for Bravo because the network has just announced that it wants three more seasons (a commitment that echoes Netflix’s recent backing for Orange is the New Black).

“With our first foray into scripted, Bravo’s viewers fell in love with Abby (the lead character) and her close-knit group of friends experiencing the joys and disappointments of juggling dating, careers, family and relationships,” said Frances Berwick, president of Lifestyle Networks at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all excited to see what’s next for Abby and her friends.”

One show that is, perhaps surprisingly, under pressure is ABC’s The Catch, which started airing on March 24. The latest series from the Shonda Rhimes stable (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder), it was expected to fly out of the blocks. Instead, it debuted to a lacklustre 5.85 million viewers.

The Catch isn't doing as well as expected
The Catch isn’t doing as well as expected

Now three episodes in, it is hovering just under the five million mark. It would be a major surprise if ABC bailed on a Shonda Rhimes show after just one season, but The Catch does need to start turning things round quite soon to keep the channel’s suits on board.

On the other side of the Atlantic, ITV has decided to ditch its fantasy adventure series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, thus rounding off a painful winter that also saw an unsuccessful outing for Jekyll & Hyde. The good news, however, is that spring has started off much more promisingly with strong ratings for ITV’s attempt at Nordic noir, Hans Rosenfeldt’s Marcella, and Sunday night treat The Durrells, which launched in the week ending April 3 with around 6.68 million viewers.

This will be welcome news for Polly Hill, who has just quit as BBC controller of drama to become ITV’s new head of drama. Explaining her decision to jump ship at a time when the BBC has just racked up successes with Doctor Foster, Poldark, War & Peace and The Night Manager, Hill said: “After 11 years at the BBC I am proud to be leaving it at the top of its game. ITV has always played a vital part in the landscape of British drama and shows such as Cracker, Prime Suspect and Band of Gold had a huge influence on me and the drama I wanted to make.

Stephen Dillane and Clemence Poesy in The Tunnel
Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in The Tunnel

“I am proud to be joining ITV and will lead the drama department into its next exciting chapter, making the very best popular drama, which will feel original, distinctive and authored. I can’t wait to start.”

Finally, one show to keep an eye on is the second season of The Tunnel (adapted from The Bridge), on Sky Atlantic, which debuted on April 12. The first season, which aired in 2013, settled down at around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers.

A three-year absence means the franchise will probably have lost some momentum, but early reports suggest The Tunnel is the channel’s biggest series launch of the year to date. We’ll check back in after a couple more episodes to see how the ratings performance of season two stacks up against the first outing.

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BBC1 drama dominates UK viewing

Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)
Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)

Amid all the controversy about the future of the BBC’s licence fee, it’s interesting to note that the UK public broadcaster’s flagship channel BBC1 has had a storming start to the year in terms of its scripted content. Whether it’s crime, espionage, period or soaps, it’s been delivering on every front.

Go back to the very start of January, for example, and BBC1 achieved an audience in excess of 11 million for its much-publicised Sherlock special. This was ably supported by the launch of War & Peace, which debuted to 8.4 million.

War & Peace continued to perform well throughout January and was joined by schedule stalwarts such as Death in Paradise, EastEnders and Silent Witness – all of which racked up audiences in excess of eight million. The latter show topped the ratings in the second week of January with 8.72 million – impressive when you consider it has been running since 1996.

In the week commencing January 11, BBC1 turned the screw on its rivals further still by launching the latest season of Call the Midwife, which immediately went to the top of the charts with 9.88 million.

Supporting it with eight million-plus viewers were Silent Witness, Death in Paradise and EastEnders, with the complex period drama War & Peace holding up well at 6.6 million. Not quite as strong, but still respectable, was the third season of crime series Shetland, which debuted with more than six million.

Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace
Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace

Late January and early February offered more of the same, but then the week commencing February 8 saw the return of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley to a massive 8.63 million viewers. Only Call the Midwife scored higher, bringing in 9.6 million.

For the week commencing February 15, BBC1 upped its game again, with the launch of The Night Manager on Sunday evening. While it wasn’t able to outscore the much-loved midwives, it did debut with 8.25 million, neck and neck with episode two of Happy Valley. This meant the channel’s top five broadcasts were all dramas attracting in excess of 7.5 million viewers (with Shetland still bobbing along nicely at around six million).

The following week, all of the above were rock solid – with The Night Manager actually posting a slight increase to 8.42 million. That in itself is a very impressive achievement, because most dramas shed a million or so after their first episode. By this token, Happy Valley also deserves some credit for managing to keep its second and third episodes well above the eight million mark.

All of the above figures are BARB seven-day data. So we’ve now moved into territory where the latest figures have not yet been released. Instead, we need to look at BARB overnights (which are subject to change once time-shifted viewing is included).

With this proviso, The Night Manager continues to perform strongly. On Sunday, March 6, for example, it faced tough competition from the launch of Julian Fellowes’ new project on ITV, Doctor Thorne, but won convincingly. Around 6.2 million tuned into The Night Manager (overnight score) while 3.8 million opted for Fellowes’ Anthony Trollope adaptation.

ITV's Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes
ITV’s Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes

ITV is BBC1’s main commercial rival. So how has it been doing across the same period? On the whole, the picture isn’t quite as healthy.

Coming into the new year, its ratings were led by its soaps, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, with audiences in the 5.5-7 million range. Behind this came crime dramas Endeavour, Vera and Midsomer Murders which, with audiences of around 5-5.5 million, lag behind Silent Witness.

It’s likely to be a similar story for the next few weeks, with Happy Valley’s final episode coming up and The Night Manager still good for a few more episodes. It will be interesting to see if BBC1 can sustain its performance through the spring and summer.

In the US, meanwhile, CBS CEO Les Moonves used the Deutsche Bank 2016 Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in Florida to say: “We have five new shows on this year. I believe all five will be renewed, and we own four of them.”

This comment has been interpreted to refer to Supergirl, Limitless, Code Black, Life in Pieces and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. However, there is some uncertainty because CBS also has a TV reboot of Rush Hour coming up. So either Moonves overlooked that show, or it’s already being lined up for the chop – which seems a bit harsh ahead of its actual launch.

In terms of the other five, Supergirl and Limitless were widely expected to get picked up again, as was sitcom Life in Pieces.

Code Black
Code Black has been picked up by UKTV

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders doesn’t debut until March 16 but, as a spin-off of the popular Criminal Minds franchise, it stands a decent chance of doing well. The show that has, perhaps, dodged a bullet is medical drama Code Black.

With its 18-episode first season now complete, Code Black attracted an average audience of 7.1 million. This isn’t terrible but it is undermined by the fact that the show’s appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds is at the lower end of the CBS spectrum.

The fact it has survived is probably explained by CBS’s need for some classic procedural-style dramas to sit alongside hit series NCIS. If CBS can manage to make Code Black a hit then it will also have a useful asset for its international sales catalogue. The show has already been picked up in the UK by UKTV.

Still in the US, public broadcaster PBS has just given the greenlight to a second season of Mercy Street, its first original drama in more than a decade. A medical series set during the US Civil War, Mercy Street’s first season was executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Lisa Q Wolfinger and David Zabel.

The show debuted with an impressive 5.7 million viewers and its six-episode run was streamed two million times. It trended strongly on Twitter on numerous occasions and its website – filled with factual supporting material – has had more than 600,000 unique visitors since its launch.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street, which is heading into season two

“We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response to Mercy Street and the return of high-quality American drama on PBS stations,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “We’re looking forward to a second season offering more fascinating stories inspired by historical events. The effort from everyone involved, including producers, directors, historical consultants, actors and PBS stations, resulted in an extraordinary series.”

Mercy Street’s first season took place in the spring of 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia, a border town between north and south and the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free black people, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The show follows the lives of these characters, who collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel, which has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital. Season two picks up directly from the events at the end of the first run’s finale.

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Everything old is new again

As UK networks continue to mine classic stories for new dramas, Stephen Arnell asks whether international coproductions are the key to unlocking creativity.

It’s fair to say last week’s announcement that BBC Studios is planning a six-part series based on John Buchan’s popular adventure The 39 Steps – just eight years after the corporation’s previous Bourne/Bond-style stab at the novel – hardly set industry pulses racing.

In fact, unless the approach to the source material is radically different from previous adaptations, one can’t imagine the atmosphere in the BBC production meeting to discuss the idea when it was broached was exactly electric.

With the recent transformation of BBC Production into BBC Studios, this was perversely exactly the kind of show calculated to reinforce prior negative expectations of what the new entity would be – safe, traditional and rather unimaginative.

The exit of Studios head Peter Salmon after six months to Endemol Shine may see BBC Studios leave its comfort zone – if a non-corporation insider is chosen to replace him.

Coupled with the plethora of Agatha Christie adaptations, younger takes on popular characters such as ITV’s Endeavour (Inspector Morse) and the upcoming Prime Suspect prequel Tennison (incidentally, there’s a Young Marple in development for CBS in the US), as well as reboots of Poldark (pictured top) and Maigret, new versions of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and EM Forster’s Howards End, there is a feeling that mainstream drama in the UK is playing safe and becoming atrophied, although I’m sure production executives at the time felt that reviving a 1970s show such as Poldark was genuinely taking a risk.

The low figures attracted by recent series such as Jericho (ITV) and Dickensian (BBC1), which, despite familiar period drama elements and literary antecedents, at least attempted something a little different, may increase the caution displayed in TV drama commissioning in the UK for the big channels.

ITV's Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire
ITV’s Jericho focused on 1870s Yorkshire

If we are going to pillage the past for source material, maybe producers can consider some other authors than the usual roll call of Austen, Dickens, Trollope (ITV’s Julian Fellowes-penned Doctor Thorne) and the Brontes.

Will the upcoming BBC1 retread of Homer’s Troy stumble in the same way as ITV’s fantasy actioner Beowulf?

Both shows, and BBC2’s The Last Kingdom, smack of a desire to emulate Game of Thrones, as did the flop BBC1 War of the Roses epic The White Queen back in 2013.

To some critics, BBC1’s choice to adapt 20th century classics last autumn (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, An Inspector Calls, The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) resembled nothing so much as an English literature A-level syllabus circa 1973.

Despite the likelihood of negative comparisons to Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, the BBC’s upcoming series based on Len Deighton novel SS-GB promises something a little off the beaten track from recent network drama.

Julian Fellowes' new ITV series Doctor Thorne
Julian Fellowes’ new ITV series Doctor Thorne

With his works coming out of copyright, the oeuvre of HG Wells seems ripe for revival, judging by Sky Arts’ recent anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells and the upcoming Mammoth Screen (Poldark) version of The War of the Worlds, which aims to hue closely to the novel. With Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) adapting the story, we can be fairly certain that we’ll finally see something resembling Wells’ original vision.

There are, of course, some shining exceptions to the general air of caution, not least of which is The Night Manager (BBC1). Although never adapted for TV before, it does come from the pen of John le Carré, responsible for a string of successful movies, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, The Tailor of Panana, the 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and TV series/one-offs (Smiley’s People, A Perfect Spy, A Murder of Quality).

The Night Manager is truly something different for BBC1 – the sheer luxury on display in terms of locations and casting, the sumptuous photography and even the Maurice Binder-style title sequence lift the show into another sphere, almost one of decadence, especially considering the ongoing budget cuts at the BBC.

Now perhaps there’s a glimpse of where the money saved from BBC3’s linear demise is heading – and also of the advantages of coproductions.

Co-funded by AMC, which likewise coproduced Channel 4’s Humans, The Night Manager perhaps demonstrates that only international financing can release the creativity for UK drama productions of real scale and ambition.

Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?
Does The Night Manager prove that international coproductions are the way forward for UK drama?

Former C4 drama commissioning editor Peter Ansorge voiced his frustration last month, commenting on the difference in television drama between here and the US: “You can’t argue against HBO, AMC, Showtime and Scandinavia being the new gold standard in TV drama. Even Germany has got in on the act with Deutschland 83.

“I’d question whether this is the case in the UK. These international shows have one thing in common: they are all original and contemporary works, with challenging things to say about their recent history and their countries’ social and political realities. HBO and AMC dramas challenge US audiences to look at themselves in new, often breathtaking ways.

“In contrast, the UK typically looks back, or towards crime. Downton Abbey tops the ratings on Christmas Day, Agatha Christie is catapulted into the ranks of our greatest novelists, the writing team on EastEnders are suddenly on a par with Dickens, a Tolstoy period adaptation feels like an Austen, writ large.”

If this sounds like a blanket dismissal of UK drama, it’s not – but it’s beginning to look like only international coproduction money and ambition can lift the country’s homegrown drama into binge-worthy series that can play well in the US.

Peaky Blinders has, to an extent, proven that uniquely British subject matter can – given the budget, casting and swagger – translate to overseas markets (admittedly shielded from some of the heat of the ratings war by its presence on BBC2).

BBC1 must surely be hoping this is the case for the upcoming Tom Hardy eight-part miniseries Taboo (from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight) and Steve McQueen’s as-yet untitled drama about the lives of a group of black Britons from 1968 to 2014.

The news that Julie Walters is to star in a TV series based on her role in the surprise BBC Films hit Brooklyn also raises hopes that there will be more ambition for the genre at the corporation than relying on rehashing popular classics.

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The Night Manager: Hiddleston takes on Laurie on BBC1

Drawing comparisons to James Bond, The Night Manager features a star-studded cast embarking on a globetrotting journey through the world of international espionage. DQ checks in with the BBC’s hottest new show.

Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki. As casting goes, this line-up could be very close to a broadcaster’s dream team. Add in award-winning director Susanne Bier and a story based on a novel by celebrated spy novelist John le Carré and The Night Manager appears to have all the ingredients for a mega hit series. Just add viewers.

The miniseries, which debuted on BBC1 in the UK on Sunday and lands on US cable channel AMC on April 19, marks the first television adaptation of a le Carré novel in more than 20 years in a story that brings together love, loss and revenge in a complex tale of modern criminality.

The show centres on former British soldier Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a hotel night manager who is recruited by government agent Angela Burr (Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of ruthless arms dealer Richard Roper (Laurie). To get to the heart of Roper’s empire, Pine must allay the suspicions of his chief of staff Major Corkoran (Hollander) and resist the allure of his beautiful girlfriend Jed (Debicki).

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From left: Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander

Le Carré himself describes the adaptation of The Night Manager as “one of the unexpected miracles of my writing life: a novel I had written more than 20 years ago, buried deep in the archive of a major movie company that had bought the rights but never got around to making the movie, suddenly spirited back to life and retold for our times. And how!”

The adaptation, penned by David Farr and produced by The Ink Factory, isn’t an entirely faithful retelling of the 20-year-old story, however. In particular, the “chief British spook” had originally been a man named Burr but became pregnant Ms Burr – as portrayed by Colman.

Then there was the location. Much of the novel takes place aboard Roper’s yacht but – recognising the high cost and claustrophobic nature of such a small setting – the TV version was transplanted to what the author describes as a “palatial Gatsby-style villa” found on the Spanish island of Majorca.

The backdrop to Roper’s arms dealing was also shifted, from the war on drugs in Central America to the Middle East and pro-democracy Arab Spring.

“I never wanted the film of the book,” le Carré admits. “Actually I never do. I wanted the film of the film. And we all did. All I asked was that the central interplay between our protagonists remain intact, and the narrative arc of the original story – never mind where it’s set – be broadly the narrative arc of the novel, exploring the same human tensions and appetites, and resolving the dramatic conflict in the same broad terms.”

The author also praises the central performances and, in fact, the entire production of The Night Manager, going as far as to compare it to “those glory days in the 1970s when I was watching the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being magicked to life by Alec Guinness and the inspired cast that surrounded him.”

Night
The TV version transplants The Night Manager’s action to a Majorcan villa

Hiddleston, best known for roles in big-screen blockbusters Thor and the Avengers series, admits he was hooked by the script from the first episode and quickly sought out the novel.

“The character appealed to me because I knew, as an actor, I was going to have to operate at the highest level of my intellectual and physical ability because he is a field agent, but also has to be smart enough to go undercover,” he explains, comparing Pine to a certain James Bond. “I found his nobility, courage and morality very appealing – he is actually a very moral character and is filled with le Carré’s own moral authority about the world. There is a certain line that you can feel underneath all of le Carré’s work which is a very robust moral foundation: a belief in right and wrong; in decency and its opposite.”

In contrast to Hiddleston’s recent discovery of le Carré’s story, House star Laurie says he fell in love with the book when he read it in 1993 and admits he once tried to option the rights himself.

“I tried to get the rights before I’d finished the third chapter,” he reveals. “I was unsuccessful, of course – the great Sydney Pollack had jumped on it and wouldn’t let go – but the character of Pine – and yes, back in 1993 I impudently imagined myself playing Pine – is a fascinating one: the errant knight roaming the landscape, looking for a cause, a flag to fight for. Better still, to die for. I thought it was such a beautiful story.”

Now presented with the chance to appear in the series, Laurie says he was happy to take any job on the shoot. “I can’t claim any credit for getting the thing off the ground,” he adds, “I just told the producers that I would be happy to take any job on the production, as actor, caterer, anything I could do to make it go – I just wanted to be involved with it.”

From the start, Pine is painted out as the hero, stepping out of his comfort zone in a bid to snare the bad guy. But it doesn’t take long for viewers to question whether he will become the very thing he set out to destroy. In contrast, Laurie’s Roper appears to travel in the opposite direction.

“Pine’s original goal is to bring down this monster, but at the same time resist the monster’s charm,” Laurie explains. “There are moments when Pine teeters on the brink of the dark side, when you wonder which way he will go. At the same time you might wonder whether Roper is teetering too – that somewhere inside himself he wants to be caught, to be betrayed. The audience has to judge for themselves where Pine and Roper come close to crossing the line in opposite directions – where Roper might plunge the dagger into his own chest and where Pine might become the very thing he set out to destroy.

“It’s an absolutely fascinating exploration, and I think this about so much of le Carré’s writing. Some describe him as a spy writer, but his stories so far transcend the notion of genre; he uses the world of the spy and the intelligence business to examine some profound questions. My God, I hope we can do it justice.”

Broadchuch star Colman – who is reunited on-screen with her Rev co-star Hollander – had just found out she was pregnant when she met director Bier, meaning her character not only changed gender during the adaptation process but also incorporated an additional element to her character. She describes Burr as a “zebra among the lions,” a woman in the male-dominated world of espionage who strives to do what she thinks is right.

“Burr knows that Roper is an arms dealer of the filthiest kind and that he’s making a fortune out of people’s death, misery and poverty,” Colman explains. “She is determined to take this monster down so she sets out to seduce Pine, knowing with his level of charm, sophistication and intelligence that he’d be able to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle and gain his trust to bring him down from within.”

Night
Tom Hiddleston portrays former soldier Jonathan Pine

Helming the six-hour miniseries is Oscar winner Bier, who triumphed at the 2011 Academy Awards with foreign-language film In a Better World (Hævnen).

Both Hiddleston and Laurie reserve praise for the Danish director, who is described by Hiddleston as a “crusader for the truth.” Laurie adds: “She is The Night Manager. Her vision, her taste, her approach has defined every part of what we are doing, and it’s been an absolute thrill to be a part of.”

A self-confessed le Carré fan, Bier says she jumped at the chance to join the “irresistible” project. “The drama series explores a world where the line between good and evil is completely black and white, yet we are drawn into the blackness,” she explains. “Audiences will be eerily attracted to the evil and I think that’s sort of what drew me to it. You’re never completely sure if Pine is on the right side.”

The biggest challenge, she recalls, was translating the complexity of le Carré’s novel to maintain the thrilling elements, as well as making the 20-year-old story more contemporary – hence the change of setting from South America to the Middle East.

But like many big-screen talents moving to television, Bier adds that she was also drawn to the challenge of telling a hugely complex story over six hours – three times the average movie running time.

“Like a number of other feature directors, I’ve come to realise that there’s great writing in television right now and something incredibly challenging in dealing with a longer chunk of storytelling,” the director says of her move to the small screen.

“I don’t think you could fit this into a two-hour slot because it’s such a rich story – the characters have so much nuance – and part of the thing that makes a TV series is the fact all of the minor characters are interesting, exciting and complex.

“It was so exciting having a whole gallery of fascinating, fun characters and you couldn’t predict where they were going.”

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What’s comes after the ‘golden age’ of drama?

The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?

It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.

Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.

Rebecca Eaton
PBS Masterpiece’s Rebecca Eaton

With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.

Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.

“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?

“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”

In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.

“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”

One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey has already concluded on ITV in the UK and will soon end on PBS

Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.

Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.

“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”

The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.

“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”

The Last Kingdom
Carnival Films’ The Last Kingdom has aired in the US and the UK and will return for a second season

Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.

“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.

“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”

Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.

Fungus the Bogeyman
Fungus the Bogeyman made use of technological advances pioneered by The Imaginarium Studios

The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.

“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”

Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.

“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”

Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”

For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.

“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”

Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”

On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”

Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.

“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”

The Imaginarium also played a part in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Imaginarium also played a part in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.

Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.

“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”

Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.

“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.

“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.

“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”

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Berlinale opens doors to top TV talent

As its name suggests, feature films are the major focus of the Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale. But, echoing trends across the global media market, high-end TV drama is also playing an increasingly important role at the event.

There is, for example, a screening showcase called the Berlinale Special Series, during which TV titles from Denmark, the UK, Israel, Australia and the US will be shown. There is also an event called The CoPro Series, during which seven international TV projects searching for coproduction and financing partners will launch.

For this week’s column, we’re taking a closer look at each of the selected projects, focusing on the writing talent involved.

Berlinale Special Series

David Farr
David Farr

The Night Manager is an adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy thriller, starring Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman. Set to be broadcast by the BBC in the UK and AMC in the USA, it has been adapted for screen by David Farr, who recently attended the C21 Drama Summit to discuss his approach to the project. Farr has established a strong reputation as a theatre director but has also proved very adept as a screenwriter. His credits include TV series Spooks and the movie Hanna, co-written with Joe Wright.

Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby

Love, Nina is a comedy miniseries for the BBC starring Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Watkins, Joshua McGuire and Faye Marsay. The story is based on the memoirs of Nina Stibbe, a nanny who worked for and encountered some of London’s leading literary figures in the 1980s. It has been adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Fever Pitch) and is his first ever TV drama. He says of the project: “Love, Nina has already attained the status of a modern classic, and I am so happy that I’ve been given the opportunity to adapt it. We want to make a series that is as charming, funny and delightful as Nina Stibbe’s glorious book.”

Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul
Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul is a spin-off from the iconic AMC series Breaking Bad. Now moving into season two, it’s the brainchild of Vince Gilligan, who also created Breaking Bad. For season two, he shares the showrunning duties with Peter Gould. Although Gould is not as high profile as Gilligan, he is equally steeped in the series’ mythology, having worked on all five seasons of the parent show and the first season of the spin-off. For his work on Breaking Bad, he was nominated for four Writers Guild of America Awards.

Ryan Griffen
Ryan Griffen

Cleverman is an Australia/New Zealand coproduction based in a dystopian futuristic fantasy world. Due to be broadcast by ABC Australia and SundanceTV in the US, it stars Iain Glen and Frances O’Connor. The original concept for the story is from Ryan Griffen, a relative newcomer to the industry who also co-wrote four out of the series’ six episodes. Other credited writers were Jon Bell, Jonathan Gavin and Michael Miller (six episodes) and Jane Allen (two episodes). Overal,l that’s a pretty potent line-up of Aussie writing talent, with career credits that include Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Neighbours, The Gods of Wheat Street and Offspring.

Splitting Up Together is the latest drama to come out of Denmark. The TV2 show is described as a serialised character-driven comedy about family, love, sex and happy divorce. The show, which first saw the light of day at last year’s Mipcom, is produced by Happy End and distributed by DR Sales. It is created and written by Mette Heeno, whose previous credits include TV2 comedy series Lærkevej and Lillemand. Prior to that, she spent much of the last decade writing movie scripts (such as Triple Dare).

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

The Writer is an Israeli series coming out of the prolific Keshet stable. Written by Sayed Kashua, who created award-winning comedy Arab Labor, the 10-part series “observes the reality of a hybrid Israeli-Palestinian existence and the personal and political toll it can take on the individual.” This is a similar theme to Arab Labor, which has so far had four seasons (since debuting in 2007). Kashua earned an international reputation for his previous series, with the New York Times saying: “Kashua has managed to barge through cultural barriers and bring an Arab point of view… into the mainstream of Israeli entertainment.”

CoPro Series

Bosklopper
Stienette Bosklopper

Avrupa is a project from Circe Film in the Netherlands centring on a flamboyant Turkish family that immigrates to the Netherlands in the 1980s. It is written by Sacha Polak and Stienette Bosklopper. To date, Polak’s main credits have been movies (Hemel, Zurich and Vita & Virginia). Bosklopper, meanwhile, is best known as a producer – only turning to screenwriting in the past couple of years. Speaking to Screen Daily, she said: “I had been working with a lot of writers and directors. Somehow, there was an urge to contribute on a different level. To my own amazement, it is going very well. It comes quite naturally and I get the feeling I will continue to do this.”

Brotherhood is a Norwegian crime series for TV2 Norway from Friland Film, a production company best known for feature films. The series, apparently inspired by true events, centres on a police investigator in Oslo who becomes heavily involved in organised crime. His secret links to the underworld are suddenly challenged and the protection he has built around his family starts to fall apart. The eight-part project is being written by Nikolaj Frobenius, whose main writing credits to date are as an author and movie writer. Film credits over the course of the last decade include Pioneer, Sons of Norway and Insomnia, while his books have been translated into 18 languages.

Torleif Hoppe
Torleif Hoppe

DNA is a Danish crime show produced by Eyeworks Scandi Fiction and written by author and creator Torleif Hoppe. Hoppe’s main claim to fame is his involvement in The Killing, of which he wrote 20 episodes. Aside from DNA, he is also working with Buccaneer Media, BBC America and AMC on Moths, a thriller set in Japan.

Anders August
Anders August

Lucky Per is a Nordisk Film Production for TV2 Denmark, based on a famous book written at the start of the 20th century. The four-part miniseries will be adapted for the screen by Bille August and his son Anders. It is scheduled to go into production this summer, with delivery at the end of 2017. DR Sales is handling distribution. Anders August established himself as a film and TV writer at the start of the current decade and has gone on to bigger and bigger projects. Recent credits include The Legacy and Follow the Money for DR. There have also been reports that BBC America and AMC are developing a show created by the younger August. Deadline called the BBC/AMC project “an untitled comic-noir thriller set in a 1950s resort (that) follows the social climbing of a disarming young woman who turns out to be a dangerous sociopath.”

The Disappearance is a new project from highly rated writer/director Hans-Christian Schmid. Primarily a movie maker, his credits include Home for the Weekend, which competed at the 2012 Berlinale.

Clement Virgo
Clement Virgo

The Illegal is a new project from Clement Virgo, the director of The Book of Negroes. It’s based on a book by Lawrence Hill, who also wrote The Book of Negroes. Virgo’s new project, which is being produced through his company Conquering Lion Pictures, is a dystopian story set in the near future. It follows the journey of Keita Ali, a young marathon runner who flees his repressive native home and finds himself in a community of undocumented refugees living in a wealthy country. Virgo and Hill co-wrote the TV version of The Book of Negroes so it’s likely they will adopt a similar approach this time.

Wars Inc, produced by Drama Team, is described as an Israeli newsroom-based drama. Unfortunately there isn’t any additional information on the project right now, so you’ll have to wait until the Berlinale pitch to find out more about this one.

The CoPro Series will give producers and financiers the chance to get to know the series’ creators at a networking get-together following their pitch, and arrange one-on-one meetings to discuss potential partnerships. The full programme was designed in conjunction with Peter Nadermann (Nadcon, Germany) and Jan de Clercq (Lumière Publishing, Belgium).

The BBC's Doctor Who
The BBC’s Doctor Who

In other writer news, Steven Moffat has announced that season 10 of Doctor Who will be his last as showrunner. His final season will air on BBC1 in 2017 before he is replaced by Chris Chibnall, whose credits include Broadchurch, The Great Train Robbery and Life on Mars.

Moffat said: “While Chris is doing his last run of Broadchurch, I’ll be finishing up on the best job in the universe and keeping the Tardis warm for him. It took a lot of gin and tonic to talk him into this, but I am delighted that one of the true stars of British TV drama will be taking the Time Lord even further into the future.”

Chibnall called Doctor Who “the ultimate BBC programme: bold, unique, vastly entertaining and adored all around the world. So it’s a privilege and a joy to be the next curator of this funny, scary and emotional family drama. Steven’s achieved the impossible by continually expanding Doctor Who’s creative ambition while growing its global popularity. He’s been a dazzling and daring showrunner, and hearing his plans and stories for 2017, it’s clear he’ll be going out with a bang. Just to make my life difficult.”

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Drama wades into class war

Childhood's End was adapted from Arthur C Clarke’s novel of the same name
Childhood’s End was adapted from Arthur C Clarke’s novel of the same name

There’s a hint of a new editorial trend in scripted TV. It involves stories about crony capitalism’s worst excesses and the people trying to do something about it, whether through orthodox legal channels or some form of anarchic or vigilante subversion.

Earlier this year, for example, we saw the launch of Danmarks Radio (DR)’s Follow the Money, a story about “speculators, swindlers and corporate princes and the crimes they commit in the pursuit of wealth.” Then there was Mr Robot, USA Network’s exploration of the battle between anarchist hackers and corporate America.

At Mipcom, Showtime debuted Billions, its take on the face-off between Wall Street’s big money-makers and government regulators.

And now we have Watchdog, a drama from Jason Winer and Jon Caren about a team of vigilante activists who expose abuses of power while evading the FBI (The A-Team with a social conscience, maybe). A script has been picked up by US broadcast network Fox, with the resultant series intended to be a procedural.

It is the second major collaboration between Winer and Care, who also developed The System, a show about the criminal justice system, for Fox.

Other new dramas this week included Roadies, a one-hour comedy from Cameron Crowe (We Bought a Zoo, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire). Destined to air as a pilot in 2016 (with a view to becoming a series), the show is about a rock band’s team of roadies. Crowe will write and direct, while JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot is producing.

Billions is coming to Showtime
Billions is coming to Showtime

Winnie Holzman, who is executive producing alongside Crowe, said: “I’ve long wanted to work with JJ and Winnie, and coming together to tell these stories has been beyond a blast. Showtime has a great track record with music-based projects, and they’ve been wonderful partners.”

Meanwhile, ITV CEO Adam Crozier used a keynote speech at Mipcom earlier this month to explain how his company has invested heavily in increasing its drama output in both the European and US market – and this week the company’s US production division, ITV Studios America, underlined its ambition by optioning crime novel Bull Mountain.

Brian Panowich’s book centres on a small-town sheriff trying to distance himself from his family’s criminal empire. Ed Bernero (Criminal Minds, Crossing Lines) has been brought in as showrunner and will write the script for the pilot.

Sticking with the US, cable channel Syfy is in the midst of a huge creative revamp. Having axed Haven and Helix earlier in the year, it has now brought an end to Dominion and Defiance. Syfy said the latter was a “truly groundbreaking series, delivering an immersive, cross-platform experience that transcended the television screen in a way that viewers had never seen before.”

Unfortunately, not enough people were watching it, which is the same reason Dominion has been dropped.

In addition to this cancellation bloodbath, Continuum and Lost Girl are also coming to an end on the channel, all of which begs the question – what’s left?

Well, there have been renewals for 12 Monkeys, Killjoys, Dark Matter and Bitten – and there has also been a slew of new commissions. Among these is Childhood’s End, an adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s iconic novel about the peaceful invasion of Earth by the alien Overlords, “who promise to eliminate poverty, war and sickness – ushering in a golden age of peace, health and security for all of humankind.” There is, of course, a catch, revealed over six hours across three nights.

The Magicians has been adapted from a book series described as 'Harry Potter for adults'
The Magicians has been adapted from a book series described as ‘Harry Potter for adults’

Childhood’s End is part of the recent trend towards promotable event miniseries aimed at building buzz around the channel. But it isn’t a long-term answer to Syfy’s wave of cancellations.

Instead, the new titles on which Syfy seems to be pinning its hopes are space opera/police thriller The Expanse, sci-fi/espionage hybrid Hunters and The Magicians, a 12-part series based on Lev Grossman’s best-selling fantasy trilogy. The books have described as Harry Potter for adults.

The latter, due in early 2016, joins the current trend towards fantasy adventure series (probably inspired by HBO phenomenon Game of Thrones). Other titles in the swords and/or sorcery subgenre include Sonar Entertainment’s The Shannara Chronicles (for MTV), ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, FX’s The Bastard Executioner, BBC2/BBC America’s The Last Kingdom, AMC’s Into The Badlands and Starz/FremantleMedia’s American Gods.

Elsewhere, there are reports that US showrunner Ryan Murphy (Glee, Scream Queens, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) is planning a new anthology series called One Hit Wonders that may star Gwyneth Paltrow.

The show would be a musical drama/comedy about a group of women who each had hit songs in the 1990s coming together to form a supergroup. One Hit Wonders has been knocking around for a while as a movie concept but now looks set to come to the small screen.

Murphy’s Scream Queens is not rating very well at the moment, with cancellation rumours in the air after just five episodes on Fox. But another first-time Fox show that is in pretty good shape is Rosewood. There’s no question the series has benefited from being scheduled after breakout hit Empire, but Fox has clearly seen enough already to be impressed. This week, it ordered an additional nine episodes, taking the total run for the first series to 22.

Sweden's Small Town Love is being remade by ABC in the US
Sweden’s Small Town Love is being remade by ABC in the US

“Rosewood has proven to be a real self-starter for us, which is a tremendous feat on this highly competitive night,” explained Fox entertainment president David Madden.

US network ABC is also remaking a Swedish comedy-drama Small Town Love, which was a big hit for TV4, following a deal with distributor Nordic World.

The series, set in the small town of Molkom in Värmland, begins when Anette, a dinner lady, is replaced by a coffee machine and plunged into unemployment. She decides to start a nail salon and hires her daughter as financial manager. Pretty soon, it turns out that both Anette and her daughter are pregnant and that their two deadbeat boyfriends are intending to move into Annette’s tiny townhouse. The show has been commissioned for a second season that will air sometime in 2016.

Finally, in the world of international distribution, an upcoming BBC/AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager is proving popular among buyers. Tele München Gruppe has acquired rights to the miniseries for German-speaking Europe, while Bonnier-owned TV4 and C More will air it in the continent’s Nordic territories. Elsewhere, DR in Denmark, Sky Italia, TV3 in New Zealand and BBC First and SBS in Australia will all air the miniseries. Starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, it follows a former British soldier as he uncovers a secret arms trade.

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