Tag Archives: The Secret Agent

Channel 4 cooks up first Hebrew drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powers has been cancelled
Powers has been cancelled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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