Factual dramas are a staple of the scripted television landscape and can often be relied upon to bring in big ratings. DQ explores how these series are developed and brought to air, with contributions from the writers behind Waco and Kiri.
It’s a well-established fact that telling true stories through the lens of TV drama can work wonders in terms of ratings. Tanya Lopez, executive VP of movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions for A+E’s Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network, says: “The right story can be a magnet for curious audiences. That feeling of ‘I can’t believe this happened’ is a real hook.” Beyond the initial thrill of recognising real-life events, Lopez says “viewers then really like to get into the detail of a story, to find out things they didn’t know or see a new point of view.”
One of the most recent true-life stories to roll off the Lifetime production line is Cocaine Grandmother, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Griselda Blanco, a highly successful Miami-based drug lord who is reputed to have ordered 200 murders during her reign of terror in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a starting point for true-life projects, Lopez says she likes to have some IP to work with, such as a book or a documentary, but adds that Lifetime’s approach is not to take too much dramatic licence with its central characters. “The audience trusts us to tell the truth and we don’t want to deceive them. Where the dramatic licence does tend to come in is with the fourth or fifth lead characters where you might bundle a number of real-life figures into one composite. This can help to provide a frame of reference for the audience.”
In the case of 2017 real-life drama Flint, which investigated a toxic water scandal in the state of Michigan, “the story is told through the eyes of three women – two of whom are real-life characters that we had the rights to and a third who is a composite,” says Lopez. “That allowed us to draw attention to the issues affecting the people of Flint in the right way.”
Historically, factual dramas have tended to live in the world of feature-length biopics or miniseries. But if there has been a recent trend, it has been towards extended exposition over a number of episodes or, in some cases, seasons. FX proved this could work in 2016 with American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, a superbly cast series that won awards, achieved strong ratings in the US and sold in international distribution.
Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson, the tone of this Ryan Murphy-produced series was harder edged than the content on Lifetime. And for this reason it also attracted some criticism from those depicted in the series. In an interview with The New York Post, Mark Furhman, a police officer who comes out of the series in a bad light, said: “In a time when Americans read less and less and investigative journalism is on vacation, it is sad that this movie will be the historical word on this trial.” Other critics included relatives of the two murder victims, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown, who complained about a lack of consultation.
These complaints highlight a potential challenge with fact-based drama, which is that there are inevitably going to be differing opinions about how events are portrayed. FX has run into a similar situation with its new Crime Story series: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (pictured top), which launched this winter.
As with the OJ project, there is a best-selling book at the heart of the project – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth. The book is generally recognised as well researched but has been dismissed by the Versace family as scurrilous. In a statement, the family said: “Since Versace did not authorise the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should be considered as fiction.”
FX has stuck to its guns, saying it “stands by the meticulous reporting of Ms Orth.” And short of a legal challenge by the Versace family, it’s likely that the only practical outcome of the dispute will be more promotion for both channel and brand.
So what draws TV writers to these projects? The potential for ratings can’t be ignored, but just as often it seems rooted in indignation that a story has not been adequately reported or followed up on by authorities. Nicole Taylor’s award-winning Three Girls is a compelling insight into the lives of vulnerable teenage girls, while Jimmy McGovern’s work is often an expression of the injustice that those involved feel. Recently, McGovern wrote Reg for the BBC, in which Tim Roth played Reg Keys, the father of a murdered serviceman who stood against Tony Blair in the 2005 UK general election. McGovern also penned ITV’s Hillsborough, a dramatisation of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football supporters died. This film has been screened four times since it first aired in 1996 and also laid the foundations for a new ITV production called Anne, made by World Productions (Little Boy Blue).
Back in the US, Paramount Network has just aired Waco, a six-part miniseries about the 1993 Waco siege, a stand-off between US law enforcement agencies and a religious group called The Branch Davidians that were holed up in a Texas compound. After 51 days, the stand-off ended with 76 people being killed. According to the show’s writers, Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the trigger for this project was reading A Place Called Waco, an account of the siege by one of the few survivors, David Thibodeau. That, say the brothers, was the start of a painstaking research process that lasted four years and involved interviews with participants on both sides, as well as months of listening to transcripts and examining forensic reports.
The end result was that “we uncovered a different story to the one we’d been hearing for years,” says John Erick. “Waco is such a seminal moment in US history but there is so little about the people who were in the compound – how they got there and what they were like. They are presented as mindless cultists but a lot of them were discerning, educated people. We wanted to get beyond the image most people have of Waco, which is of tanks rolling in to break the siege.”
Waco tells the story from both sides, exploring the law enforcement failures and the personality of David Koresh, the charismatic leader of the Branch Davidians (played by Taylor Kitsch). While Koresh had his dark, disturbing side, he was a far more compelling character than the writers expected. “We went in expecting to find a crazy, malicious person, but he had a funny, light-hearted side that appealed to people,” says Drew. “For all his flaws, he was a gifted communicator and leader.”
A key challenge for the writers, however, was finding a way into the law enforcement side of the story. “Eventually we found it in the shape of FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner, whose involvement allowed us to provide a compassionate two-sided version of events,” John Erick says. “Gary ran negotiations for the first part of the siege and was convinced that any attempt to take the compound by force would be doomed to fail. But ultimately he was overruled.”
‘Why now?’ is always a key question in the decision to tell a fact-based story. In Waco’s case, Drew says the brothers were drawn to the project because the issue of proportionate law enforcement remains critical. “If anything, Waco seems even more relevant now than when we started researching. The breakdown of truth we are witnessing makes Waco seem even more relevant, because it was a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare played out on the world stage.”
Of course, one of the problems with fact-based drama is that writers are inevitably limited by the parameters of their subject matter. For this reason, there is also a strong strand of work that takes a fictionalised approach to factual scenarios. UK writer Jack Thorne, for example, has produced a couple of compelling pieces in this vein – National Treasure, which tackled the high-profile issue of historic sex abuse allegations against celebrities, and Kiri, which delved into the raw and emotive world of interracial adoption and fostering.
“My starting point is to explore stories I don’t know the answers to,” Thorne explains. “The issue behind National Treasure felt very tricky to me – because the police felt they had to put people’s names in the spotlight to encourage potential victims to come forward. But this created a presumption of guilt.”
Kiri started with another unanswerable question, says Thorne, arising from the notion that black children should only be adopted by families of their own ethnicity. “But what do you do about the fact that there are more black children awaiting adoption than can be placed within black families?”
Thorne says he particularly likes “talking to experts who are passionate about what they do and have a sense of what is morally right.” Some of this clearly creeps into Kiri, in which Sarah Lancashire plays Miriam, a social worker hung out to dry by the system because a judgement call seemingly leads to a bad outcome. Flawed and impetuous she may be, but most viewers will come away from Kiri believing the world would be a better place if there were more Miriams to turn to.
Thorne shares some of the Dowdles’ concerns about the dissemination of information, observing how “Twitter is sending us all mad with what it is doing to the news agenda. What I really try to do with all my stuff is encourage a discussion afterwards. TV is great at generating debate, and I love that.”
The importance of fact-based drama has also been evident in Australia, where a string of high-profile biopics have played a key role in helping the domestic scripted sector bounce back.
Recent biopics have included dramas about INXS frontman Michael Hutchence and tycoons Kerry Packer, Gina Rinehart and Alan Bond, while on the way are FremantleMedia productions about movie stars Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John.
Interestingly, the Aussie thirst for biopics has thrown up a couple of other issues with factual drama – namely that good subjects can soon run out and the stories don’t necessarily travel well overseas. At a recent Screen Producers Australia event in Melbourne, Posie Graeme-Evans, who created McLeod’s Daughters, speculated about whether the industry had reached “peak ‘Famous Australian,’” adding: “Biopics based on the B-list… are not quite the same.”
And while biopics “play brilliantly at home” she continued, “time and sales have suggested that not all do quite so well in the overseas market.”
London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted the most prestigious night of the year for British television as prizes were handed out to dramas including Peaky Blinders, Three Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale. DQ went behind the scenes at the Bafta Television Awards 2018.
Crowds were hanging over balconies, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite TV stars as dozens of plush cars lined up to drop off their A-list cargo at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The red carpet outside was a scene of organised chaos as guests made their way past photographers and fans cheering their name before they arrived inside the venue for this year’s Bafta Television Awards.
Inside the grand building, which sits on the city’s Southbank beside the River Thames, the atmosphere was one of relative calm as the auditorium’s seats slowly filled up ahead of the start of the show, this year presented by former Great British Bake-Off host Sue Perkins.
BBC comedy This Country and drama Three Girls, which was based on real events, each scooped two prizes, while Molly Windsor (Three Girls) and Sean Bean (Broken) scooped the gongs for leading actress and actor. In the best drama category, Peaky Blinders beat competition from Line of Duty, The Crown and The End of the F****** World, while US series The Handmaid’s Tale triumphed over scripted rivals Big Little Lies and Feud: Bette and Joan to be named best international drama.
After the winners were escorted off stage, DQ was on hand to hear some of their reactions.
Drama Series: Peaky Blinders (Caryn Mandabach Productions, Tiger Aspect Productions, BBC2) This was Peaky Blinders‘ first Bafta award for best drama since the period drama set in 1920s Birmingham debuted on BBC2 in 2013. Season four aired last year, with a fifth commissioned by BBC2. Steven Knight, creator and writer: “I’m shocked. I think it took that long just for people to get the idea of what it’s all about. Some things do take time. I’m really pleased. I’m hoping that next year it will be [actors] Helen [McCrory], Paul [Anderson] and Cillian [Murphy]. They are the Peaky Blinders. My ambition was to make it a story of family between two wars. I’ve always wanted to end it with first air-raid siren in Birmingham in 1939 – three more seasons. Now we’re getting approached to do all kinds of things – ballet, musical, a movie would be great. I wouldn’t want to do it at the very end but maybe between two of the seasons.” Caryn Mandabach, executive producer: “I’m gobsmacked. What Steve’s not saying is many people were saying, ‘It’s not for me, it’s too northern, it’s too violent.’ What people didn’t understand was what he was really writing about was the effect of violence on people and the importance of respect for the family. Now finally everyone’s catching up with an honest depiction of people everywhere after some giant thing like the First World War. I don’t know how he actually writes them, personally. I think he’s got writer fairies that visit occasionally.”
International: The Handmaid’s Tale (MGM, Channel 4) After claiming victory at the Golden Globes and Emmys, Hulu’s adaptation of Margret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a timely and often challenging watch – was a sure thing to continue its award-winning run following its UK broadcast on Channel 4. O-T Fagbenle, who plays Luke, Offred (Elisabeth Moss)’s husband before Gilead: “The source material, Margaret’s book, is just a phenomenal piece of literature. Also we live in scary times, changing times, with populist governments on the rise and a greater awareness of the way patriarchy affects women’s rights in the world.
“What’s been really interesting about it is how so many people from so many walks of life related to it. When it first came out, Donald Trump had just been elected and everyone related it to Trump. Then there was the great #MeToo movement and people related it to that. Also people around the world are relating to the different ways, large and small, that men have oppressed women.
“Elisabeth is the greatest actress I’ve ever had the chance to work with, in so many ways. She’s phenomenal and she carries such a load with her. The material is so challenging and she’s just charming and generous on set. You couldn’t wish to work with a better partner in a scene.”
Supporting Actor: Brían F O’Byrne, Little Boy Blue (ITV Studios, ITV) O’Byrne and Sinead Keenan starred as parents Steve and Melanie Jones in the four-part ITV series, which dramatises the real-life killing of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. “Jeff [Pope]’s script is so good and Paul [Whittington]’s such a wonderful director, you know you’re going to be in safe hands but also worried they may have actually called the wrong guy – there must be a mistake. I was living in LA at the time and I had just decided to move back to Ireland after being over there for three decades. I hadn’t worked in the UK before and got a call to go to Liverpool. I didn’t have the fear of getting a job until I met Mel and Steve, and then there was the realisation I could really fuck this up really badly and it would be terrible. It’s too sensitive a material.
“You’re not really thinking about it from an acting point of view as much as you’re invited into [the Jones family’s] home, and I got to meet two people who are grieving a decade later and are processing something we could all have empathy with and identify with. It would be our horror that your child, just coming back from football practice, could be indiscriminately killed.
“This award is Sinead’s really. I got to witness an incredible performance take after take. Actresses are the ones who really have to go from 0-100 right now and it’s expected take after take. She was living in grief for those several months. It was a really tough job for her.
“The odd thing was going to work on a set like that because everybody thought of it as we’re not just making a shit TV show. If you go and work on something like that, everybody there had care for the piece. There was great care and attention taken because we all met [the family at the heart of the story] and we didn’t want to lessen the loss they had in any way.
“They obviously wanted their story told because of their love for Rhys. I know they were happy about how the show ended up. [The existence of the show means] Rhys’s memory is still out there. I think ultimately that’s what they wanted. They want to show their grief continues and the senseless act of his murder is not just nightly news thing, it goes on and it stays with them.
Miniseries: Three Girls (BBC Drama Studios, Studio Lambert, BBC1) The BBC three-parter retold the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in the English town of Rochdale between 2008 and 2012. The series also won writing, editing and directing prizes at the Bafta Television Craft Awards last month. Nicole Taylor, writer: “The first thing I did was turn it down repeatedly because I was scared to do it. I thought I had good reasons for turning it down but actually I was just scared – and what I was really doing was turning away from the girls because I didn’t want to look, like everyone else. They didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want it to be true. I was scared of approaching it, and that was actually an appropriate place to start from. Once I went up to Rochdale and met the girls and their mums and dads, I was so stunned myself at the gap between the idea of Girl A and Girl B and Girl C and these anonymous people, and getting to know them was so enormous. I was so shocked by that; I thought, ‘Right, I’m definitely going to do this – I can’t not do this.’ I didn’t really do anything else for three years.” Philippa Lowthorpe, director: “The really urgent thing for me as a director was to get inside those girls’ heads and see their experiences from their point of view, not on the outside, but to really try to understand from the inside what they might be experiencing and to be really truthful to their experience and honour their experience and to not walk away. It was very emotional. We had a brilliant casting director in Shaheen Baig and we chose very carefully girls not only for their talent, but also their maturity to be able to deal with this kind of subject matter.” Simon Lewis, producer: “Before the programme could be broadcast, we showed it to [the real-life victims]. They came and watched it individually because we were obviously nervous and because we knew it would be emotional. One by one, sometimes with a family member or a friend, they all came in to watch. We were expecting them to say, ‘That’s not quite right,’ or ‘I didn’t go in that door’ or ‘I was never in that car,’ but actually the essence, the big stuff, they all said that’s how it was. When we showed it to them, there were a lot of tears. But there were a lot of tears all the way through making it.” Susan Hogg, executive producer: “One of the girls said, which has really made me proud, that until she watched the programme, she didn’t realise she was a victim. Watching the programme, because we’d interviewed her and then put her character on the screen, she could see she was absolutely a victim, and that meant a huge amount to her. It’s not just about the three girls on screen, it’s about the thousands of others who have been abused and those trials keep coming up and more and more victims come to light. It’s for all them really that we made this programme, for them to be heard, because, for a long time, even when they went to the police, they weren’t being heard and weren’t being believed. Now we know that is changing. For the BBC to support a programme like this and for [director of content] Charlotte Moore to put her weight behind it and have the confidence to commission it is massive. With the way funding now works and we have a lot of money coming in from America and the SVoD channels, we’re doing a lot of coproductions, this really important domestic drama is very hard to fund, and the BBC absolutely does that. Long may that continue.”
Supporting Actress: Vanessa Kirby, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Kirby stars in the epic British royal drama as Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s younger sister. The award marked the first major Bafta for Netflix, following craft prizes for photography & lighting and sound.
“I just felt like the luckiest person in the world to play someone so colourful, vivid, brave and strong, so actually this is for Margaret, wherever she is.”
Single Drama: Murdered for Being Different (BBC Studios Documentary Unit, BBC3) This film, from the award-winning team behind Murdered by my Boyfriend, retold the brutal 2007 killing of 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, who was kicked to death by a gang of teenagers. Her boyfriend Robert Maltby was also severely beaten and ended up in a coma. Both were targeted because they were goths. Aysha Rafaele, the former creative director of BBC Studios Documentary Unit who is now setting up a drama hub within the organisation: “A big thank you to Robert Maltby and Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mum, for their bravery and courage in allowing us to tell this devastating story. Sadly since Sophie’s death, hate crime in this country has continued to rise. It’s our duty and our privilege as filmmakers to not look away from the dark corners in our society.”
Scripted Comedy: This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Female Performance in a Comedy Programme: Daisy May Cooper, This Country The BBC3 mockumentary, about two young people living in a small village in the Cotswolds, also earned its stars and co-creators (and siblings) writing accolades at the Bafta TV Craft Awards last month. Charlie Cooper, writer and actor: “We had an idea in our head that we thought might be funny but we were never intelligent enough to articulate it. As soon as we met these guys [producers Tom George and Simon Mayhew-Archer], they knew immediately what we were on about and transformed what was a seed of an idea into something that’s good and funny. It’s amazing.” Daisy May Cooper, writer and actor: “What we were worried about when the first season came out was that people might not be able to find it [on online network BBC3]. Now with a second season coming out, people are really talking about it and I get stopped a lot more, which is brilliant. I absolutely love it.”
Male Performance in a Comedy Programme: Toby Jones, Detectorists (Channel X North, Treasure Trove Productions, Lola Entertainment, BBC4) The comedy series, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, saw Crook and Jones play a pair of metal-detecting enthusiasts. It previously won the 2015 Bafta for scripted comedy. Jones won the award for its third and final season. “I think it’s fantastic writing. It’s a strange thing in world of TV now that I was cycling through New Orleans making a film last October and these guys came out of a bar and just went, ‘Man we love the Detectorists.’ It’s so extraordinary that a show made in a village in Suffolk is big in America and Canada. It’s a testament to how Mackenzie’s created characters that are archetypal. It’s about friendships, maybe about a life a lot of people want, where they can go to the pub with their mates and they have time.
“Mackenzie and I have worked on the same things before but never worked in a scene together. Then we were in Muppets Most Wanted as a double act and he said to me, ‘I’ve written this thing with you in mind. You don’t have to do it. I know it’s a nightmare when people tell you they’ve written something for you but, if you don’t mind, I’ll email it to you. You probably won’t like it and you don’t want to do a comedy show, do you?’ He emailed it to me and it was just the most amazing dialogue. It’s not comedy in the sense of gags, it’s about humane characters. That’s what appealed to me.
“I always think the most glamorous thing about our job is the contrast. You get to move medium, you get to move where you’re working, the scale you’re working at and the people you’re working with. That always feels to me like the most glamorous thing you can possibly do. So to work on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and then go and stay in a pub and make Detectorists, it just feels fantastic. Neither one is better. It’s just a huge contrast.
“Mackenzie was pretty clear that he didn’t want to say goodbye in a big way, but there’s a challenge in the show that you find treasure. You can’t keep finding treasure. It felt great that he’d found a third season because it felt like the second one, where we found treasure at the end, that was a good place to stop. Nut he said, ‘What if the treasure was up in the sky?’ So it actually feels good and appropriate to finish it. I really miss those actors because it was such a chilled-out job. You stroll to work in a field in the sunshine every day. The scripts are immaculate. It’s very rare you don’t have to change anything.”
Soap & Continuing Drama: Casualty (BBC Studios Continuing Drama, BBC1) The long-running BBC drama follows the staff and patients at the fictional Holby City Hospital’s emergency department. George Rainsford, who plays Ethan Hardy: “Casualty has been around for 30 years. It keeps challenging itself and keeps challenging the viewers, keeps producing big stories people can relate to, hopefully, and it keeps championing the NHS. I’m really speechless. I genuinely didn’t think we’d be here.” Chelsea Halfpenny, who plays Alicia Munroe: “I think it shows authentically the realities of the NHS. The business, the lack of funding… I get a lot of tweets and messages from nurses and doctors saying thank you for showing the struggles.” Simon Harper, executive producer: “There isn’t particularly a gender pay gap on Casualty, I wouldn’t say. One thing that came to light in the [BBC] pay publication thing last summer was just how hard our artists work, and every single one of them deserves every single penny that they earn. I would agree in the industry wide there’s still a lot of work to be done but I think we can hold our heads high on that issue.”
Leading Actor: Sean Bean, Broken (LA Productions, BBC1) Former Game of Thrones star Bean won the award for his portrayal of Father Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest who tries to be a confidant, counsellor and confessor for a congregation struggling with its beliefs amid the challenges of daily life in contemporary Britain. The series was written by Jimmy McGovern. “It kind of developed with Jimmy as an idea. I’ve worked with Jimmy before on a thing called Tracie’s Story, where I played a transvestite, so I knew it would be something unusual. It was kind of semi-autobiographical for Jimmy; it was based on his experiences but it stemmed from scratch really. There was no script, no story, it was just his ideas and he was very passionate about that. I got on board very early and said I’d love to work with him again and let’s see what you come up with. I wasn’t really taking a gamble because I love him – and whatever he comes up with, it’s going to be interesting. But it was very exciting for me. It was a nucleus that developed.
“We got the first episode and that was brilliant. It started off well and it was great to work with Anna [who played Christina Fitzsimmons], who was someone I’d wanted to work with for a long time. She was so perfect for the role, she was so fragile and vulnerable and yet a very strong woman, a woman with great self-belief but who has been battered around by her circumstances.
“I like looking at who the characters are, how they’re written and how they develop. That’s always been the case. When you read a script, if there’s detail that’s great but, in terms of characters, there are not a great deal of scripts that have characters that develop and we can relate to. There are quite a few one-dimensional characters you can play but you’re trying to supplement it with whatever you do to improve the character, whereas something like Broken, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the characters are there and you live up to their expectations. It’s up to you to reach that peak of characterisation. I’m just a bit more selective [now] and I like to know the directors and producers. Fortunately I’ve worked a few years and got to know quite a few people. I look forward to playing characters like Father Michael Kerrigan again.
“I worked as a producer on Broken. I’d like to spend some time looking at other things and maybe books I’ve read or ideas people have and become a producer. I wouldn’t say I’d like to direct, I can’t see myself doing that at the moment, but I’d like to be involved in the process of starting something from scratch and developing it and finding interesting characters to play. I don’t want to play something extreme. I think often the very simple stories as in Broken are the most powerful.”
Leading Actress: Molly Windsor, Three Girls Windsor plays Holly, a young girl new to Rochdale who is keen to make friends and fit in, but soon finds herself drawn into a world she cannot escape, despite her pleas for help.
“It’s surreal, absolutely bizarre. Philippa [Lowthorpe, director], Nicole [Taylor, writer] and Simon [Lewis, producer] were working on Three Girls for a long time before I came on board. They’d done so much research that they were my first port of call and they introduced me to Sara [Rowbotham, an NHS health worker] and Maggie [Oliver, a police officer who investigated the real case] and some of the real girls. Any questions or bits of research or bits of things I wanted to know, they were so great and kept us all in the loop and told us everything. The biggest challenge was the responsibility, the weight of knowing, because you want to do it right. If you look at it as a big mountain, that becomes a bit scary. So for me it was taking it scene by scene and taking it each day as it came and just committing to it – because if you look at it as a big project, that’s a big challenge.”
Hear from the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018 here.
For one night a year, the cream of the behind-the-scenes talent working in the British television industry is recognised at a star-studded celebration. DQ hears from the winners at the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018.
The courtyard of central London’s The Brewery is abuzz with guests donned in black ties and ballgowns. Episodes and Green Wing star Stephen Mangan stands at the entrance, greeting new arrivals as guests pose for photos beside a giant golden mask.
The mask, of course, is the instantly recognisable symbol of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – better known as Bafta – and Mangan, soon to appear in BBC1 drama The Split, is working the door in his role as the host of the 2018 Television Craft Awards, where 20 golden mask trophies will be given out to those who work behind the scenes on scripted and factual productions.
Prizes are handed out for costume design, directing, editing, make-up and hair design, sound, writing, photography and music, with nominees in the fiction categories coming from series such as Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Taboo, Game of Thrones, Three Girls (pictured above), Line of Duty, The Miniaturist, Black Mirror and more.
After a champagne reception, the nominees, award presenters and other guests file into the ceremony room to take their seats at the dozens of tables set out in front of the grand stage.
Then, as the awards get underway – after a VT introduction introducing Mangan in Handmaid’s Tale cloak and bonnet – DQ speaks to the winners in the scripted categories about their work and the shows that earned them a prized Bafta award.
Breakthrough Talent: Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, writers, This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Charlie Cooper: It’s been six years since we first started writing something and it’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs. We did a pilot a few years ago for ITV, which went disastrously wrong. Shane [Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning] had seen our stuff a few years ago and just commissioned a series straightaway, which is unbelievable. Daisy May Cooper: I ended up emailing Shane and said, ‘I didn’t know who to go to. I will literally stand outside your office dressed as the Karate Kid, because you’re my Mr Miyagi, until you come down and talk to me.’ He said don’t do that, just come in for a meeting. We went in and he just said everything was going to be alright. He is absolutely the most amazing man to young fresh talent. He’s like God to us. When you’ve got people like Shane backing you, you just feel so looked-after. The BBC, I have to say, have been absolutely amazing and there are so many amazing comedies coming through the BBC and they’re discovering fresh young writers. The BBC is the place to be and they’re the ones to watch when it comes to breakthrough talent.
Editing: Fiction: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was actually very lucky because I have historically done feature documentaries and Phillipa [Lowthorpe, director] wanted to shoot this show in that type of manner with the roving camera, not using the normal establishing shots. So I embraced it and she shot it so beautifully that it was a joy to edit. We had challenges in trying to keep the veracity and integrity of the girls’ story [with the show being based on a true case of widespread sexual abuse in the UK town of Rochdale] and we couldn’t manipulate the truth, but that was a good challenge because it makes sure you do the right thing. These people live and exist in the world today and they were going to watch it and make sure they were happy with it, so it was a good challenge.
Whenever they were shooting the series, I was editing and assembling from home so I didn’t see anyone during that period, which is a grace period for editors because then we can get to know the material and try things out. Once the final cut began, I was with Philippa in [email protected] in Bristol and after about three weeks, Nicole [Taylor, writer] started to come in, so it was very collaborative. All of us wanted to tell this story in the best way we could for an audience at home to understand on-street grooming and how those girls found themselves in that situation. That was our guide. The real people came to meet us, so that also helped us keep our finger on the pulse of the truth.
Titles & Graphic Identity: William Bartlett, SS-GB (Sid Gentle Films, BBC1)
I’d read the book before and then I read the scripts, and I liked the idea of the main character, Archer, not knowing who was on his side and the shadowy nature of it. The visual aesthetic, I’d had ages ago. I’ve got a number of ideas for title sequences in the back of my mind, and I thought I had a seed of a visual idea that was right for this. So I did a few tests and it fit with the narrative of the book and the ideas within the programme. It evolved out of the story.
I love title sequences for a couple of reasons. From a creative point of view, it’s an area that has really limitless possibility. You can come up with something that’s unique and interesting and you’ve got real scope to do what you want. I think of them like an overture from an opera where you’re trying to set the scene and plant little ideas and visual references of what’s going to come later. Because of that, it’s interesting how it’s constrained by the narrative, the story and the drama, but it’s really free as well. It’s unique in terms of what you have to do visually. Title sequences, generally, are going through a real heyday at the moment. There are tonnes of really great title sequences being done all over the world. With more TV being done, title sequences have come into their own as well. People are prepared to invest in them a little bit.
Special Visual & Graphic Effects: DNEG TV, Jean-Clement Soret, Russell McLean, Joel Collins for Black Mirror episode Metalhead (House of Tomorrow, Netflix) Michael Bell, visual effects supervisor: Filming the episode in black and white was the idea of David Slade, the director. It was strange for us because you don’t see much VFX in black and white. Ultimately, it made it unique, made it really stand out and we’re really proud of the finished thing.
It took months and months just for the modelling of the creature itself [a relentless robotic killing machine], the inner workings and all the details. There were basically two characters in this episode – Maxine Peake’s character and this creature – so you had to see how it was thinking; it had to be believable and it was quite a difficult challenge. Sometimes it could be comical but it had to be scary and I think we pulled it off.
Costume Design: Michelle Clapton, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic)
My ideas are always informed by the story. We get the outlines two months before we get the scripts, and they usually give me two weeks to think and draw. I speak to David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, showrunners] so it’s all story-led, which is why it’s so exciting. I work quite closely with them and I’ll develop something to a stage where I think they’ll understand it. Sometimes they don’t like it and say, ‘What we’re trying to say about this character is this…’ So then we’ll have a discussion. Most of the time it’s fine but it’s interesting when it’s not, because you learn something.
It was nice to step out of Game of Thrones and do something like The Crown [in 2016] because in some ways it gave me a break from the show and I could return and feel enthused again about it. Period shows are really interesting but you have a period you’re looking at, so you design within that period but there’s still references. On something like Game of Thrones, you have no references, which is what I find so exciting. It’s been one of a kind and I doubt we’ll see a show like that again to such an extent. It’s been such a huge show and I’ve grown with it.
Photography & Lighting: Fiction: Adriano Goldman, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
I was invited to come on board the first season by [lead director] Stephen Daldry, but the first two episodes we shot, three and five, were not directed by Stephen. So I had a very practical challenge just to get to know this director who I was just being introduced to, Philip Martin. Of course, we got along really well but you have to build the whole thing from scratch with a director who is not a person you can read right away. Prepping was super intense and long. [We spent a lot of time] just reading scripts and going back to locations and trying to envision something that especially the British audience knows so well, the story of the Queen, and wondering what could be fresh about our approach.
The main discussion was the ‘less is more’ philosophy. The classic but also fresh approach was a challenge in itself. How do we deliver a story that everybody more or less knows but with a fresh visual style or rhythm?
Writer: Comedy: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No 9 (BBC Studios Comedy, BBC2) Reece Shearsmith: Comedy’s such a funny thing because it’s all about taste – what you find funny, I might not and vice versa. But comedy drama is a difficult one because there is comedy in the most bleak situations. I’ve had a career mining very dark themes and I think the release of something that’s quite dark is cathartic. With the No 9s, we enjoy telling stories. They’re little black jokes and it’s been lovely to resurrect the anthology series because that’s a great lost genre that you don’t really do anymore. People like the longform, big, strong boxsets but these are one-off little hits that you can watch in any order. There’s appeal for that these days.
Steve and I have a little office and we write there. We talk a lot before we even begin thinking about the writing of a story. We try to get the mechanics of where it’s going. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of where it will go and, during our conversation, we’ll think it’s too obvious and we need to change the ending if we’re thinking of a twist where we want to surprise people. Then we try to tell the story in the most judicious number of scenes possible. Sometimes the story itself never even leaves a room, so it’s even harder to tell the story without ever leaving and time passing. We think about taking the very mundane and taking it to an extraordinary conclusion. It gets harder and harder for us because we’ve done so many different stories and different worlds, and each week you start again. It’s like a pilot each week. That’s the challenge, but that’s the fun thing because you can do extremes, because they’re disposable. Next week you have a completely clean slate. You can kill them all off. You can reach heights you might not be able to if you had to go back to a default position if it was a sitcom. They’re thrilling to write and, as long as we can keep coming up with the ideas, we’ll go on forever.
Writer: Drama: Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
Factual drama is always what I’ve loved watching, and Britain has an amazing tradition of that type of social-realist drama going back to Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. If people are watching it now, it must be because of the fractured moment we’re in, Brexit… we’re strangers to each other. No wonder we’re trying to watch things about ourselves to understand the state we’re in.
Three Girls was brought to me by Sue Hogg, the executive producer who I worked with on The C Word. I was initially very afraid to take it on and I said no a fair few times. I just think I didn’t have the bottle. Like everyone else, this was a story I didn’t want to be true and it’s a story that everyone wants to look away from. I came up with my own reasons why I was going to turn it down and then I discussed it with my partner, who’s a journalist, who called me out on it and said I was doing what everyone did, turning away. I thought, ‘That’s right. Let’s go.’ It took me years and years to dissolve into it because it was so complex Once I got started, it felt like something was going that spoke to the state we’re in more broadly, and [I wanted] to do the best job I could of getting people who want to turn away to be glued to the story.
Philippa [Lowthorpe, director] did a lot more than just direct this magnificently. First off, she has a documentary background so she did a lot of the research with me. She gave me so much confidence in how you go into people’s homes and have them feel comfortable with you. She’s brilliant on scripts, she’s amazing with writers so I feel so stretched just in pure nerdy craft terms. She was just a joy, such a collaborator and, uniquely, she wanted me on set whenever I wanted to go. I was in rehearsals. That collaboration was so tight and I can’t wait to work with her again. She’s a phenomenal talent and such an inspiration for me as a woman working in this industry.
Sounds: Fiction: Sound Team, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Chris Ashworth, production sound mixer: My biggest challenge is managing the scale of the show. It’s an enormous shoot. It goes on for 30 weeks, so it’s a huge management thing from my point of view on the floor, managing three crews and making sure everyone’s working together. Then on the huge set pieces we do, we have to keep a variety of directors happy. Lee Walpole, supervising sound editor: In post production, we’re trying to take Chris’s clean recordings on location and add a complexity, scale and richness, bringing it to life and pinning it to the period it comes from. Sound recording is only becoming more complex, and that brings its own challenges. We have five days to final-mix an episode and you’re expected to produce a film soundtrack in that time. Andy Kennedy, sound designer: The line between cinema and television is very blurred. We’re not dealing with stereo, we’re dealing with multi-channel formats and it also has a different presentation because The Crown is shown as a streaming piece, so sound is evolving and it’s very close to what a cinema produces, but it’s slightly smaller scale.
Make Up & Hair Design: Jan Archibald, Erika Ökvist and Audrey Doyle, Taboo (Scott Free London, Hardy Son & Baker, BBC1) Audrey Doyle: Tom Hardy and his dad, Chips, developed the whole storyline seven years ago, he said, in his kitchen. They approached Steven Knight to write the scripts and it developed from there. We all did research of the period and the looks and started there. Tom is covered in his own tattoos so we had to develop a whole new tribal make-up for him. We had ‘Naked Mondays’ – every Monday, for some reason, we always seemed to film his tribal scenes, so we had to do his full tattoo cover, full tribal make-up and scars and everything. But he did wear a loin cloth. It took two-and-a-half hours each time.
Production Design: Deborah Riley and Rob Cameron, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic) Deborah Riley: My process begins right at the start in LA with the writers when they issue an outline, which tells us exactly what is going to be in every episode of the whole season. The scripts don’t come until a bit later. Then we’ll start the approval process. We have concept artists that draw everything for us, and everything gets approved before it gets made. It’s an amazing team of people. We’ve got great producers. David and Dan know exactly what they want, they’re very clear with their vision. Time is the challenge, because there’s just too much to do in too short an amount of time, as we’re trying to produce film finishes on a television schedule. We just really work hard, and David and Dan’s biggest talent is they collected a whole lot of workaholic perfectionists in one place.
Visual effects are always led through production design. We create the worlds and then we need visual effects to help us when we can’t build it all or see it all, but it’s very much a collaboration; we don’t work in isolation. The whole show is very cohesive in its vision and what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a very special thing. I’m most proud of just surviving.
Original Music: Jocelyn Pook, King Charles III (Drama Republic, BBC2)
In a lot of films, less is more. Music is so overdone quite often and it’s nice when people use it more carefully and more thoughtfully. On this particular project, it was really inspiring because of all the settings. It had been a theatre play, but hardly any of the music I had written for the theatre worked for film so I had to do a whole new score.
Because of the history of the monarchy, there’s a sense of the ancient and modern combined, and definitely elements of the contemporary because it’s set in the present day. That was lovely, musically, to mine, particularly English choral music that I’m naturally inspired by. There’s also an Englishness, whatever that is.
Director: Fiction: Philippa Lowthorpe, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was really lucky because I was involved in the research right from the beginning of Three Girls and that, to me as a director, is very valuable. I got to meet all the real people very early on and, with our wonderful writer Nicole Taylor, I was able to be part of the research along with our producer Simon Hughes. That really informed how I saw it and how to direct the actors, because I’d met the real people. I don’t think I could have done it without having met them and spending a a lot of time with them.
I went for a real feel, but it wasn’t pure documentary either. I used lots of very long takes because I wanted the actors to feel absolutely free to move where they wanted to move. Sometimes in drama you put the light somewhere and they have to hit a mark. I banned marks and we did very long takes where we would capture a bit of the scene and then do back and do it again. It was a challenge for some of the younger actors at first because they’d never done it like that before, but it was brilliant and it gave the actors so much freedom to absolutely inhabit their parts.
We had a lot of rehearsal and a lot of discussion with the actors, and that was so valuable. Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp were the leaders of the cast. The British Pakistani actors who were so brave to play the perpetrators in the piece were also very involved in the rehearsal, so their voices became part of the fabric of the rehearsal and we learned a lot from them.
The most important thing in the filming was to capture the truthfulness of the story and help the actors achieve that real authenticity in their performances, which they did. I’m very proud of the young people who played the girls. All three of them – Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill – are amazing.
There have been some amazing factual dramas recently and that’s hats off to Charlotte Moore at the BBC, who has really given a platform to real stories.
Special Award: Game of Thrones John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly: When I did my first day’s work on Game of Thrones, I knew nothing of how TV production worked. I remember getting my first call sheet the day before I shot my very first scene and not knowing what I was looking at. I read the scene, which was two pages long, and I thought, ‘Well, how long can that possibly take?’ I was always under the impression they just had the set and 20 or 30 hidden cameras in little nooks and crannies around the set, they kicked the actors into the set, we did it a couple of times and then we went home. In fact, what I thought when I first saw that it was going to be two pages long was, ‘What on Earth am I going to do with my afternoon?’ After all these years, I look back on that first day and I’m struck by how lucky I am that I was given such an incredible learning experience – the best learning experience in the world, working alongside some of the very best craftspeople at work anywhere. We as actors will forever owe a huge debt of gratitude for inspiring us every single time we walk onto the set and every single time we see the finished product on the screen, every day learning something new from them and learning new things to admire them for. Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly: When you see so many phenomenally talented people in so many departments working at the very top of their game and getting breathtaking results time after time, it really forces you to bring your very best efforts to the table, if only to make sure you don’t look inadequate by comparison. Every year, they’re given scripts that on paper seem totally unfilmable, and every time they put it on the screen to mind-blowing effect. We as actors are so lucky to get to step into the world they create and we are as in awe of their work as the fans of the show all over the world. The show is a global phenomenon and what makes us proudest is that the work of so many British and Irish talents are being recognised on such a grand scale. We know our showrunners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are grateful to be working with this incredible team of people.
The international market for non-English language drama has taken off in the last couple of years. One of the key players in distributing such shows is France’s Federation Entertainment, which controls rights to an eclectic slate of titles from around the world including The Bureau (France), Hostages (Israel) and Bordertown (Finland).
Now it has acquired rights to a cybercrime drama from Belgian filmmaker John Engel.
Entitled Unit 42, the 10-part drama is currently in production at Engel’s Left Field Ventures and will air in its domestic market on public broadcaster RTBF. Federation will distribute in all markets except Benelux and France, which are handled by Ella Productions.
Unit 42 tells the story of a non-tech-savvy cop and a feisty young policewoman and IT expert who are forced to collaborate with one another. It is based on an original story by Annie Carels, who co-wrote the show alongside Julie Bertrand, Charlotte Joulia and Guy Goossens.
Belgian drama is yet to have the kind of impact enjoyed by Nordic, French, German, Spanish, Turkish or Israeli fare, but there are a few signs that it can hold its own internationally.
In 2014, for example, thriller series Salamander was picked up by a number of networks internationally as a completed show and a format. More recently, BBC4 in the UK acquired Cordon, in which a deadly virus results in the city of Antwerp being sealed off.
Another title to have attracted a lot of interest is Tim van Aelst’s comedy Safety First, which is distributed internationally by Red Arrow International.
And then there is Public Enemy, which won the Buyers’ Choice Award at MipTV’s first international drama competition earlier this year. All in all, then, it looks like Belgium is starting to make its mark on the international scripted scene.
Back on more familiar turf, Netflix has given a straight-to-series order for a reboot of 1960s sci-fi show Lost in Space. The 10-part series will be made by Legendary TV and is scheduled for 2018. It will be written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, with Zack Estrin (Prison Break) as showrunner.
Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix, said: “The original series so deftly captured both drama and comedy, and that made it very appealing to a broad audience. The current creative team’s reimagining of the series for Netflix is sure to appeal to fans who fondly remember the original and create a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.” The last attempt to bring the franchise back was a mediocre movie with Matt LeBlanc in 1998.
Netflix rival Amazon, meanwhile, has acquired the UK rights to Roadies, Cameron Crowe’s new drama series. The first two episodes will be available to Amazon Prime members from today. New episodes will then be made available every Monday, the day after they air on Showtime in the US.
Commenting on the show, which was acquired from Warner Bros International Television Distribution, Brad Beale, VP of worldwide television acquisition for Amazon, said: “Cameron Crowe and (executive producer) Winnie Holzman are both amazing storytellers and having both of their voices behind Roadies makes it one of the most anticipated series of the year. Joining shows like The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, Mr Robot and Preacher, we’re sure that Prime customers are going to love it.”
Maybe they will – although the early ratings figures from Showtime aren’t especially encouraging. With an opening episode audience of just 360,000, a 6.9 rating on IMDb and a lacklustre response from reviewers, Roadies is at risk of going the same way as Vinyl, HBO’s recent foray into the world of music.
At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, BBC1 in the UK has commissioned a disturbing three-part miniseries from indie producer Studio Lambert entitled Three Girls. The series is based on the true stories of victims of sexual abuse in Rochdale, near Manchester. It will look at the way girls were groomed, how they were ignored by the authorities responsible for protecting them, and how they eventually made themselves heard.
Commenting on the commission, Susan Hogg, head of drama at Studio Lambert, said: “This true story, researched over a number of years, will shine a light on the trauma of sexual grooming, providing knowledge and understanding for parents and children alike. We are so grateful for the generosity of the young women and their families in sharing their experiences.”
Three Girls is written by Nicole Taylor (The C Word) and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, Jamaica Inn).
Taylor said: “Whatever I thought I knew about what had happened in Rochdale, I knew nothing until I met the girls and their families. Listening to them was the beginning of understanding – not just of the terrible suffering they experienced but of the courage it took to persist in telling authorities who didn’t want to know, and to participate in the court proceedings that brought justice.”
The award for most interesting rumour of the week goes to author Michael Dobbs, who has suggested there might be scope for a House of Cards spin-off if the acclaimed Netflix show ends after season five.
In an interview with the Daily Express, he responded to the question of a possible spin-off: “That is a very interesting question and one that we are putting our minds to actively because every show comes to a natural end. Look what they’ve done with Breaking Bad, look what they’ve done with 24 (which have both seen spin-offs). So is there life in the long term? Well, it’s a hell of a brand. It’s been going now for 30 years: it was a success as a book, it was a success as a BBC TV series, it is a huge success as a US series. There are plenty of people from other parts of the world who want to make their version of House of Cards. We’ll see what happens with those. It is a global brand, so the question arises: what do we do with a global brand?”
The big industry story of the week has been producer/distributor Lionsgate’s decision to acquire premium cable outfit Starz for US$4.4bn. The move brings together one of the US’s most prolific and admired production houses with the broadcaster that commissioned or coproduced shows like Power, Outlander, Black Sails, The White Queen and Ash vs Evil Dead.
Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer and vice-chairman Michael Burns said: “This transaction unites two companies with strong brands, complementary assets and leading positions within our industry. We expect the acquisition to be highly accretive, generate significant synergies and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. (Starz CEO) Chris Albrecht and his team have built a world-class platform and programming leader, and we’re proud to marshal our resources in a deal that accelerates our growth and diversification, generates exciting new strategic content opportunities and creates significant value for our shareholders.”
Albrecht added: “Jon, Michael and the rest of the Lionsgate team have built the first major new Hollywood studio in decades, and we’re thrilled to join with them in a transaction that multiplies the strengths of our respective businesses. Our similar entrepreneurial cultures and shared vision of the future will make this alliance an incredible fit that creates tremendous value for our shareholders, great content for our audiences and limitless opportunities for our newly-combined company.”
The dust is yet to settle on the deal, so it is not clear how the Lionsgate/Starz marriage will impact on commissioning strategy. In theory, Lionsgate could launch new TV shows on Starz, making it easier to set up deals that will allow it to retain international rights on shows. But it won’t want to do anything that adversely impacts on its relationship with other key channel operators.
Equally, Starz won’t want to become too reliant on Lionsgate for original content, though it may be able to air more of Lionsgate’s back catalogue once existing rights contracts run down.
The one immediate issue that will need to be resolved is Lionsgate’s involvement in Epix, a premium movie channel it owns with Viacom and MGM. Epix has been the pay TV home for Lionsgate’s movies since 2009 but there will now be an obvious temptation to switch its films to Starz. Nothing will happen straight away but it’s a consideration for the medium term.
The good news for talent in the film and TV chain is that the group plans to invest US$1.8bn annually in new content.