Tag Archives: Tony Marchant

Indies bet heavily on book rights

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

In previous columns and features, DQ has explored the difficulty producers face in securing the services of top screenwriters.

One way of addressing this problem is to control the rights to strong source material. If you secure an option on a great novel, it’s an easier way of hooking a decent writer than going to them with an unproven idea.

Indie producer Bad Wolf, for example, was able to secure the services of the sought-after Jack Thorne by waving Philip Pullman’s fantasy epic His Dark Materials under his nose. And The Ink Factory reeled in David Farr by inviting him to make his mark on John Le Carré’s 1993 espionage novel The Night Manager.

Perhaps this is why we’re suddenly seeing so many book-rights deals bubbling to the surface. Last week, we referenced a couple of new examples in this column. And this week indie producer Dancing Ledge Productions has signed a deal with publisher HarperCollins for the TV rights to novels by Alistair Maclean, the legendary writer of books such as Guns of Navarone.

At the same time, the company announced that Tony Marchant (The Secret Agent) had come on board to adapt the first novel, San Andreas; a thriller set on board a torpedoed Second World War hospital ship as it attempts to make its way back across the North Atlantic to Scotland while a saboteur picks off crew members.

San Andreas
San Andreas is being adapted by Dancing Ledge Productions

Laurence Bowen, CEO of Dancing Ledge Productions, said: “We are lucky to be living and working in a golden age of television drama with a huge demand internationally for high-end adaptations and TV events that can be channel-defining. I doubt there are many bookshelves in the UK that don’t have at least one Alistair Maclean thriller, so the opportunity to work with HarperCollins to adapt a number of them for screen is incredibly exciting. If you then add a writer with the talent of Tony Marchant to the mix, we have a wonderful marriage of nail-biting action and emotional complexity.”

Under the terms of the arrangement, each novel will be structured as a four or six-part event miniseries that will build on Maclean’s trademark skill of creating thrilling adventure that appeals to hardcore fans and new audiences alike.

Katie Fulford, special projects director at HarperCollins Publishers, added: “Maclean is one of our most treasured authors. We’re committed to ensuring our heritage brands continue to grow and that we constantly seek new ways to tell these classic stories.”

Other new book-option deals along similar lines include Sid Gentle Films’ acquisition of the rights to Elizabeth Jane Howard’s acclaimed book series The Cazalet Chronicles, which is set between the 1930s and the 1950s and tells the story of three generations of the Cazalet family.

Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014
Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away in 2014

Explaining why she picked up the five Cazalet novels, Sid Gentle’s Sally Woodward Gentle said: “Elizabeth Jane Howard is an extraordinary writer, a highly skilled storyteller of understatement and deceptive simplicity. The novels are totally addictive with the ability to floor you with their turn of events. They are set in the middle of the 20th century but the themes of love, loss, repression, sex and family ties are shot through with 21st century resonance.”

Woodward Gentle has already proved that the books-as-bait model can work with SS-GB, a series for the BBC that is just coming to market. Based on Len Deighton’s novel, it has been adapted by James Bond writers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis.

One of the indies we talked about in last week’s column was Buccaneer, which joined forces with author Rose Tremain. And Buccaneer is back in the news this week following a deal with Trainspotting creator Irvine Welsh to bring his novel Crime to TV.

This setup is slightly different from some of the other examples because it comes with a screenwriter attached, Welsh’s longtime collaborator Dean Cavanagh. Where it resembles the other deals, however, is in the way that strong source material can help producers build a talent package that interests broadcasters.

Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh

In this case, for example, actor Dougray Scott has come on board to star in and executive produce the six-part project: “When I read Irvine Welsh for the first time I knew I was in the company of a unique and utterly brilliant voice. After finishing the novel Crime, I knew it was a story that I just had to help bring to the screen.”

There’s another book-based story of interest this week. BBC2 in the UK has just announced that it is adapting Ian McGuire’s Man Booker-longlisted whaling novel The North Water in partnership with See-Saw Films. In this case, Andrew Haigh has come on board to turn the story into a six-part mystery/survival drama.

The North Water tells the story of a disgraced former army surgeon who signs on as a ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. On board, he meets Henry Drax, an amoral harpooner. Hoping to escape his past, the doctor instead finds himself trapped on board with a murderous psychopath.

Haigh’s involvement is an example of the new fluidity that exists in the TV business. Until now, he has been best known as a movie screenwriter – first with Weekend and then with 45 Years, which enjoyed a lot of positive feedback on the festival circuit in 2015/2016.

So the combination of a strong core story, a proven production team (See-Saw’s TV credits include Top of the Lake) and an emerging filmwriting talent was enough to attract BBC2, thus circumventing the issue of chasing overworked TV A-Listers.

Andrew Haigh
Andrew Haigh

Elsewhere, DQ’s parent publication C21 reports this week that TV2 Denmark, Nordisk Film Production, NDF Germany and distributor Dynamic Television have greenlit a crime drama based on the Dan Sommerdahl crime novel franchise by Anna Grue (books again!). For this project, The Bridge’s co-creator Nikolaj Scherfig has been signed up to act as head writer.

Described as a family-oriented take on the Nordic noir genre, the series centres on a detective who solves murder cases in a coastal town. It goes into production in summer 2017.

Dynamic Television VP of coproductions and acquisitions Jan Bennemann said there’s “huge demand right now for Scandinavian crime drama with a blue-sky procedural element. Dan Sommerdahl expands upon this with a very likeable main character and an overall lighter tone, making it an ideal fit for a wider audience.”

Seven books out of a planned 12-part franchise have so far been published, and the agreement with the author includes expanding the property and its characters – raising the prospect of a long-running franchise.

Nikolaj Scherfig
Nikolaj Scherfig

Scherfig’s comments underline the way the right project can lure in-demand writers. He said Dan Sommerdahl is the first in a line of projects that offered to him with “something different to the classic Scandic noir genre: a tight, clean crime series reflecting on life outside cities, understanding how modernity and social development affect provincial life.”

Away from the world of book rights, other interesting stories this week include the news that US network NBC has picked up the rights to adapt a time-travel crime drama from Argentina’s Telefe. The original 2011 series was called Un Año Para Recordar (A Year to Remember). It tells the story of a female detective who goes back in time after accidentally killing her husband.

The writer/producer signed up to oversee the adaptation is Michael Foley, whose most recent credit is the ABC/Shondaland series How To Get Away With Murder. Prior to that, Foley was involved in productions such as Revenge and Unforgettable.

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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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