Tag Archives: UK

Palace life

As Versailles concludes after three seasons, executive producer Claude Chelli and costume designer Madeline Fontaine discuss the making of the lavish French historical drama.

For three seasons, French historical drama Versailles captivated viewers around the world with its daring mix of passion, power and betrayal, all set within the court of King Louis XIV.

The English-language series introduced the 28-year-old king of France, who commissioned the most beautiful palace in Europe, which came to serve as the king’s gilded prison — keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. As the Canal+  series progressed — the 10-part third and final season begins tonight in the UK on BBC2 — it exposed the dark underbelly of power as the monarch struggled to retain control of his palace and his people.

The concept of Versailles, created by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren, took more than four years to develop, executive producer Claude Chelli recalls, as coproducers Capa Drama, Zodiak Fiction and Incendo sought to bring together a broadcaster and coproducers to assemble the financing.

The 10-part final season of Versailles begins tonight in the UK on BBC2

“It was a big project with a big budget,” he says. “The first season is always difficult to find your mark; you don’t know what’s necessary or what’s superfluous. But after that, the second season was very nice and the third season felt like home.”

That success was reaped not only in France but around the world, as the series drew viewers in the UK, US (Ovation and Netflix), Scandinavia (C More) and elsewhere following deals with distributor Banijay Rights.

“It’s very surprising because France is a small country as far as drama is concerned, so we never expect things to go that wide. It was an incredible surprise,” Chelli admits. “Of course, we put a lot of money, effort and time into gathering talent but the reception from everywhere else is amazing.

“We know on a show like that, we’re not only working for France. It’s a €30m [US$30m] show so we need Europe at least; we need the world. But we’re very impressed by the reception in America and the work and effort that Ovation put in to support a show like this. We’re very proud of the show.”

Though ultimately necessary to bring the various financial pieces together, Versailles didn’t start out as an English-language series. Indeed, it was originally in French, but the switch was done to bring in the money to build the budget the show demanded.

Big-budget drama Versailles’ international success caught its makers by surprise

“So we switched from French to English very early on in order to get that money,” Chelli says. “We also knew we were going to be criticised in France, but that doesn’t really matter because the show is more powerful. Everyone understood why we needed to do it in English.

“Because we knew we had to gather the best talent in France, we knew we couldn’t cut corners to save money. We knew we had to have great costumes and that Madeline [Fontaine, costume designer] would dress the last extra at the end of the road the same way she would dress the main cast.”

Money was also required to build and dress the sets. “Ultimately nothing of the 17th century is left in France because if you go to Versailles, nothing is 17th century. Marie Antoinette came after Louis XV and hated the decor and the furniture and curtains, so she destroyed everything and changed it. So we knew we had to recreate the 17th century. That’s when we decided to build the sets because they’re very specific. And we had to create all the costumes. That was the biggest challenge.”

But why make a series about Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, at all? For those not au fait with French history, Chelli describes the monarch as a major influence across every artistic department.

The costume choices for Versailles involved a great deal of in-depth research by Madeline Fontaine

“He invented dance, he invented music, he invented cooking, basically,” he notes. “He invented architecture, the French garden. He made war with almost everyone and built castles. But also, what’s interesting about Louis XIV is that the origins of the French Revolution are there behind his actions. He spent so much money on war and building castles that the people of Paris and France were starving. It took some time for the people to revolt but the germs of the French revolution are in the third season. That’s what’s interesting about Louis XIV – it’s both the beginning of a new world and the end of the ancient world.”

When it came to creating the elegant gowns, outfits and dresses worn by the cast, costume designer Madeline Fontaine says that it was imperative she knew as much about the period as possible.

“Then, of course, after that, each character and the place they have in society is very important for the colours of every outfit,” she explains. “You also have to know how far we are from reality and be able to create the atmosphere of the period — to take the audience to the period and not to take them away. That’s the challenge anyway.”

Fontaine’s research covers the period’s history, its paintings and key pieces of writing, which she compiles to inform her own impressions of the time the series recreates. “My job is the interpretation of this information,” she continues, “and then you give the public your interpretation of your feeling of the period. It’s very interesting. I like this moment and once you go into the information, you can find what you need to make it.”

Fontaine was careful that characters’ costume changes evolved in stages

The key to Fontaine’s role, however, was not how many different outfits she could design for the characters — which were key to viewers’ understanding of their role in the series — but how they could evolve by changing smaller pieces rather than the entire costume.

“The public has to follow the characters, so if they change [their costumes] too much, that becomes more difficult,” she says. “So we can change different pieces of the outfit. For the extras we had 200 outfits, with three or four pieces for each one. Then you have to find the fabric for each of them, so it was a very big undertaking.”

Having worked across both television and film, with credits including Amélie and Jackie, Fontaine describes the process as the same, though the rhythm is decidedly different.

“On movies, you have the script from the very beginning and most of the time it doesn’t change so much and you have a schedule so you can prioritise what you need and save some things for later,” the designer reveals.

Louis XIV, played by George Blagden, had a huge impact on the arts

“Here we have the stories pretty late and we shoot cross blocks, so everything has to be ready at the same time. We don’t have so much flexibility. We have to be ready much more quickly than on a movie, and we shoot quickly too. So if you forget something, it’s done, it’s too late! It puts pressure on the workshop because everything has to be ready for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

Fontaine won a Bafta in 2017 for her work on Jackie, a film about Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

“It was a real surprise and recognition of my work from British costume designers meant a lot to me,” she adds. “The challenge with any period project is to make it true, so the challenge is the same. You just have to do it the best you can all the time. That’s how we work.”

Capa Drama will follow Versailles with Netflix’s second original French drama, Osmosis, which follows in the footsteps of Marseille and is due to launch later this year. The eight-episode series is set in a near-future Paris in which a dating app called Osmosis can find anybody’s true love.

With so much contemporary drama on French television, creating new landscapes — rooted in the past or thrown into the future — is one way to give creators free rein to tell their stories. “For artistic reasons, you have to invent a whole new world,” Chelli adds. “Osmosis is sci-fi but it’s the same thing as Versailles — you have to invent a new world. As a producer, it’s the really exciting side of things.”

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Synth-ly the best: Translating Humans from Swedish to English

Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent tell Michael Pickard how they transformed a Swedish sci-fi thriller into Channel 4’s biggest original drama for 20 years.

From spies to Synths, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley can now be considered among the top writing talents in the UK after building a career across television and film.

Jonathan Brackley (left) and Sam Vincent
Jonathan Brackley (left) and Sam Vincent have also worked on Spooks

Best known for running BBC1 spy drama Spooks for its final two seasons, they also brought the series to the big screen earlier this year in Spooks: The Greater Good.

For their latest project, the longtime collaborators are behind Humans, an eight-part sci-fi thriller that has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years.

Based on the Swedish series Real Humans (aka Äkta människor), it is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for a busy family is a Synth – a life-like humanoid.

Featuring a cast including William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Chan, Colin Morgan, Emily Berrington and Neil Maskell, the debut episode drew a consolidated audience of 6.1 million viewers.

The drama represented an interesting challenge for Vincent and Brackley, who were brought on board by Kudos (Spooks, Broadchurch) to pen the series after the producer won a battle for the format rights. US cable network AMC later joined the series as a coproduction partner, with the show debuting stateside two weeks after its UK launch on June 14.

Brackley says: “We’ve worked with Kudos for the last couple of years, doing the last two seasons of Spooks and the Spooks movie. We got a call from (former Kudos CEO) Jane Featherstone, who said they’d just won a rights battle to this Swedish series about robots and wanted to know if we’d be interested. So we said yes.

Humans stars Gemma Chan as a 'Synth' called Anita
Humans stars Gemma Chan as a ‘Synth’ called Anita

“They gave us the first season to watch and we loved it. It’s so full of fascinating, interesting ideas, and approached in such a genuinely new way that we really wanted to have a go at bringing our own take to the show.”

In particular, Vincent says it was the drama’s unconventional take on artificial intelligence and how this could be placed at the heart of a family drama that attracted the pair to the series.

“Putting it right in the heart of the home was really fresh,” he says. “Usually these stories would be about the origins of the technology or a dark conspiracy surrounding its use, but this was about one ordinary family and how the strains and stresses that are already present open up into chasms by the arrival of this machine. That was the real creative coup of the original concept.”

Vincent and Brackley watched the first season of Real Humans twice, and then pushed it aside, fearful of relying too much on the source material and simply translating the original series, rather than putting their own stamp on its themes.

“If you compare the first episodes of the original with ours, you’ll see a lot of similarities,” explains Vincent. “You’ll see scenes that are the same and the key characters, but as we developed the story, it very organically grew into its own thing and you move further and further away (from the original) as the series progresses, so by the season end you’re in a very different space. It was all fairly organic and natural.”

The writing pair had not adapted a foreign-language drama before, but compared the process to joining Spooks after it had already been on air for eight seasons – taking over an established set of characters and taking them in a new direction, while retaining the show’s original spirit and tone.

That’s not to say they dispensed with Real Humans altogether, however. Brackley says: “There are individual moments that we really liked from the original that we kept, but in broader terms the narrative goes in a completely different direction by the end of the season. And if we’re lucky enough to get a second season, we’ll be carrying on from the end of ours.”

A second season is yet to be confirmed, but the ratings success of the first season suggest it’s more a matter of when than if. And it’s that success that Vincent and Brackley believe justifies the decision to remake Real Humans in the first place.

“We always knew there would be a few people saying ‘why remake this?’ but it’s not really an argument we have much sympathy for, because you only do it if you feel it’s creatively worthwhile,” says Vincent. “You feel you’re changing it for a different audience, growing it, developing it. We felt we were in conversation with the original and could do things in a slightly different way and build on certain aspects. There’s certainly room for both.”

Brackley adds: “There’s always a place for remakes as long as it’s doing something different, if it’s not just retreading the same territory in the same way then there’s always a place for an adaptation or translation into another country or another format.”

Having previously adapted another Scandinavian drama, the worldwide smash hit The Killing (aka Forbrydelsen), AMC was a natural US partner for Channel 4. Vincent admits he and Brackley were slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of working with the network, which counts Mad Men and The Walking Dead among its biggest hits, but says AMC were “incredibly supportive” and were fans of the show’s UK identity – ruling out fears that the show might suddenly be transplanted to a US location.

The series has become Channel 4's biggest original drama in more than 20 years
The series has become Channel 4’s biggest original drama in more than 20 years

“The only concession we made for the American market was that we removed ‘milk float,’” he reveals. “We weren’t even told to do that, people just kept asking us what milk float meant.”

As for the key to making a successful remake, Vincent says writers have to steep any adaptation in cultural relevance: “Real Humans has a great universal concept but a lot of it is quite culturally specific. We wanted to turn the lens of the concept onto an English-speaking culture and Britain today, and that produced a lot of subtle and interesting effects and differences.

“You have to ask whether it’s truly worthwhile – are you just reheating something, or are you actually refreshing it, reinvigorating it, changing it for a different audience and bringing a lot of yourself to it? If you’re not, you really have no business doing it. It would be madness trying to adapt something you weren’t passionate about in the first place. If you’re as passionate about the source material as we were about Real Humans, then it can be a really fantastic process.”

Before putting pen to paper, however, Brackley and Vincent both met with the show’s original creator, Lars Lundström, to discuss the series and how they might adapt it for a new audience.

Lundström says the idea of blurring lines between humans and robots was something he’d been working on for several years, and had pitched to a few producers before it was picked up by Swedish pubcaster SVT. Real Humans first aired in 2012, running for two seasons.

“I have no idea where the idea for it came from, it just popped up in my head,” he says. “SVT were willing to take a chance on it because they saw it not as sci-fi but more as a drama or thriller.”

Of his meeting with Brackley and Vincent, Lundström says: “We spoke about the DNA of the show, but the storyline is up to them. We were speaking about what I thought was the bottom line of the show, and it was very fruitful. They’re two very intelligent writers so they picked it up and shaped it nicely.

“One thing to be clear about is the hu-bots (as Synths are called in the Swedish version) are neither bad nor good. They’re just something humans have created, so it’s not like other AI shows where they are purely bad and we have to destroy them. That makes it a bit more complex and complicated than other similar shows, and that was very important for me. It’s a show that explores interaction with technology and what it means to be human. It’s not really about robots; it’s about humans.

“I had full confidence in them and I knew they would do something great with it. When I read the first couple of scripts, I was just happy. It’s fun that it gets a new life in the English language.”

Lundström – who is now working on new “mystical thriller” 1001 for Gaumont International Television, Matador Film and Eyeworks Scandi Fiction – has written a storyline and some scripts for a third season, but says these are now unlikely to come to air.

Instead, he hopes Humans will pave the way for more series to be adapted across borders. “I hope broadcasters will dare more with their shows,” he adds. “Sci-fi is hard because it usually doesn’t hit big numbers, but now we’ve proved it can. In the US they have done lots of shows like The Walking Dead that prove genre can be big and broad.”

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Tut-Tut: Two Tutankhamun tales take to TV

DQ editor Michael Pickard casts his eye over two very different Tutankhamun-focused shows heading for the small screen, with Spike TV spinning the story of the young ruler’s life and ITV tracking the discovery of his tomb.

As a subject for an epic television drama, the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun ticks all the right boxes.

Period costumes, exotic locations and the dramatisation of the trials and tribulations that met the boy pharaoh – he was around eight or nine when he ascended to the throne and 17 when he died – surely provide all the ingredients for an enthralling, absorbing saga.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that two series surrounding Tutankhamun are heading towards television screens.

Spike TV's Tut will air later this month
Spike TV’s Tut will air later this month

The first, called Tut (main image), was unveiled as the marker for US cable channel Spike TV’s return to scripted programming. The six-hour miniseries, which will air across three nights from July 19, follows King Tut, played by Avan Jogia, and his closest adviser, Vizer Ay (Ben Kingsley).

The story revolves around Tut’s rise to power as the youngest ruler of Egypt and his struggle to lead Egypt to glory, while his closest advisers, friends and lovers scheme for their own nefarious interests.

Sibylla Deen, Alexander Siddig, Kylie Bunbury, Peter Gadiot, Iddo Goldberg and Nonso Anozie are also among the cast. The series is produced by Canada’s Muse Entertainment, with Channel 5 in the UK among the international broadcasters to have picked it up.

Others tying up deals for the show with Muse Distribution International include Discovery in Italy, SIC in Portugal and Sky in New Zealand.

The project had been in development at Muse since 2013, but was seen by Spike as a series that could relaunch it into the original drama arena.

At the time of the series pickup, in March 2014, Spike exec VP of original series Sharon Levy said: “We are thrilled to join forces with Muse Entertainment and this incredible writing team to bring the amazing story of one of history’s legendary leaders to life. Tut is the perfect addition to our slate of distinctive originals that appeal to a broad audience.”

Following in the footsteps of similar-subject movies released close together – think Deep Impact and Armageddon, or White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – another series centred on Tutankhamun is heading to the small screen, this time in the UK.

ITV this week unveiled plans for an “epic and compelling” drama based on Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb. Four-part miniseries Tutankhamun, which will be written by Guy Burt (The Borgias), focuses on Carter himself – a solitary man on the edge of society who became an unlikely hero with his unprecedented and historic discovery.

ITV's Steve November: 'Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions'
ITV’s Steve November: ‘Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions’

The show will initially take viewers to 1905 as they meet Carter, an eminent British archaeologist who is leading an expedition through Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But when tempers fray and the dig is put in jeopardy, his licence is revoked by Cairo’s Antiquities Service and he is forced to spend years on the outside, living rough and selling previously discovered archaeological relics to buy food.

However, a chance meeting with British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon leads to a change in Carter’s fortunes. The pair begin an unlikely friendship that in 1921 leads Carter to embark on a search for Tutankhamun’s final resting place.

From ITV Studios, the series is executive produced by Francis Hopkinson and Catherine Oldfield, with Simon Lewis producing. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds distribution rights. Filming will take place this winter ahead of an early 2016 transmission date.

Hopkinson, ITV Studios’ creative director of drama, says: “Howard Carter’s discovery of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun is legendary. His all-consuming, obsessive search for the tomb pushed his friendship with Lord Carnarvon to the brink, while the adventurous and extroverted aristocrat poured his inheritance into the excavation.”

Oldfield adds: “This is a fascinating and compelling story with real historical significance. It’s based on true events and reveals how Carter desperately tries to persuade his patron (Carnarvon) to continue to bankroll the excavation. Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when you stake everything on one last roll of the dice.”

“Tutankhamun is a story of epic proportions,” adds Steve November, ITV director of drama. “Against the backdrop of World War One, conflict, murder, corruption, romance and the unlikeliest of friendships, Tutankhamun sees Howard Carter’s determination pay off in spectacular style when he discovers one of the greatest archaeological treasures of the modern world.”

Scripted entertainment, whether on television or film, seems to throw up similar series or films with regularity, particularly around anniversaries, such as when two Titanic series – Titanic and Titanic: Blood and Steel – were produced to coincide with the centenary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.

In this case, however, it seems both ITV and Spike TV have landed shows that appear to offer viewers drama overflowing with plot and absorbing locations, telling complimentary stories that have rarely, if ever, been dramatised.

Fans of Egyptian history and the mythology around Tutankhamun can look forward to a televisual feast fit for a king.

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USA Networks reboots Mr Robot

Mr Robot: Already renewed for a second run
Mr Robot: USA Network has already renewed the show for a second run

NBC Universal cable channel USA Networks did a strange thing this week. It commissioned a second season of cyber-hacker drama Mr Robot before the first season has even begun.

It’s not unusual for channels to renew dramas after a few episodes of the first season have aired, when they have had a chance to crunch the audience data, but why did USA Networks act so precipitously?

The answer is that it had already released a sneak preview of the pilot online. Since May 27, it has been available via Xfinity On Demand, USANetwork.com, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu, Xbox Video, PlayStation Video, IMDb and Telemundo.com, to name just a few.

The result was a very impressive 2.7 million views and a positive critical response. It was on this basis that USA decided to greenlight an additional 10 episodes for 2016.

“We knew from the moment we read Sam Esmail’s provocative script, and witnessed the brilliant performances of Rami Malek and Christian Slater, that Mr Robot is a stand-out series that is unlike anything currently on television,” said USA Network president Chris McCumber, announcing the renewal.

“The overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to the pilot and the broad sampling of it reaffirms our confidence in the series, and we’re excited to see where this drama will take us for season two.”

The show, for those yet to view it, sees Malek play a computer programmer who is a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. He finds himself at a crossroads when the leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect.

“Sam Esmail has captured and distilled our ongoing cultural conversation about identity, privacy, value and self-worth,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all talking about the central themes of Mr Robot – Sam has just done it in a completely original and uniquely compelling way.”

Elsewhere in the NBC Universal family, flagship free-to-air network NBC announced this week that it had cancelled Hannibal, the Silence of the Lambs spin-off that is currently in its third, and now final, season.

Hannibal has been cancelled, but is it really the end for the popular drama?
Hannibal has been cancelled, but is this really the end for the popular drama?

In a statement, NBC said: “We have been tremendously proud of Hannibal over its three seasons. (Showrunner) Bryan Fuller and his team of writers and producers, as well as our incredible actors, have brought a visual palette of storytelling that has been second to none in all of TV – broadcast or cable. We thank (producer) Gaumont and everyone involved in the show for their tireless efforts that have made Hannibal an incredible experience for audiences around the world.”

By and large, the show has been well received by critics, but its cancellation is the result of low ratings. For an ad-funded channel like NBC, no amount of glowing reviews can justify persisting with a show if it isn’t delivering enough 18-49 adult impacts.

However, the fact NBC is pulling out does not necessarily mean this is the end for Hannibal. The show was initially picked up by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for its international cable channel AXN, with NBC coming in as a US acquisition. So if SPT and AXN decide Hannibal is worth preserving, they and producer Gaumont could go in search of a new US partner for season four.

While the show is unlikely to attract the other major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), it might appeal to a US cable net or streaming service. Not only does it have a high quotient of murder and mayhem, it also has the kind of in-built brand equity that would help it stand out from the crowd.

Fans of the series are already campaigning for Hannibal to find a new home, with the hashtag #SaveHannibal trending on Twitter.

The obvious partner would be SVoD platform Amazon, which already holds the rights to air the first two seasons of Hannibal and has a track record in reviving axed shows – such as Ripper Street, for example.

Fuller (who is also commencing work on American Gods for Starz) would welcome a reprieve and has suggested there is a chance it might happen. He told Deadline: “I would say 50/50. Because I’ve been down this road before and there’s that brief wave of ‘Oh it could be possible’ and then it just doesn’t happen. But it feels like the way this particular show is set up there is potential for a deal to be done. I know conversations are being had. It’s just a matter if they can come to an agreement that is mutually beneficial to the studio and the distributor.”

This week also saw the long-awaited launch of True Detective season two on premium cable network HBO in the US. In ratings terms, it started well – with its audience of 3.17 million making it the top cable show on Sunday night.

The show also had a good launch on Sky Atlantic in the UK. To capitalise on pre-launch buzz, the channel elected to air the show at the same time it was on in the US – which in the UK meant a 02.00 transmission time. This gave it an audience of 131,000. It then replayed the episode at 2100 on Monday, securing a further 251,000 viewers. While the latter figure is only marginally ahead of the channel’s 2100 slot average, the combination of the above two figures is a decent 382,000.

No Offence has done enough to earn a second season
No Offence has done enough to earn a second season

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the prospects of Paul Abbott’s offbeat police procedural series No Offence, which airs on the UK’s Channel 4. While the ratings declined quite quickly after a strong opening, our view was that there was enough of a spark in the set-up for it to justify a second series.

This week, C4 confirmed that the show will return for another eight-episode run in 2016 – with a story involving warring crime families. Despite the audience dropping from around 2.5 million to just over one million, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said: “No Offence is not just unlike any other cop show on TV, it’s unlike any other show on TV. Paul and the cast have set the bar high in terms of thrills, spills and belly laughs this year.”

The renewal is good news for FremantleMedia International, which holds the distribution rights and has already sold the first season to the likes of the ABC in Australia and Denmark’s DR. However, Abbott is going to have to find a way to breathe life back into the ratings if No Offence is to last as long as Shameless.

Sticking with C4, the strong performance of the show’s new futuristic drama Humans was confirmed this week with the release of consolidated ratings data. After the initial wave of results showed the Kudos-produced robot thriller achieved a record-breaking four million viewers for its debut episode, that figure has now been recalculated to take account of time-shifted viewing. The result is an aggregate audience of approximately 6.1 million, making Humans the biggest original drama on C4 for 20 years.

The Saboteurs garnered impressive viewing figures on More4
The Saboteurs garnered impressive viewing figures on More4

As we have mentioned in previous columns, the UK’s niche channels have become a useful testing ground for non-English language drama seeking to get a foothold in the international market. C4’s sister channel More4, for example, has started airing The Saboteurs (aka The Heavy Water War), a six-part World War Two drama about Allied attempts to foil the Nazis’ plans to build an atomic bomb.

The series attracted an impressive 1.7 million viewers when it debuted on NRK in Norway. On More4, the debut episode attracted 336,000. This was well ahead of the slot average, though the fact that a third of the audience was aged over 65 probably dampened More4’s enthusiasm.

While there is an understandable temptation to focus on the ratings performance of new shows, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how schedule stalwarts are holding up. It’s interesting, for example, that the top-rated US cable show of the last week was Rizzoli & Isles, a TNT detective series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.

Starring Angie Harmon as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr Maura Isles, the show started its sixth season on June 16 with an audience of 4.4 million. Judging by its past performance, the show’s ratings are likely to tail off slightly after a few episodes but, with 18 episodes in the upcoming series, it’s a very reliable part of the TNT schedule.

Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years
Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years

Looking back over historical ratings, Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years. In 2014, it was actually the top-rating basic cable series, with an average of 7.6 million viewers in Live+7. With its strong ratings record and an episode count just shy of 100, it’s no surprise the show also does well in international distribution. Networks that have aired it include Net 5 in Netherlands, Vox in Germany, UK network Alibi and Rete 4 in Italy.

Away from the drama scene, another noteworthy international story is the news that US sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is being remade in Hindi for Indian entertainment channel Star Plus. Raymond is a global phenomenon, spawning local versions in Russia, Egypt, Israel and the Netherlands, and selling to numerous other territories in its original form. Steve Skrovan, a writer on the US series, is working with the show’s Indian scribes to help get the adaptation right.

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HBO keeps winning with Game of Thrones

Game-of-Thrones
Game of Thrones’ season five climax brought 8.1 million viewers to HBO

So many shows that appear in this column start strongly but then fade away, like books that people can’t be bothered finishing.

A clear exception to this is Game of Thrones, which has just come to the end of its fifth season. Packed with the usual array of murder, mayhem and fan-enraging reversals of fortune, the final episode of the latest run, Mother’s Mercy, brought a record-breaking 8.1 million viewers to HBO in the US (not including any laggards who will watch on a delayed basis).

This season is approximately one million up on season four, which itself was a massive hit. Only AMC’s The Walking Dead has achieved higher ratings on US cable.

Game of Thrones has also proved a big hit for Sky Atlantic in the UK, where the show has averaged 1.2 million across its 10-episode run. When time-shifted viewing is factored in, the figure is more like two million. These numbers are well ahead of season four, and more than fives times higher than the channel’s slot average.

But Game of Thrones’ success shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow a superb launch for Kudos-produced robot thriller Humans on Channel 4. An eight-part coproduction with AMC, the show achieved a record-breaking four million viewers, making it C4’s biggest ever original drama series launch. With an 18.3% share, the show more than doubled the channel’s 21.00 slot average.

Humans
Humans more than doubled Channel 4’s usual viewing figures in its slot

Humans’ strong ratings have been reinforced by generally positive reviews. The Guardian called the show “a clever, high energy thriller,” while Neil Midgley, writing for Forbes, said Humans “hasn’t yet reached Blade Runner’s standards of greatness. But its first episode offered a pretty good start.”

Slightly less enthused was The Telegraph, which concluded: “With seven episodes still to come, it’s hard to imagine working up strong feelings for these robots with feelings. As a dystopian sci-fi police thriller satirical family drama, Humans felt like it was suffering from conceptual overload and in need of a reboot.”

All that remains then is to see how the show holds up in episode two. While there is bound to be a drop-off as some of the audience pull out and others set their TVs to record the series, the degree of the decline will tell us a lot about the Humans’ future.

M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines
M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines

One thing the series has in its favour is that it was scripted by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, whose staying power was proven with spy drama Spooks and its recent movie spin-off Spooks: The Greater Good.

Back in the US, one show that seems to be doing well enough to merit a renewal is Fox’s Wayward Pines. Directed by M Night Shyamalan and starring Matt Dillon, the show’s on- and off-screen talent meant it was always likely to get off to a good start. But five episodes into its first 10-episode season, it is holding up very well, with same-day ratings coming in around the four million mark.

Indeed, the general consensus is that episode five (The Truth) is the strongest so far, a fact that has boosted Wayward Pines’ ratings and got the fanbase buzzing. While some critics have complained that the set-up of the series has been too slow, the fact is the audience’s loyalty to the show is also evident through its strong catch-up ratings, which usually add a further three million or so viewers in the week after an episode’s launch.

With particular strength among 18-49s, it would be surprising if Wayward Pines didn’t earn a second season. The real question now is just how good can it become creatively.

Of course, measuring a show’s success has become much more complex in recent years, thanks to the number of different platforms on which people can view. While there’s still a temptation to judge a show on the size of its first-night ratings, executives are having to hold their fire until all of the data has trickled in.

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American Horror Story: Freak Show is FX’s most watched programme ever in overall viewing terms

There was a good case in point this week. US cable channel FX has just released figures that show the last season of its anthology series American Horror Story (AHS), entitled Freak Show, was FX’s most-watched programme ever when all viewing platforms are counted. Based on the latest tally of linear and non-linear viewership, ratings research firm Nielsen estimates that roughly 12.64 million viewers on average watched Freak Show. Not only does this surpass the previous season of AHS, it is also higher than the seventh and final season of Sons of Anarchy (11.69 million). Particularly impressive were the show’s VoD viewing figures. At 12% of the total, they were the highest percentage among any FX show to date.

Interestingly, AHS Freak Show finished in January – so it has taken FX half a year to make the above announcement. While the channel no doubt had an unofficial indication of the numbers a few months ago, it’s still a useful warning against snap judgements.

This isn’t to say that overnight ratings no longer have any value. But the real indicator of a show’s appeal is not just the size of its live audience, it is the ability to sustain that level over a number of weeks. As explained earlier in this column, shows that shed audience rapidly from episode one to two are usually in deep trouble. For the record, American Horror Story returns for season five in October and will have pop icon Lady Gaga among its new cast members.

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True Detective’s second season has met mixed critical reception

Finally, the second series of HBO’s True Detective franchise debuts this Sunday. This, of course, means it is too early to make snap judgements based on overnights. But it isn’t too early to make a few premature observations based on reviews.

For the most part, reviewers that have watched the show have displayed due respect to the writing talents of Nic Pizzolatto and a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. But they are split over the merits of the show. In the pro camp are Deadline and The Telegraph, with the latter declaring “Pizzolatto has made a triumphant return.”

Less palatable for HBO is The Baltimore Sun’s pithy summary: “This season (Pizzolatto) seems content with borderline stereotypical depictions of emotionally maimed, out-of-control, angry cops that have unfortunately become a staple of TV drama.”

Now all we need is for the audience to have their say.

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No coming back for The Returned

A&E has cancelled The Returned
A&E has cancelled The Returned

It’s been a topsy-turvy week for US showrunner/screenwriter Carlton Cuse, who is currently working with cable channel A&E on two scripted series, Bates Motel and The Returned.

A few days ago, he learnt that the former had been greenlit for seasons four and five, but the latter – an adaptation of French zombie drama Les Revenants – has been cancelled after a lacklustre debut.

The Returned is a rare failure for Harvard-educated Cuse, whose shows tend to run and run. His first big success was Nash Bridges, which aired on CBS from 1996 to 2001.

A small hiccup came in 1998 with the quickly cancelled series Martial Law, also on CBS, but it seems churlish to even mention it when you consider that Cuse would later become one of the key architects of ABC’s Lost, arguably the standout drama series of the last decade. Although Cuse wasn’t involved as a writer in the pilot or the early episodes of season one, he co-wrote a number of episodes in the second half of its freshman year and then took on additional writing duties in seasons two and three.

Carlton Cuse has worked on hit shows such as Lost and Nash Bridges
Carlton Cuse has worked on hit shows such as Lost and Nash Bridges

By season four, he was penning the all-important opening and closing episodes in partnership with Damon Lindelof – a role he kept until the show ended in 2010. The final episode earned Cuse and Lindelof an Emmy nomination.

Bates Motel, a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psych, launched in 2013 and marked the start of an incredibly prolific period for Cuse. In 2014, his vampire drama The Strain debuted on FX and in 2015 came A&E’s The Returned. He’s also working on Colony for USA Network, a thriller about life in LA after a mysterious foreign occupation and the efforts by the proxy government to crush the resistance movement. Initially greenlit as a pilot, it secured a 10-episode order in February. And as if all of this isn’t enough to be getting on with, he also found time to create a 2015 pilot for Amazon Studios called Point of Honor.

Bates Motel: renewed for seasons four and five
Bates Motel: renewed for seasons four and five

With so much good stuff to Cuse’s name, what went wrong with The Returned? At first sight, you might argue that Cuse had too much on his plate – with four series at various stages of production and development. But that seems unlikely given that Cuse typically shares creative responsibilities with a strong partner, thus easing the workload. In the case of The Returned, for example, he worked alongside Raelle Tucker, who established her credentials on HBO’s hit vampire series True Blood.

It is more likely, perhaps, that The Returned arrived in the US too late, with ABC’s Resurrection – another show about the dead coming back to life – hitting the market in 2014. It’s also just possible that we’re starting to see flaws in the scripted format model, at least in terms of foreign dramas being adapted for the US market.

While the success of Homeland, based on Israeli drama Hatufim, has proved that this model can work, the growing number of scripted format failures suggests transplanting shows is not such a safe bet.

John Ridley won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave
John Ridley won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave

While no one likes it when one of their shows doesn’t work, Cuse is unlikely to be too downbeat about the loss of The Returned. In a profile by Variety, he observed philosophically how “in Hollywood, it’s impossible to get the temperature of the porridge just right. No matter what your intentions are, Hollywood has a 90% failure rate. I had to put a few different irons in the fire because I didn’t think everything was going to work.” To his credit, Cuse is currently running at a higher success rate than most.

There is also news this week concerning another of the US industry’s hottest talents, John Ridley. After winning an Academy Award in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave (Best Adapted Screenplay), Ridley has been riding high with American Crime, a series he created and wrote for ABC. ABC is clearly very impressed with Ridley because it has renewed American Crime for a second season and this week also ordered a pilot from him, entitled Presence. It will be produced by ABC Studios.

In development for the 2016/2017 season, Presence is about a former army counter-insurgency operative who starts a new career as an unlicensed private investigator in LA. There are also reports that Ridley is working on a secret project with ABC Studios’ sister division Marvel Studios.

Ridley's ABC show American Crime
Ridley’s ABC show American Crime

Ridley, soon to turn 50, is something of an eclectic talent. Have started his adult life as a stand-up comedian, before going on to write episodes of shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Subsequently, he has written and directed movies, produced TV series and penned numerous books. His novel Spoils of War became the acclaimed David O. Russell movie Three Kings.

On the subject of novelists-turned-screenwriters, the big story of the week in the UK is that Irvine Welsh (who will forever be referred to as the author of Trainspotting) is working on a 6×60’ series called Too Much Rock N Roll. Backed by producer Keo Films and distributor Content Media, the drama will tell the story of Anthony and Christopher Donnelly, who were born into Manchester’s notorious gang culture but went on to launch an internationally successful fashion label.

The factual drama, which continues Keo’s recent push into scripted series, is based on the Donnellys’ autobiography Still Breathing, which was published in 2013.

Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh are writing Too Much Rock N Roll
Irvine Welsh (pictured) and Dean Cavanagh are writing Too Much Rock N Roll

Welsh and long-time collaborator Dean Cavanagh are co-writing the show, having previously worked together on projects like Good Arrows, Dose and Wedding Belles. In a joint statement, Welsh and Cavanagh said: “We’re really excited to be involved in telling the story of the Donnelly Brothers for the screen. We’ve been offered many true-life stories over the years but what attracts us to this story in particular is the fact that Anthony and Christopher are unbeatable – they won’t take no for answer – and we’re going to capture that spirit. It’s something we relate to, having spent decades working in the business that is ‘show’ and all the attendant bullshit that comes with it. Anthony and Christopher are stand-up lads and so are we. Hopefully this is the start of a long and creative partnership.”

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Death in Paradise’s Robert Thorogood on writing for a global audience

Not long ago, Robert Thorogood couldn’t get his foot in a production exec’s door. Now, the Death in Paradise creator is writing a series that caters for audiences in more than 200 countries. He gives DQ the inside track on his journey and how he makes the show work.

Robert Thorogood’s life has to some extent been a story of all-or-nothings. Five years ago, he was one of the thousands looking to make his first mark on the TV industry, having already spent years trailing from one production boss to another looking for someone to take his scripts.

Robert Thorogood, whose big break came after meeting Red Planet Productions' Tony Jordan
Robert Thorogood, whose big break came after meeting Red Planet Productions’ Tony Jordan

His latest idea – a drama about an expat policeman working in St Lucia – was, as he readily admits, a tricky sell. Shooting in the Caribbean for five months straight was hardly going to make for a cheap show, and producers just weren’t interested in such an ambitious concept from a first-time writer.

Thorogood’s pedigree was solid enough, though. Having spent 15 years as a script reader, he had also sold a number of treatments to production firms across the UK and been commissioned to write three original scripts for the BBC and ITV. But by 2010, the only show to have been penned by Thorogood and produced was an afternoon play called From Abstraction, broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Despite his ambition and confidence, the affable and remarkably honest Thorogood admits that, as he approached 40, he began to consider careers away from writing. It was only after an encounter with Tony Jordan at London-based Red Planet Productions that Thorogood finally got the break that would ultimately enable his Death in Paradise concept to become one of the most widely sold shows in the world.

Thorogood met Jordan after the producer set up a competition for ‘new’ writers. And although his ‘policeman in St Lucia’ idea did not claim the top prize, it was a finalist and, most importantly, caught Jordan’s eye – laying the groundwork for the two to work closer together. “He ignored the problems of making an expensive show in the Caribbean and decided to do it anyway,” Thorogood says of the Red Planet MD.

It turned out to be a pretty good call. The show was championed by Jordan, whose track record with such series as BBC1’s Life on Mars and Hustle saw him welcomed into the offices of TV commissioning execs across the UK’s capital. BBC eventually greenlit the show, and Death in Paradise – via the broadcaster’s commercial arm – has gone on to become a global juggernaut, airing in more than 200 countries. It’s now set for a fifth season on the UK pubcaster’s flagship channel next year.

The show has faced down its fair share of troubles, however – not least in getting around the financing issue. The solution was to create a coproduction between the BBC, its commercial arm BBC Worldwide and France Télévisions, with Red Planet and France’s Atlantique Productions at the coalface out in Guadeloupe making the show. The setup got Death in Paradise off the ground but it also meant there were regular competing interests that demanded subtle – and not so subtle – changes to the scripts.

“There are always an infinite number of challenges and an infinite number of ways of being miserable on a TV show,” Thorogood says, “but the cultural differences between working in the UK and in France were definitely noticeable.”

Such contrasts were magnified on subjects like physical humour – something the French were keen on but that the British disliked – and it was up to Thorogood and his creative team to devise a script that pleased both parties, conceding just enough on all sides to please everyone involved.

In a similar vein, British Primeval actor Ben Miller was cast as the lead detective, while French film star Sara Martins was brought in following roles in Little White Lies and Tell No One.

Lost in Paradise airs in more than 200 countries
Death in Paradise airs in more than 200 countries

The balancing act continues today, but Thorogood now has the ominous task of pleasing viewers across the world. He admits characters are now developed at the start of a series with hundreds of potential buyers in mind, meaning the show’s scope has become much more global. “At a strategic level, when we create the characters we absolutely have that international outlook,” he says. “When we replaced Ben Miller, who was playing an uptight Brit in a suit, we wanted another archetypal Englishman, a Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral figure – someone a bit posh, lanky and middle class, because that plays around the world.”

The answer to that particular conundrum came in the form of Kris Marshall, of Love Actually fame, whose arrival in the third season had the desired effect. The show was able to continue where it had left off, playing to some of the stereotypes attached to an Englishman living a tropical country.

Commercial needs have also shaped the format of Death in Paradise, which consists of self-contained episodes that “reset” at the end. It’s a key facet of the show’s “ongoing financial health,” Thorogood says, and is one of the reasons why the series can, to an extent, be shown in any order, anywhere in the world.

Thorogood admits the show has had to deal with “revolving doors with actors,” but insists the changes have injected a freshness into the whodunit, which is now 32 episodes old and counting. The forthcoming exit of another (currently unnamed) star, however, is leading Thorogood to adapt the show’s structure, with a focus on producing episodes that are even more “standalone” in nature, centring on one main character each week. “It’s the sort of challenge I hope will make it a richer and more rewarding experience,” he says.

Despite the show’s global success, its creator – like many creatives – remains cautious about the long term and eager to work out where he’s going next. There haven’t been any huge dips in ratings from viewers, and BBC Worldwide, which sells the show abroad, has found buyers ranging from PBS in the US to AXN Mystery in Japan.

But much of Thorogood’s wariness is born from the same sort of concerns held by the production companies that repeatedly shut the door on him five years or so ago. And that’s led to a “mad bollock, kick, scramble,” he admits, as he ensures that once the boat sails away from Death in Paradise for the last time, he’s not left alone on the island. “As far as I’m concerned, the financing of the shoot – which takes place in Guadeloupe – makes it inherently unstable. We have to sell in those 200 countries because we have to earn so much money to break even,” he says.

“So when the show was greenlit and it became successful, I got a publishing deal to write a Death in Paradise novel. I love the murder mystery genre and I was aware that one day the show will be cancelled – not because it gets bad but because it’ll just become too expensive to make.”

The show’s success made last year one of the busiest of Thorogood’s life, as he juggled writing the novel with his existing responsibilities on the TV show that made him. “If you’re a writer, or any sort of creative, you really need to keep moving forward. So I’m also doing what I’ve always done: I come up with ideas and pitch them, but now I’m lucky enough to have some production companies coming to pitch ideas.”

Several of his projects are already placed at the BBC and ITV in the UK, and he is currently waiting for their notes and decisions. Other than that, it’s “hustle, hustle, hustle,” he says, with future ideas being noted, developed and ultimately pitched.

“I don’t actively have any other shows that have been greenlit,” he adds, providing an insight into the temporary world that a TV writer inhabits.

“We greenlight very few new shows here in the UK each year because, luckily, the schedules are filled up with returning series like mine. Trying to get the next thing off the ground is still just as hard as getting that first thing of the ground.”

The difference this time, though, will be that Thorogood has that all-important first credit to his name to not only open doors out but also attract producers and broadcasters alike.

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Where are they now?

Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy last year for the thrilling Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias
Moira Walley-Beckett won an Emmy last year for the thrilling Breaking Bad episode Ozymandias

Few people would be surprised to learn that Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and DB Weiss were nominated in last year’s Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. But how many of us would know who won without resorting to Google? Well, the answer is Moira Walley-Beckett, who became the first solo woman to win in this category since 1994. Ironically, perhaps, Walley-Beckett won for a Breaking Bad episode called Ozymandias, thus beating Gilligan.

Walley-Beckett started her career as an actress and dancer, which probably explains why her first post-Breaking Bad project, Flesh and Bone (which she created), tells the story of a young dancer who has just joined a New York ballet company. Scheduled to air on Starz from November 8, the series features Sarah Hay (Black Swan) as “an emotionally wounded but transcendent ballerina navigating the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.”

Part of the challenge with projects like Flesh and Bone is ensuring the dance sequences look real – a bit like trying to write a script about footballers or stand-up comedians. Recognising this, Walley-Beckett made heavy use of real-life accomplished dancers.

While this will undoubtedly provide Flesh and Bone with an air of authenticity, it does present logistical difficulties in terms of renewing the show – because it’s hard for professional dancers to juggle their day jobs with their acting commitments. This may explain why Starz has already decreed Flesh and Bone will come to an end after a run of eight one-hour episodes. Chris Albrecht, the channel’s CEO, told Deadline: “Moira is one of the most talented auteurs in television today, and the work she and her team have done on Flesh and Bone is nothing short of spectacular (but) after seeing all the film, we realised this is not serialised TV, but rather an eight-hour movie.”

The Flesh and Bone trailer suggests the show will further enhance Walley-Beckett’s credentials, so it will be interesting to see what direction she heads in next.

While the Writing for a Drama Series Emmy category was dominated by US talent last year, Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special resulted in a win for British scribe Steven Moffat. His work on Sherlock: His Last Vow trumped rivals on titles such as American Horror Story, Fargo, Luther, The Normal Heart and Treme.

Steven Moffat is working on a Sherlock special set in the Victorian era
Steven Moffat is working on a Sherlock special set in the Victorian era

Moffat has become something of a screenwriting icon thanks to his work on Doctor Who and Sherlock – and it is these projects that continue to occupy his time. His most recently finished Sherlock project is a special that will place the show’s central characters in the Victorian era, rather than the contemporary setting that has been used for the first three series. Commenting on this at a recent event, he said: “The special is its own thing. It’s not part of the run of three episodes… It’s Victorian. [Co-creator Mark Gatiss] and I wanted to do this, but it had to be a special, it had to be separate entity on its own. It’s in its own bubble.”

When not working on series four of Sherlock (due in 2016), Moffat’s remaining time is largely taken up with Doctor Who, which will return for series nine later this year. Although Moffat shares screenwriting duties on Doctor Who with a number of others, he has already confirmed that he is writing the first two episodes of the new series, a double-header. Titles for his episodes are The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

The other Emmy-winning writer last year was comedian Louis CK, whose sitcom Louie secured him the Writing for a Comedy Series award. That’s quite an achievement when you see that he was up against writers from Episodes, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley and Veep. However, it’s not the first time CK has picked up this award, having previously won it in 2012.

Louie, which airs on FX, is an unusual show that combines stand-up and scripted comedy, often involving special guest stars. Echoing the earlier observation about Flesh and Bone, it manages to pull this off because CK is a genuine stand-up, not an actor pretending to be one. This blurring of genres is exacerbated by the fact that the show doesn’t always feel like a comedy. Its slow pacing and lack of rapid-fire gags make it much more like an indie film than a traditional sitcom, with some comparing Louie to Woody Allen’s work. This was certainly the case with So did the Fat Lady, the episode that won CK his 2014 Emmy. The last section of that episode was a poignant insight into the psychology of dating that barely resorted to jokes.

Louis CK has twice won Emmys for his show Louie
Louis CK has twice won Emmys for his show Louie, which airs on FX

The recent fifth season of Louie finished on May 28, taking the total number of episodes to 61. There have been no announcements yet about the possibility of a sixth run. But alongside his commitment to this franchise, CK also has a deal to create new comedy series for FX. This has led to a greenlight for Baskets, a 10-part comedy that CK is co-writing with Zach Galifianakis. The series, which will also star Galifianakis, is scheduled to air on FX during 2016. It tells the story of Chip Baskets as he haphazardly pursues his dream of becoming a professional clown.

The Emmys, it should be noted, have a slightly less well-known sibling called The International Emmys which, as the name suggests, are for shows from outside the US. The International Emmys don’t have a specific award for writers, but 2014’s winner Utopia owed a lot to the unique voice of Dennis Kelly, who created and wrote the show. Kelly’s work to date has mostly been for theatre – with his best-known project being Matilda the Musical, co-written with musical comedian Tim Minchin. However, he also co-wrote sitcom Pulling for BBC3 with Sharon Horgan and, more recently, wrote Black Sea, a Kevin Macdonald film starring Jude Law.

Utopia is the story of five comic-book fans who become targets of a shadowy organisation called the ‘Network’ after they discover an unpublished manuscript for The Utopia Experiments, a sequel to a cult graphic novel that appears to predict a range of global catastrophes. It ran for two series on Channel 4 and was then cancelled, much to the irritation of its fans. C4’s response was that “it’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love, but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which is launching on the channel throughout 2015.”

There’s no word yet on what Kelly’s next screen project might be, but Utopia is set to get a new lease of life in the US. HBO, no less, has ordered a US version that will be directed by David Fincher (Se7en) and written by Gillian Flynn, who worked together on the film version of the latter’s novel Gone Girl. All it needs now is for Scarlett Johansson and Carey Mulligan to sign up as stars and it would be the coolest conspiracy drama in the history of Hollywood.

Drama heavyweight Stephen Poliakoff is among the confirmed speakers at this year's C21 Drama Summit
Drama heavyweight Stephen Poliakoff is among the confirmed speakers at this year’s C21 Drama Summit

And finally, C21’s Drama Summit has started revealing the identities of this year’s speakers. One standout session will see writer Stephen Poliakoff examine his present and past work and discuss the challenge of writing drama in the 21st century.

Poliakoff started his career as a playwright, coming to prominence in the 1970s. While he still writes the occasional work for the stage, the balance of his output has moved much more towards film and TV in recent years. Among his best-known works (all for the BBC in the UK) are Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and Dancing on the Edge, which was nominated for three Golden Globes, winning one. His latest project, which he will discuss at the Drama Summit, is Close to the Enemy.

A six-part series for BBC2, Close to the Enemy is a Cold War drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. It stars Jim Sturgess (One Day) as an intelligence officer trying to persuade a captured German scientist to work for the British RAF on developing a jet engine. The production is being shot in London and Liverpool with planned transmission in 2016 on BBC2. International rights are with All3Media International.

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Leader of the pack

BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall delivered the channel its best ratings for a drama series in more than a decade and won fawning praise across the board. DQ caught up with the creative talent behind the camera.

Distilling more than a thousand pages of Booker Prize-winning prose into six hours of television is no mean feat. Trying to condense the reasons behind the success of the BBC’s version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is rather easier: outstanding source material; an Oscar-nominated screenwriter; a multitudinously decorated director; a world-class cast; and an executive producer who ran HBO Films for almost a decade – a role for which he received recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

There are other factors: its “sumptuous settings and jaw-dropping attention to detail,” to quote The Daily Mail, a normally staunch anti-BBC tabloid whose review wondered if the series, which combines both books, might be “the greatest period drama ever.”

Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII
Homeland star Damian Lewis plays Henry VIII

For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) are the first two novels in Mantel’s intended trilogy (the third, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to publish) telling the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as the right hand to Henry VIII through the first half of the 16th century.

Wolf Hall was the first book to which Colin Callender optioned rights when he set up Playground Entertainment after leaving HBO in 2008. Inevitably, there was plenty of competition but Callender was able to win the author over.

“I spent a lot of time with Hilary talking about how it could be adapted for the screen,” he recalls. “She had taken the form of the historical novel and really shaken it up and I thought there was an opportunity to do the same in television – to create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience.”

Peter Straughan, best known for movie adaptations including How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as scribe but only after he was told the project was set for television.

“When I first got sent the book, I thought it was being suggested as a film and I was going to say no,” he reveals. “It does sometimes happen that you get a book which is simply too large a canvas to fit into a film-sized pot. But when they told me it was for TV, I said I definitely wanted to do it.”

Straughan had never worked in the medium before. “I’d never been given six hours to write a drama, and for a writer it’s a great place to be,” he says. He broke the novels down into half a dozen “mini films” – each with their own beginning, middle and end that needed to be slotted together to form the overarching canvas – and worked closely with Mantel, whom Straughan says was “helpful, constructive and generous all the way through… never intrusive or dictatorial.”

Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity  to 'create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience'
Colin Callender saw the show as an opportunity to ‘create a historical drama for the post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad audience’

“The good novelists understand the process and know a slavish adaptation usually won’t make a good film or TV series,” he adds. “Hilary was certainly one of those. She was completely open to any change and I would usually run things by her and always send the episode as soon as I’d finished for her notes.”

The resulting series, starring Mark Rylance (main image) as Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, is an intense, brooding piece of television, which lingers on the characters’ expressions and is as much about the silences and shadows between them as it is the whispered politicking and slow-burning menace of a king who is disarming in his vulnerability but primed to ignite at any time.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a drama that’s challenged the perceived notions of what tempo needs to be in television,” says Straughan. “There’s a kind of fear behind that, which I think is about ‘we’re going to lose the audience any second if we don’t do something quickly.’ So it was interesting to say we’re not going to do that, we’re going to go at a different pace, a different metabolic rate, and see whether a large audience would go with that. Luckily it seems they have.”

Indeed, Wolf Hall became BBC2’s highest-rating drama series in more than 13 years when it concluded in March this year, while coproducer Masterpiece began airing it in the US in April.

Straughan refers to a “post-HBO, post-Breaking Bad confidence” in TV drama, and the experience of working in the medium has encouraged him to explore other projects, potentially penning a pilot for HBO with Tom Hanks’s Playtone to bring Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels to the small screen.

“The adult, interesting, complex stories that you used to be able to expect from cinema, you now find in television,” he says. He believes TV is “the writer’s medium,” whereas film remains firm directors’ turf.

Peter Kosminsky has worked in both and won countless awards in each, but he was slightly surprised to be asked to direct Wolf Hall – his first period drama.

Kosminsky is celebrated for contemporary political dramas such as The Government Inspector (2005), which also starred Rylance, and The Promise (2011), starring Foy, but his career as a filmmaker spans three decades.

Wolf Hall is all about the politics of the Henrician court, he points out, and while he had read the books when they were first published, it was Straughan’s adaptation that convinced Kosminsky to sign up. “I read a lot of scripts – dozens every year – and I think they were just about the best I’ve ever read,” he says.

They were only first drafts, too, Kosminsky notes, making them all the more extraordinary. He talks about Straughan’s “apparently effortless distillation” of Mantel’s “densely typed prose.”

Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen 'mini films'
Peter Straughan broke the novels down into half a dozen ‘mini films’

“Peter had rendered this into six hours of television without any sense of hurry or confusion. It seemed to go at a very measured pace and yet I wasn’t particularly aware of any major strands that had been excluded. Once I read those scripts, there was really no doubt in my mind this was something I wanted to do.”

If one of the hallmarks of Wolf Hall is its meditative, cerebral tempo then the decisions Kosminsky took behind the camera and in the edit suite are as much responsible as Straughan’s writing. “In filmmaking terms this is not an adventurous piece,” says the director. “Most of the scenes are two or three people sitting in a room talking to each other, so we had to think about how to give it some kind of style, how to make it feel unusual and fresh. We wanted to get a strong sense of atmosphere and, if possible, of silence. We wanted the silence of the rooms, the silence of the pauses between words to be a character as much as the words themselves.”

Kosminsky says this was something that naturally developed, rather than being imposed. “We rehearsed and then I let the actors play in front of the camera and I tended not to give them notes. I liked the pace at which they played the drama. It seemed to me it showed the complexity. You could see the wheels turning as Cromwell, who’s faced with death on a number of occasions, tries to decide on the safest course of action.”

Wolf Hall is very much about watching those wheels turn and the precision with which Rylance engineers them. The actor is in every scene, points out producer Mark Pybus, praising the former Globe Theatre artistic director for his stamina.

“In the novels you’re very much inside Thomas Cromwell’s mind and even though it’s not written in the first person, it somehow feels as if it is, and that’s one of the magic tricks Hilary pulled off,” Pybus adds.

“We wanted to give you Cromwell’s viewpoint. In order to convey that to the audience, you have to enter a room with him to establish we don’t know information before our lead character does. We experience events in that room with him and we leave with him. As a result, you have travelling shots in and out of rooms to get that sense of being on his shoulder.”

Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance's performance
Mark Pybus is full of praise for Mark Rylance’s performance

Part of the character’s allure, says Pybus, is that he was famously a man who gave little away. Therefore a voiceover would have been inappropriate. “With an actor like Mark Rylance, the subtlest hints are given but you have to have the right pace for those to come across. If you quickly cut between scenes, you lose those magical moments where suddenly it becomes clear what Cromwell was thinking.”

Just about the only point for which Wolf Hall faced criticism from British reviewers was its occasionally dim lighting, due to a reliance on real candles – something only made possible by the latest Arri Alexa cameras. But the reception was otherwise almost universally favourable. Kosminsky admits all involved were “slightly taken aback by the reaction” – even himself, after such a long career.

“It’s a difficult book and we didn’t set out to dumb it down, we set out to confront its difficulty. We expected this to be appreciated by a small group of devotees, quickly dumped by the rest of the viewing population and largely ignored by the popular press. Nothing in 35 years in television programme-making has prepared me for the scale of the response, so I’m slightly unnerved by it and still trying to come to terms.”

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Ladies first

Outlander has generated substantial social media chatter
Outlander has generated substantial social media chatter

When Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik attended the C21 Drama Summit in London last Autumn, he talked about wanting to grow his channel’s subscriber base by targeting underserved audiences. Citing an example, he explained how Starz would reach out to the female audience with Outlander, a historical time-travel scripted series based on the best-selling novel by Diana Gabaldon.

The first 16-part series of Outlander concluded at the end of last month. And while its final two episodes focused on tough subjects such as brutality, torture and male rape, the series has achieved its objectives. With Zap2it referring to Outlander as “Game of Thrones for Soccer Moms,” the show has attracted an average of around 2.5 million women per episode. What’s more, Nielsen estimates 64% more women than men watch the show, which is an unusual profile for a fantasy-based project.

A number of factors explain Outlander’s female appeal. At a superficial level, it helps that the show has a hunky male lead in the shape of Sam Heughan (similar to Poldark in the UK). But more important is the fact the show is told from a female perspective, with a romantic narrative and solid moral values at its heart. Contrast that with Game of Thrones, which (brilliant though it is) is fundamentally a story about power and patriarchy, in which the women are either are either damsels in distress, psychotic megalomaniacs or exotic mystics. Even the women that run counter to gender stereotype (Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Ygritte) are all recognisable female subsets of the fantasy genre.

So Outlander has done its job, the reward for which is a second series that will have a minimum of 13 episodes. Should that also prove successful, it could run and run – because there are currently nine books in the series. Internationally, the show is distributed Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has sold the title to an estimated 87 territories across Latin America and Europe.

Texas Rising's premiere pulled in five million viewers
Texas Rising’s premiere pulled in five million viewers

Quite a few of SPT’s deals are with SVoD players such as Clarovideo, Viaplay, Sohu and Lightbox, so it’s not easy to get a sense of how well the show has resonated with audiences outside the US. But there are a couple of indications that Outlander can travel in space as well as time. In Canada, for example, it attracted almost one million viewers per episode for specialty channel Showcase. Reinforcing the results from the US, it has been the number-one specialty programme among women aged 25 to 54 this year. In Australia, meanwhile, it debuted strongly for Foxtel’s drama channel Soho in autumn 2014, delivering the second highest audience of the year.

An interesting side story is that Outlander also generates a lot of social media traffic. For the first season, Starz ran eight episodes and then gave the show a break. It then brought the show back on April 4 (episode 9 – aka the mid-season premiere). When it did, the show trended on Facebook for more than 12 hours. It also ranked second in Nielsen Ratings for Twitter conversation volume among all television series on premiere day, and trended at number five on Twitter during Saturday’s 21.00 ET/PT premiere screening.

This fits a wider pattern. Most social media stats in the last couple of years have supported the thesis that women use Facebook and Twitter more than men to talk about TV shows (both before and during transmission). So there’s clearly the potential for an audience amplification effect if you can get women to take ownership of a scripted series – because they are then more likely to champion it via social media than men are.

Another show that demonstrates the cross-platform power of female-centric shows is ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, which returned for a sixth season earlier this week. Although the new season kicked off with slightly lower ratings than in previous years, it remains one of the top shows in the US among females aged 12-49. It’s also a social media phenomenon, with new stats showing it has topped 110 million tweets, 2.6 million Instagram followers, one million Snapchat friends and 13 million Facebook fans.

No Offence's ratings have dipped below 1.3 million
No Offence’s ratings have dipped below 1.3 million

Lest men should start to feel there’s no room for them in the living room with all this fem-centric drama, let’s turn to the History channel’s testosterone-fuelled Western Texas Rising, which secured five million and 4.1 million viewers for its first two episodes (May 25, May 26, Live+3 ratings) respectively. According to History, this is “the best cable miniseries start in Live+3 since The Bible.”

Directed by Roland Joffé and starring Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta and Olivier Martinez, Texas Rising is produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios America and Thinkfactory Media. It is distributed outside the US by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. In terms of its editorial setup, History has clearly struck gold with Bill Paxton, an articulate and charming actor who was at MipTV to help promote the show. He previously starred in Hatfield & McCoys, another storming success for History. In terms of where History is going next with its dramas, try reading Clive Whittingham’s Q&A with Dirk Hoogstra, the general manager of History and H2.

A couple of weeks ago we expressed our concern that the BBC’s period fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might not recover from a modest opening on May 17. Episode two on May 24 confirmed these fears, with the show sliding from 4.5 million to 2.6 million. Already lagging behind the average for its slot (Sunday 2100), the seven-part series will struggle to regain momentum.

Channel 4’s offbeat procedural No Offence, penned by Paul Abbott, is also drifting. Having started strongly with 2.5 million (way ahead of the slot average), episode four recorded the series’ lowest rating to date at just under 1.3 million (though there’s no information yet about any boost from time-shifted viewing).

Hopefully, the No Offence’s ratings have now bottomed out, because it would be good to see a second series. Abbot and his US-style writing team have created a distinctive piece of work, which centres on a strong group of female characters who are not constantly having to justify their status to male colleagues. The show, which has attracted positive reviews in the UK, has also introduced a superb cast of Down’s syndrome actors. All in all, it’s done enough to deserve a second bow.

Humans will debut on Channel 4 on June 14
Humans will debut on Channel 4 on June 14

In scripted terms, the next few weeks are important for Channel 4. Aside from the climax of No Offence, it has the launch of Humans to look forward to. Based on the acclaimed Swedish drama Real Humans, it imagines a world in which families own ‘synths,’ highly developed, artificially intelligent servants. Produced by Kudos, the eight-part series will air on C4 on June 14. It will then air on AMC in the US on June 28.

The original version ran on SVT in Sweden for two seasons (20 episodes total). The last episode aired in February 2014 and there has been no news since about whether a third series will be greenlit, though there is an outline and scripts should SVT decide to revive the production. Real Humans has sold to 50 countries worldwide, but has not hit English-language markets yet, presumably because of fears it will interfere with the launch of the English language spin-off.

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Sutter leaves his bikers behind

Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)
Kurt Sutter (photo by Gage Skidmore)

American showrunner Kurt Sutter got his big break as a writer on FX crime drama The Shield. But it was his next project, Sons of Anarchy, that established him as one of scripted TV’s most acclaimed auteurs. Across seven series (again on FX), Sutter created a cult following for his gritty tale of an outlaw motorcycle club. A strong ratings performer, the show’s finale attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers when it aired last December.

There was talk for a while that Sutter would move on to a Sons prequel next, set in the 1960s. But instead he elected to write a pilot for FX called The Bastard Executioner, about a traumatised 14th century warrior who quits the battlefield and becomes an executioner. This week, FX announced it had greenlit a 10-part series, presumably hoping Bastard will be its answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’ Outlander (without the soppy bits).

Commenting on that decision, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden, whose Fox 21 TV Studios (Fox21TVS) will produce the project with FX Productions, said: “The Bastard Executioner, written by Kurt and directed by the talented Paris Barclay, is dangerous, brilliant, emotional and undeniable. This is the perfect follow-up to Sons and another huge event series for FX. Viewers are in for a wild and spellbinding ride.”

Sutter's Sons of Anarchy ended last December
Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy ended last December

Sutter, according to industry folklore, spent time with motorcycle clubs while researching Sons Of Anarchy – the writer equivalent of method acting. So it will be interesting to see how he gets under the skin of this subject (hopefully without too many casualties). Explaining why he has opted for swords and sandals, he said: “I love history. I love theology. I love blood. It’s been very satisfying weaving fact and fiction to create a new mythology that combines all these elements. I love working with FX and Fox21TVS. They’ve been my family for 15 years. They not only tolerate me, they embrace my extremely disturbing storytelling sensibilities.”

Biopics and based-on-true-story dramas are stalwarts of the scripted business, though they invariably court controversy. Such is the pressure to create narrative jeopardy and shades of dark and light that writers generally end up turning some of their characters into villains, in order that their heroes and heroines can be thrown into sharp relief. So it will be interesting to see how Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski manage this process on American Crime Story, a true-crime TV franchise they are creating for FX.

First up is a series entitled The People v O.J. Simpson, a retelling of the murder trial that gripped the world in 1995. With Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson and a supporting cast including John Travolta and David Schwimmer, this looks like a dead cert ratings hit.

The trial of OJ Simpson (pictured) is to be dramatised on FX
The trial of OJ Simpson (pictured) is to be dramatised on FX

Alexander and Karaszewski have a long, illustrious and critically acclaimed track record as writing partners on offbeat biopics, usually in the form of movies. As far back as 1994 they worked with Tim Burton on Ed Wood. Subsequent projects included The People vs Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Auto Focus, before they came full circle and made another biopic with Burton last year, called Big Eyes. All this will stand them in good stead for the Simpson project, though the challenge will be how they harness their distinctive humour in a way that works with such tough material.

A biopic is also making headlines in the UK this week, with ITV announcing plans for a drama called Churchill’s Secret, set during Winston Churchill’s second stint as prime minister in the 1950s. Based on Jonathan Smith’s book The Churchill Secret: KBO, the two-hour drama will star Michael Gambon as the ailing political icon.

The writing job has been handed to Stewart Harcourt, who has built up a formidable array of production credits over the past two decades. After writing on shows such as Peak Practice, Jericho, Marple, Poirot and Treasure Island, Harcourt was named as lead writer on ITV’s Love and Marriage in 2013. As well as Churchill’s Secret, he is also in the process of writing two Maigret detective stories for ITV. The latter project stars Rowan Atkinson, though today’s fun factoid link is that Michael Gambon played Maigret in a previous TV adaptation in the early 1990s.

Linda Woolverton has been tasked with adapting The Clan of the Cave Bear for the small screen
Linda Woolverton has been tasked with adapting The Clan of the Cave Bear for the small screen

Another big US scripted project grinding into action is Lifetime’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which is based on the first book in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series. The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those books that neither you nor your friends have ever read, but which has somehow established itself as a global publishing phenomenon. At last count, the six books that make up Auel’s epic caveman saga had sold around 45 million copies worldwide. The story was also turned into a film starring Daryl Hannah in 1986.

The new TV version is only at pilot stage right now, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is one of those projects that could run for years if the writer, Linda Woolverton, pulls it off.

Her credentials suggest she’s got as good a chance as anybody. Hit machine Woolverton was the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney when she penned Beauty and the Beast. She also wrote screenplays for The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent – all very successful projects with plenty of strong female characters (which will be crucial to her interpretation of Cave Bear). When not discovering her inner cavewoman, she will be writing the screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass.

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Must-see TV

Witnesses
Witnesses has averaged 4.3 million viewers across its run

Those of you who attended Channel 21’s International Drama Summit in London last autumn may have seen the trailer for a new French crime drama called Witnesses (Les Témoins). Created by Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, the eerie six-part series begins with a series of corpses being placed in various homes.

Roll forward a few months and Witnesses has emerged as a huge hit for French public channel France 2. Having debuted on March 18 to an excellent 5.3 million viewers (Mediametrie), it went on to average 4.3 million (17.4% share) across its run. This makes it the natural successor to other breakout French hits such as Spiral, Braquo and much-discussed supernatural thriller The Returned.

Witnesses’ strong ratings (and the reward of a second series) will be welcome news to all those international broadcasters that acquired the series from Newen Distribution ahead of its launch on France 2. Presumably inspired by the international success of The Returned, Channel 4 (UK), RTL Crime (Germany), NRK2 (Norway) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to act. With Norway due to show the series in primetime, it looks as though the French are doing a good job of reclaiming the word ‘noir.’

The next obvious question is whether the Witnesses format will appeal to US broadcasters. There is undoubtedly strong demand in the US for good scripted ideas, but a poor showing for Gracepoint (based on UK series Broadchurch but regarded as similar in tone to Witnesses) and a modest outing for A&E Network’s version of The Returned may lead to caution. One factor that may influence a decision on Witnesses is how the original fares on Netflix, which began streaming it on May 1.

WolfHall
Risks taken with Wolf Hall are paying off

One of the surprise hits of recent months is Wolf Hall, the BBC2 drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novel about the life of British King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. Starring the formidable Mark Rylance and superbly scripted by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall opted against resorting to the sugar-rush scripted devices that are often used to hook in and hold on to TV viewers. Indeed, with its sombre lighting, stately pace and intricate plotting, it was exactly the kind of series that could have erred on the side of being worthy but dull.

Instead, it has proved the point that audiences often have more intellectual stamina than broadcasters give them credit for. After a strong showing on BBC2, Wolf Hall’s premiere episode on PBS Masterpiece secured 4.4 million viewers (Live+7). Masterpiece executive producer and drama industry veteran Rebecca Eaton called it “yet another high-water mark in Masterpiece’s history”.

Anyone familiar with TV ratings will know that most dramas tend to shed viewers after their first episode as a percentage of the audience decides a show is not for them. So the acid test is really whether it can then sustain its performance from then on. Judged in this way, ITV four-part thriller Safe House is a solid hit. Starring Christopher Eccleston (The Leftovers, Fortitude, Doctor Who), the series started with 5.3 million viewers and then dropped to 4.8 million in week two. However, it has just concluded with 4.75 million (live+1), making it the top-performing drama in the UK outside soaps. The show’s distributor is All3Media International, which has not provided any news yet on international sales. But with strong UK ratings and Eccleston attached, it should do brisk business abroad.

janethevirgin
Jane the Virgin was adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela

At MipTV last month, Electus CEO Ben Silverman spent a lot of time talking up the prospects of Jane the Virgin, the US adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela that has been airing for the past eight months on CW Network. Silverman, who has an uncanny knack of delivering international hits, believes Jane the Virgin can have the same kind of success as Ugly Betty (which he brought to ABC in 2006). With the current show, Silverman’s role is to sell the international format rights to the US version, while the completed series is being sold by CBS Studios International. It’s also worth noting that the original telenovela is being sold on the international by RCTV.

It’s too early to tell if Silverman is right to put Jane in a similar category to Betty, but there are positive signs for the show. For a start, the ratings across the first run of 22 episodes (1-1.3 million) were pretty good (especially among the 18-49 demo). There’s also the fact that CW has recommissioned the show, which means it is getting up to the kind of volume international broadcasters like. E4 in the UK has already started airing the series and an unnamed German broadcaster is close to picking up the format.

On top of all this, the show – created for the US by Jennie Snyder Urman – has received a healthy level of critical praise, both from the US and UK. To top it all, lead actress Gina Rodriguez recently won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane, something that won’t do the show’s sales prospects any harm.

stalker
Stalker has been canned after only one season

Still in the US, the spring shakeout at US networks is now virtually complete, with shows renewed, cancelled or picked up from pilot. One casualty is Fox’s The Following (starring Kevin Bacon), which is being shut down at the end of its current run (May 18). The Kevin Williamson-created series started strongly in series one with ratings in the 6-10 million range. But by the middle of season three the show was muddling along with 3-3.5 million viewers.

Williamson’s direct involvement in the series diminished some time ago, presumably so he could devote his energy to Stalker, a 20-part programme he created for CBS. Unfortunately, that show has also been cancelled after just one season, with ratings dipping to around the six million mark at the end. Williamson (whose earlier credits include Dawson’s Creek, the Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer) still has a success in the shape of The Vampire Diaries on CW, but it will be interesting to see what he will now turn his hand to if he decides he has spare capacity.

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Oz inferiority complex

Gallipoli has been called 'must-see TV', but this wasn't reflected in viewing figures
Gallipoli has been called ‘must-see TV,’ but this wasn’t reflected in viewing figures

Australia could really do with a domestic drama hit. While 2014 saw success for public broadcaster ABC with Playmaker Media’s six-part thriller The Code, 2015 has witnessed a disastrous outing for Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli and a lacklustre response to Hiding, another scripted series from the Playmaker/ABC alliance.

Gallipoli is a seven-part drama that ran on Nine Network in February and March. Produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the famous Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, it saw its ratings slide from 1.1 million for episode one to a meagre 0.35 million for episode seven.

An obvious assumption would be that the show wasn’t very good, but that view is rejected by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which called it a “benchmark Australian television drama that captures the horror of a nation-defining moment with evocative writing, artful direction, strong performances and accomplished production values. This actually is must-see TV, but the public doesn’t appear to be responding.”

The SMH, among others, suggested that a poor slot in the schedule (Mondays at 21.00) did Gallipoli no favours. But it went on to argue that there is perhaps a deeper problem. “Australians have been eager adopters of prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bows down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian programme, some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.”

Hiding, which also aired earlier this spring, followed a Gold Coast family forced to enter witness protection in Sydney. After Playmaker’s success with The Code, there were high expectations for the show, which – like Gallipoli – met good reviews from sections of the media. The Australian Newspaper said: “Creator Matt Ford’s show is imaginative, clever and mordantly funny, and the ABC deserves a round of applause for giving him the stage.”

Hiding also failed to attracted audiences despite critical acclaim
Hiding also failed to attracted audiences despite critical acclaim

Unfortunately, the audience didn’t bite. In February and March, Hiding was attracting around 330,000 viewers in Australian’s top five cities (a standard ratings measure from ratings panel OzTam) – having debuted with around 730,000 for its opening episode. While this was similar in scale to Fortitude (also airing on ABC), it was around half the audience pulled in by UK crime series Broadchurch (634,000 on ABC). Even further ahead were Grantchester and Downton Abbey (both ABC), underlining the fact that UK and US imports both tend to outperform domestic drama.

There’s another angle to this debate worth noting: ABC, the main investor in original Australian drama, has an ageing audience, with a median viewer age of 63. What it would like to do is use its drama budget to bring this age down (hence Hiding). But the existing audience is perfectly content with the likes of Downton Abbey.

This age issue created a conundrum for ABC regarding Mrs Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a beautifully crafted period drama that attracted audiences of around one million in its first two series. Despite the high ratings, the show attracts an older audience – so ABC decided not to commission a third series last year. However, viewer outcry forced a change of heart, and a third run begins this week.

For ABC it will be a mixed blessing if the show draws barnstorming ratings because it will run counter to the bigger ambition of bringing the network age down (though All3Media International will be happy because it sells the show to international markets).

It’s not obvious where the next Aussie hit will come from, but at least there is one quality drama to look forward to. Coming soon to ABC is The Secret River, a two-part series based on the novel by Kate Grenville. It follows the story of young couple, William and Sal Thornhill, who are transported to the new colony of New South Wales in 1805. The show will explore the colonisation of Australia and the escalating conflict between the Indigenous inhabitants and the newly arrived white convicts and settlers.

The Secret River is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for many Aussies, so don’t expect huge ratings. Ironically, however, it will probably do well if it travels as far as the UK, where Jimmy McGovern’s Aussie convict period drama Banished recently finished a successful run on BBC2. The show’s debut episode attracted 3.4 million, giving BBC2 an unlikely ratings victory over BBC1 and ITV. It then went on to average a respectable 2.9 million over seven weeks. The Guardian’s assessment of Banished was that it was “historically fascinating… romantic, sentimental. Funny too.”

No Offence's debut drew 2.5 million viewers
No Offence’s debut drew 2.5 million viewers

Also in the UK, the big drama ratings story of the week was the launch of Paul Abbott’s provocative police procedural No Offence on Channel 4. With an opening episode rating of 2.5 million, the show was well ahead of the slot average (1.5 million) and marginally ahead of the debut audience for Shameless (2.3 million), Abbot’s biggest hit to date. Given the success of Shameless (which spawned 11 series in the UK and gave birth to a successful US remake on Showtime), C4 will be hoping No Offence has the same staying power.

No Offence’s strong opening is also good news for FremantleMedia International (FMI), which is selling it internationally. So far it has done deals with DR in Denmark and – wait for it – ABC in Australia. Perhaps this is the show (albeit British) that will help give the broadcaster the younger profile it is seeking. After No Offence’s opening, FMI will be confident of further sales, with CEO Jens Richter saying: “No Offence is crime on steroids – it’s gripping, daring and a great reflection of Paul Abbott’s remarkable talents.”

As we’ve noted in other columns, this time of year is also important for US networks in terms of renewals, cancellations and the decision to take shows from pilot to series. We’ll look at this subject again on Monday in our Greenlight column.

For now, though, congratulations to Nashville, which has just secured a fourth season on ABC. With consolidated ratings in the 6.5-7 million range, the show is not a standout performer, but it does have two things on its side: firstly, it’s extremely popular with women aged 18 to 49; secondly, it’s reached the tipping point in terms of appealing to the lucrative US syndication market.

The general rule is that scripted shows that get to four seasons have enough episodes (85-100) to be attractive to syndication. So it is virtually unheard of for shows to be cancelled after three seasons. However, the issue might not be so clear-cut next year – ABC’s Revenge has just been cancelled after four seasons. So May 2016 is more likely to be the moment of truth for Nashville.

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