Tag Archives: UKTV

The Verge of success

Three friends find their lives are moving backwards in Women on the Verge, a comedy-drama based on Lorna Martin’s bestselling autobiography. DQ speaks to Martin and producer Gavin O’Grady about making the six-part series for UKTV’s W and RTÉ in Ireland.

To say Women on the Verge has been a long time in the making might be something of an understatement. Executive producer Sharon Horgan admits as much.

The actor, writer and producer best known for Catastrophe had received a copy of Lorna Martin’s autobiographical book Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but, like many parcels delivered to her home, it lay unopened for some time.

“I’m not very good at opening parcels,” Horgan says, “so it sat down by my front door for a while and then I opened the parcel and I added it to the pile of books I always keep on my bedside table.”

When she finally read it, while on holiday about a year later, she loved it and immediately partnered with the author to develop a television adaptation of the memoir, which itself is based on Martin’s magazine column Conversations With My Therapist.

L-R: Women on the Verge stars Eileen Walsh, Kerry Condon and Nina Sosanya

That was in 2011. Since then, Horgan and Martin wrote the first episode together, before Martin took on the remaining five – her first time writing for television.

“She’s such a legend,” Horgan says of Martin. “She stayed with it and stayed enthused and only wanted to walk off once or twice maybe. Once was a week before production, so that made us a bit nervous, but it was all about finding the right home for it.”

The right network proved to be UKTV’s W, with RTÉ in Ireland also partnering on the Dublin-set series that is coproduced by Horgan’s Merman and House Productions.

Equal parts funny, frank and shocking, the dark half-hour drama follows three friends struggling to survive their 30s. Laura (played by Kerry Condon), a journalist sleeping with her boss, is persuaded by Katie (Nina Sosanya) to seek professional help to deal with her many issues and begins sessions with the enigmatic Dr F (Horgan).

Meanwhile, divorced and single Katie is hoping to ‘complete’ her family without a man and have a sibling for daughter Ella through IVF treatment, while Alison (Eileen Walsh) finds herself back with her uninspiring ex-boyfriend.

Martin says it was a “lovely surprise” when she received that first email from Horgan – pre-Catastrophe, post-Pulling – enquiring about her book. She hadn’t previously considered adapting it for the screen, so happy had she been to see the back of it once it was published.

Sharon Horgan’s ‘Dr F’ plays therapist to Condon’s Laura

“It felt like there were such mixed and complicated reasons for writing it,” she explains. “It had been a dream to write a book but, once it was out there, I had mixed feelings about it – why would you put your very flawed life out there? Although there are some virtuous and altruistic reasons that you hope it will resonate and give people a laugh at the same time, it was painful and you are exploiting yourself for other people’s entertainment.”

Very quickly it became clear that the only way Glaswegian Martin could dramatise her life was to put as much distance between her and the characters as possible. That the story was moved to Dublin helped to give the show a life of its own and not have it just reflect “the mess and car crash I was” during a period of her life. “It does make it feel like it’s not a documentary,” she adds.

With Martin taking control of the remainder of the series after writing the opening episode alongside Horgan, she admits she found episode two “unbelievably difficult” to write, with no deadline or full series commission at that point. “A bit of me thought it wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “I found that really difficult – partly the fear of can I do this myself? It was just the fear of writing.”

The arrival of producer Gavin O’Grady in March this year helped Martin to focus the story, as the writer admits she had tried to be funny, apparently without much success. After submitting a draft of episode four, “Sharon called me and said, very diplomatically, ‘This needs a lot of work,’” Martin recalls. “She said to me the best advice is to stop trying to be funny and to be truthful, and that funny would come. It’s a fine line to get right.

Sosanya is Katie, a divorced woman hoping for another child through IVF treatment

“It was a big learning thing for me. I’m not a stand-up or gag writer. It was on episode four where I tried to write a sitcom and it was ripped up. A lot of it went. It just had to be believable.”

The writer describes watching the first cuts of the series as “the strangest thing I have ever seen,” a version of her life crossed with something she had written. “I cannot describe how weird that was. I had to watch it four times before I was watching a show,” she adds. “By episode three, I was getting used to it having a life of its own and not seeing it as my life.”

When O’Grady joined the production, there was no episode five or six, with only a very early draft of episode four written. Two months later, shooting was due to begin, with W announcing the series in June.

Alongside Martin, they worked out where they wanted the characters to land at the end of episode six, which meant some rewriting of earlier episodes was needed. He also jumped straight into casting, with the series requiring an ensemble of predominantly Irish actors.

With Condon based in LA, the leading trio weren’t able to test together before production ramped up. But O’Grady says all three bring different things to the series: “They look brilliant together and all represent what feels like very different ideas of being women and being on edge. With the casting, the biggest thing was what the tone of the show would be. For us, it had to be believable, and those three actors are very good at doing drama and comedy in a way that feels real and natural. You still want it to be funny, but what comedy does is push the realms of believability and reality to get those laughs, whereas we couldn’t do that. We had to work a bit harder to make things funny and not compromise the credibility of the characters for a gag.”

Walsh as Eileen, who finds herself back with her uninspiring ex-boyfriend

Filming took place across six weeks from the end of May, with interiors filmed in London for four weeks before production moved across the Irish Sea to spend two weeks filming on location. O’Grady says the biggest challenge on the show was the split shoot, which required several planning trips during pre-production before a new crew was brought in for the Dublin-set scenes. “We took essential department heads out but everyone else was replaced,” he says. “We wrapped London and three days later we were filming in Dublin with all new props people, production design and assistants, all while trying to keep that momentum and those lines of communication open.”

The future looks bleak for Laura, Katie and Eileen, however, with O’Grady hinting that the characters all find themselves worse off by the season’s end. Though she is seeking therapy, Laura in particular begins to self-destruct, her affair with her boss bringing her to the edge of breaking point.

Despite comparisons to other female-led series, the producer says Women on the Verge stands out for its naturalistic and believable style. “It’s being compared to Sex & the City, which is understandable,” he notes, “but their lives always looked so great, even when they weren’t wearing amazing clothes, going to amazing bars or living in amazing apartments. Whereas we’ve not done that. We don’t glamorise it. It’s a lot more real.”

Season two may be some way off, especially if it follows the lead of the first season, which launches on W in the UK tomorrow. Martin and O’Grady are, however, already talking about where they might like to take the characters next, particularly now they have seen how the actors have embodied them.

“Now we can play to their strengths,” O’Grady adds. “We’re bouncing ideas around of what we could do, where we could go and the kinds of things we could throw at them.”

With Women on the Verge finding humour in the depths of despair, it looks set to follow the path of other successful comedy-dramas like Catastrophe, Fleabag and, more recently, Karl Pilkington’s Sick of It.

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UK drama showcases regional beauty

Broadchurch
Broadchurch made use of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast

UK television has a long tradition of using quirky or unusual locations as backdrops for drama series. Bergerac (Jersey), Morse (Oxford) and Doc Martin (Cornwall) are just a few examples of the way place can almost become a character.

Historically, one of the logistical limitations on this kind of show has been the lack of production infrastructure available in some of the UK’s less-travelled locations.

But the last few years have seen increased ambition in terms of where producers are willing to base their stories. Broadchurch, for example, is one of the few non-Thomas Hardy dramas to have based itself in Dorset – introducing ITV viewers to the spectacular Jurassic Coast.

With a couple of exceptions (such as Morse), quirky locations used to be employed as the backdrop to gentle comedies (Last of the Summer Wine, Monarch of the Glen, Ballykissangel) or soft-hearted crime series (Hamish Macbean), with the occasional foray into the unknown by period drama that demanded it (anything based on works by Hardy, Lawrence, Eliot, Gaskell, Laurie Lee…).

Broadchurch, however, brought hardcore murder and mayhem to under-exploited locations and reminded us that universal stories can be built around hyperlocal experiences. This idea has subsequently been picked up by other producers.

Aidan Turner as Captain Poldark
Aidan Turner as Captain Poldark

So now we have seen crime stories like Hinterland (set in Aberystwyth, Wales), Happy Valley (Yorkshire), The Fall (Northern Ireland) and Safe House (the Lake District) gracing our screens. Perhaps we can also see the influence of Nordic Noir here, with the notion that location can somehow reflect the inner workings of the soul.

Other shows to have stepped into the (relatively speaking) unknown include Poldark (Cornwall) and Midwinter of the Spirit (Herefordshire), so that now we are at a point where pretty much anywhere in the UK is a possible starting point for a story.

This point is underlined by two new drama developments this week, which will showcase opposite ends of the England-Scotland spectrum. ITV, for example, has commissioned a six-part murder mystery based in the area around Scotland’s Loch Ness. Produced by ITV Studios and supported by Creative Scotland’s Production Growth Fund, the show will focus on the hunt for a serial killer in a setting made famous by the mythical Loch Ness Monster.

Some 750 miles south, meanwhile, All3Media-owned indie producer Studio Lambert has optioned a police officer’s memoir, The Life of a Scilly Sergeant. Based on the experiences of Scilly Islands-based police sergeant Colin Taylor, the aim is for a primetime, returnable series. On paper, it has echoes of Hamish Macbeth.

More good news for the UK’s South West is that the BBC has ordered a third season of Poldark – before the second run hits the air.

Animal Kingdom has secured a renewal
Animal Kingdom has secured a renewal

The first eight-part season centred on 18th century war veteran Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) returning to Cornwall to try to build up his family’s mining business in the face of stiff opposition from entrenched local business interests. The show is based on a series of classic novels by Winston Graham and was previously adapted in the 1970s. The new version, a major hit for the BBC, is written by Debbie Horsfield and produced by Mammoth Screen.

In the US, meanwhile, Turner Broadcasting’s cable channels TNT and TBS have renewed three of their drama series. TNT has renewed Animal Kingdom for a second season while TBS has ordered a second run of Wrecked and a third of Angie Tribeca.

Wrecked, which is billed as a comedy version of ABC’s cult series Lost, is currently halfway through its first season with an audience in the 1.2-1.3 million range. Animal Kingdom attracts a similar-size audience for TNT, which is currently undergoing a bit of a creative overhaul.

TNT shows that are ending or have been cancelled include Rizzoli & Isles, Proof, Falling Skies, Agent X, Public Morals and Legends. The channel’s top performer aside from Rizzoli & Isles is Major Crimes, which has been running for five seasons. There is no indication yet whether it will be renewed or dropped as part of the channel’s wider schedule revamp.

The Warriors movie
The Warriors movie

Still in the US, video streaming platform Hulu is continuing its ambitious push into drama with The Warriors, an adaptation of Sol Yurick’s novel that was previously turned into a cult movie in 1979. The story follows a period in history when New York was being torn apart by gang warfare.

It will be adapted by the Russo Brothers, who have found fame with their recent work on Marvel franchises like Captain America. They will work with writer Frank Baldwin on the series, with Paramount TV as producer.

The project is the latest in a long line of movie reboots, though projects in the US cable and SVoD space seem to be faring better than those relaunched for US network TV. The latest network reboot to get the axe is ABC’s Uncle Buck, after just one season. Surely the big four must be getting the picture by now.

On the acquisitions front, shows making their mark this week include Beta Film’s three-part German-language drama NSU German History X, which has been picked up by Netflix for use in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Netflix has also unveiled a multi-year agreement with The CW to stream all past seasons of the US network’s shows in the US. Titles include Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, The Vampire Diaries, The 100, iZombie, The Originals and Reign.

Red Tent
Red Tent has been picked up by UKTV

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief creative officer, said: “This is a great step forward with a valued network partner to give fans exactly what they want, when and how they want it.”

Elsewhere, UK multi-channel operator UKTV has picked up Sony Pictures Television miniseries The Red Tent, which originally aired on cable channel Lifetime in the US. A four-parter based on the novel by Anita Diamant, The Red Tent tells the tale of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, from the Old Testament book of Genesis in the Bible.

Alexandra Finlay, UKTV’s head of acquisitions and coproductions, said: “The Red Tent is a perfect addition to (UKTV channel) Drama’s growing slate of shows, featuring an epic story with a fantastic ensemble cast.”

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Nashville gets encore on CMT

Nashville stars Hayden Panettiere (left) and Connie Britton
Nashville, which stars Hayden Panettiere (left) and Connie Britton, is moving to CMT

These days, when a network cancels a scripted show, there is often a call from the creators, the acting talent and the hardcore fanbase for someone else to step in and save it.

Usually, this plea falls on deaf ears, but there have been a few instances of shows saved from extinction by third-party channels and platforms. Among the best examples are Ripper Street, The Mindy Project and Longmire, all of which were saved by the intervention of SVoD platforms (Amazon, Hulu and Netflix respectively).

To this list of last-minute rescues we must now add country-and-western scripted series Nashville, produced by Lionsgate TV, ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment. The show aired for four seasons on ABC before being cancelled last month.

However, weeks of frenetic wheeler-dealing by Lionsgate TV group president Sandra Stern has resulted in the greenlight for a fifth season, which will air on Viacom-owned country-and-western channel CMT and Hulu (which will stream episodes of Nashville the day after they appear on CMT).

“CMT heard the fans,” said CMT president Brian Philips. “The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. Nashville is a perfect addition to our line-up. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. Nashville belongs on CMT.”

The Last Kingdom
Netflix is coproducing the second season of The Last Kingdom, replacing BBC America

Equally effusive was Craig Erwich, senior VP and head of content at Hulu. “Nashville has long been a fan favourite show on Hulu and we are so proud to continue to make new episodes available for fans to stream the day after they air. We look forward to bringing more episodes of this series to its passionate and devoted audience.”

“CMT and Hulu are the perfect combination for Nashville and we want to thank the incredible fans for their unwavering support – #Nashies, you helped make this possible,” added Kevin Beggs, chairman of the Lionsgate Television Group. “We also want to extend our appreciation to the state of Tennessee, city of Nashville, and Ryman Hospitality for their unending support.”

While the resurrection of the show has very much been presented as a victory for fan power, there’s also a strong business case for all involved.

CMT, for example, will be drooling at the show’s audience. In a press statement, the partners on season five said: “The recently wrapped fourth season of Nashville attracted more than eight million weekly viewers across all platforms and ranks as one of television’s most DVR’d series. The series is particularly strong with women 18-34. Out of more than 180 broadcast dramas since fall 2012, Nashville ranks in the top 20.”

While it’s highly unlikely that all of the ABC fanbase will follow the show to CMT, Nashville is almost certain to deliver CMT an audience that is at the upper end of its usual anticipated viewing range.

The Bureau
The Bureau is heading to Amazon

For Hulu, the risk of getting involved is minimal because it already shows Nashville and will have a good idea of the kind of audience it can expect to attract. As for Lionsgate, the deal is about much more than just the US TV market. The series airs in 82 international territories, making it a significant asset in the distribution arena.

There is also the small matter of music spin-offs. Since its launch, the show has inspired 10 soundtracks, which have collectively sold more than one million album units and more than five million single-track downloads. As an added bonus, it has been nominated for Emmy, Golden Globe and Critics Choice awards.

The question is, will we see more deals like this? Well, it seems pretty likely. With more and more cable and SVoD channels in the market for scripted content, it stands to reason that they will be attracted to franchises that have built up brand awareness.

Another story that kind of underlines this point is the news that Netflix has replaced BBC America as the US coproducer of season two of The Last Kingdom, a historical drama that also involves BBC2. For Netflix, the beauty of this deal is that it has some tangible evidence of the show’s appeal in the US (the first season aired on BBC America). Armed with that knowledge, it has secured rights to the show in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain and Portugal. It will also add season one of the Carnival Films-produced show to its US portfolio later this year.

Aside from these deals, this week has more of an acquisition than a production feel to it. In the UK, for example, Amazon Prime Video has acquired two French dramas – spy thriller The Bureau and political drama Baron Noir from StudioCanal. The Bureau follows agents who assume false identities as they seek out and identify targets and sources, while Baron Noir centres on a French politician seeking revenge against his political enemies.

Rosewood
Alibi has picked up Rosewood

StudioCanal has also sold a package of shows to SBS Australia, including The Five, Section Zéro and Baron Noir. Previously, SBS acquired Spotless and The Last Panthers from StudioCanal. Commenting, Marshall Heald, director of TV and online content at SBS Australia, said: “Gritty crime thrillers like The Five, political dramas like Baron Noir and dark sci-fi series like Section Zéro bring something fresh and exciting to our world drama slate.”

Back in the UK, UKTV-owned channel Alibi has acquired crime series Crossing Lines from StudioCanal. It has also picked up US medical crime drama Rosewood from 20th Century Fox Television.

In Canada, meanwhile, Bell Media streaming service CraveTV has acquired exclusive SVoD rights to a slate of new US broadcast dramas. Among these are the Kiefer Sutherland political thriller Designated Survivor, legal drama Notorious, film adaptation Training Day and romantic drama Time After Time. Also in Canada, specialty channel Vision TV has acquired the first season of comedy drama Agatha Raisin, which just aired on Sky1 UK.

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Alexandra Finlay

Alexandra Finlay, head of acquisitions and coproductions at UKTV, opts for a crime-dominated batch of shows that have both shocked and astonished – as well as one ‘aspirational guilty pleasure.’

Kyle MacLachlan as Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper
Kyle MacLachlan as Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks
Watching Twin Peaks for the first time astonished me. What ostensibly began as a murder mystery quickly took a dive down the rabbit hole into a sinister and sensual dissection of small-town secrets, the surreal hallmarks characteristic of David Lynch’s earlier work expressed in heightened form through partnership with Mark Frost. Angelo Badalamenti’s extraordinary score underpinned the hallucinogenic sense of unease, and the intriguing cast – including Kyle MacLachlan, Sherilyn Fenn, Ray Wise and Joan Chen – formed an unforgettable ensemble. Twin Peaks was different to anything seen before on network TV and I’m amazed even now that ABC took on a project of such radical ambition. It brought to the mainstream the possibility of dramatic storytelling that was neither linear nor logical, the enduring cult appeal evidenced by the keen anticipation of its revival on Showtime next year.

Walter White’s ‘Rubicon moment’ in Breaking Bad
Walter White’s ‘Rubicon moment’ in Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad
A predictable inclusion, but it’s impossible not to be seduced by Vince Gilligan’s masterful exploration of morality and consequence. Walter White’s descent into depravity compelled not just through the exquisitely calibrated series of compromises that paved his way, but in the delicious complicity felt at witnessing a mild-mannered teacher become a monster – while rooting for him every step of the way. Walt’s Rubicon moment happened fairly early (season two, episode 12 to be exact). I remember gasping out loud while watching and am hard-pressed to think of another scene in recent TV with equivalent dramatic power; a testament to the exemplary writing as much as Bryan Cranston’s justifiably lauded central performance. The craft
in every perfectly pitched episode will serve as a benchmark in TV drama for some time.

This life: 'Included out of pure nostalgia'
This life: ‘Included out of pure nostalgia’

This Life
This Life is included here out of pure nostalgia. I had only just moved to the UK when it started airing and it must be conceded that my compulsive consumption of the personal and professional lives of its attractive cast – living in a comfortable south London house while I was in a damp Ladbroke Grove basement – was less about understanding the conventions of British drama than an aspirational guilty pleasure. The series tapped into the zeitgeist of the time, from its Britpop soundtrack to the racially and socially diverse set of characters who felt fresh and relevant.

Bloodline: ‘A steamy slow burn perfect for binge-watching’
Bloodline: ‘Perfect for binge-watching’

Bloodline
Netflix’s scripted output has been key to its growth, and of its many successes my favourite is Bloodline. A steamy slow burn that lends itself perfectly to binge-watching, its stellar cast is led by Kyle Chandler (is there another contemporary American actor who so persuasively embodies the Everyman?) and the consistently hypnotic Ben Mendelsohn as a prodigal son seeking redemption. The Florida Keys setting imbues a profound sense of place, and while the title possibly gives up some of its secrets before time, this examination of a family falling apart never fails to captivate thanks to its audaciously intricate narrative and intoxicating sense of menace.

Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect
Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect
Prime Suspect was all about Lynda LaPlante’s inspired creation – DCI Jane Tennison. Operating in a tough, male-dominated environment, she brought an uncompromising insight and authority to the investigation of often brutal crimes, with the resultant collegial friction as integral to the drama as the deduction. Her professional prowess belied a troubled personal life, and it was her flaws as much as her strengths that enthralled me. Of course, all credit goes to the wonderful Helen Mirren, who invested the character with a magnetic complexity, arguably foreshadowing brilliant female leads like Homeland’s Carrie Mathison and Stella Gibson of BBC2’s The Fall (whose creator, Alan Cubitt, co-wrote Prime Suspect’s second season). For sheer guts and strength of will, Tennison is hard to beat.

Forbrydelsen (The Killing): 'A heady hybrid of murder and political intrigue'
Forbrydelsen (The Killing): ‘A heady hybrid of murder and political intrigue’

Forbrydelsen
I fell under the spell of Forbrydelsen (The Killing). The first Nordic Noir to break out internationally, it deserves some of the credit for the current prevalence of serialised dramas (not to mention a short but intense fashion for Faroese jumpers). Creator Soren Sveistrup moulded a heady hybrid of murder and political intrigue, movingly tempered by a consistent attention to the victim’s family that delivered an emotional integrity often lacking in the crime genre. As loner Sarah Lund, Sofie Grabol’s impressively controlled performance anchored the action, her persona a stark and comforting foil to the devastating events. Massive kudos goes to the BBC for acquiring the series; it proved that foreign-language drama could find a devoted audience, thus forging a path that other broadcasters followed.

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