Tag Archives: Walter Iuzzolino

The best of Belgium

On the back of thrilling series such as De Dag (The Day), Tabula Rasa and 13 Geboden (13 Commandments), Belgium is proving to be the latest global creative hotspot for television drama. DQ hears from those in the business to find out the secret to its success.

A heist drama that plays out from the viewpoints of both the police outside a bank and the criminals inside. A psychological thriller about a young woman with amnesia who is the key to solving a mysterious missing persons case. A series inspired by the Ten Commandments in which a modern-day Moses commits gruesome crimes in an attempt to restore moral values in society.

There may not be many plot points that De Dag (The Day), Tabula Rasa and 13 Geboden (13 Commandments), respectively, have in common. But all three series stand out for keeping audiences hooked with innovative and unique methods of storytelling – and all hail from Belgium.

Malin-Sarah Gozin

The small European country (population 11.35 million in 2017) has steadily built a reputation for groundbreaking, genre-busting drama that is now playing to international audiences thanks to a host of streaming services offering foreign-language around the world. Walter Iuzzolino – the curator of Channel 4-backed platform Walter Presents –has been a notable cheerleader for the nation’s scripted series.

Showrunner Malin-Sarah Gozin says creating unique stories by mixing genres has become her trademark, having taken this approach for both 2017’s Tabula Rasa and earlier series Clan, an award-winning, darkly funny family comedy that doubled as a mystery crime thriller. “I always like to blend genres, because fiction and drama has to be a reflection of reality – and real life is a true blend of genres,” Gozin says. “We all have those moments where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, or are really happy and at the same time really scared. So if I see something like that in drama, it stirs something within and I make a connection. Something magical happens then.”

Mixing genres, she adds, is a way to talk about complex issues in a lighter or more off-beat way. Clan tells the story of four sisters who plot to murder their domineering brother-in-law, but it also manages to be very funny.

“It’s why we use metaphors or fables and fairy tales,” Gozin continues. “You want to talk about something complex in a very simple way. That way you can talk about dark and difficult themes but in a different way.”

Blending genres begins in the development and writing process, but it doesn’t stop there. “You have to continue with that exercise on set with the actors and directors, and also in the editing room afterwards,” Gozin says. “It’s really hard to pitch, sell and market these hybrid genres. When I pitch, I can sum up all the ingredients and explain my vision of how they will taste, but for commissioners it’s hard to get a real taste. They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating – it’s the same with blending genres. There is no real proven method; it’s chemistry.”

Professor T sees a professor working as a police advisor

But what is it about Belgium that has seen it become one of the hottest drama producers? “It’s been in our genes,” Gozin says. “We’re that tiny country with three different language areas. We’ve got this non-conformist stubbornness. At the same time, we’re self-deprecating and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which results in this quirky flavour. Belgian people have a desire to colour outside the box and a rich imagination.”

Gozin likens Clan (known internationally as The Outlaws) to Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing) in terms of the impact it has had on raising international viewers’ awareness of a smaller nation’s drama output. The Killing, of course, kick-started the Nordic noir boom that continues to shine a spotlight on Scandinavian series. “Then The Bridge followed, and Borgen, and everybody knew about Scandinavian drama. It even got a tag – Nordic noir,” she says. “It took a dead prick [in Clan] for Belgian shows [to be seen internationally], and other shows followed like Professor T and Hotel Beau Séjour. Now we’ve got a tag of our own – Belgian noir.”

Indra Siera
Indra Siera

Professor T, about an eccentric academic who works as a police advisor, is now in its third season on VRT-owned network Één, with remakes in France and Germany. It, too, contains a jumble of tones, from musical comedy to tragedy and melodrama, making the crimes the eponymous character solves almost an accessory to the style of the series.

“I didn’t have the advantage of lovely scripts. I got very straightforward scripts,” Professor T director Indra Siera explains. “There wasn’t a lot of money – there never is in Belgium – but it appeals to me because working with no money makes you more creative. It’s all about what there is, not what there isn’t. I started filling in the gaps and wanted to make this touching, interesting, poetic, and that was it.

“I was extremely free because there wasn’t that pressure of the money or budget. There wasn’t any pressure at all from the channel, and that gave me wings. There was an amazing cast who did what I asked them to do.”

Siera describes Belgian drama as “the love child of the digital era, where filming is becoming cheaper, and the theatre of poverty – the way you can make something from nothing. You are very creative and very out of the box. Mixing these two things makes Belgian drama.”

Ricus Jansegers, TV programming director of commercial broadcaster Medialaan, says what he likes about the Belgian industry is that writers and producers can still pitch a “crazy” idea and get money for it. “I’ve made some mistakes in the past where I did not say, ‘Let’s go for it,’ but I’m more convinced nowadays that you have to give the power back to the creative people,” he explains. “It’s the environment where things start. I would not say the power is with the channel; it’s important, because you need a broadcaster, but it’s not with them. The most creative things come from giving power back to the creators.”

Jansegers cites 13 Geboden as an example of a “typically Belgian” Medialaan show that has earned international acclaim, something the exec admits he did not expect.

Crime drama 13 Geboden (13 Commandments)

“What I like about this show is we’re the number-one commercial TV station and this was in full primetime,” he says of the dark and chilling thriller. “Normally, this would go on a smaller channel or on a pay TV service. That has evolved through the years.”

Medialaan is now willing to take more risks, Jansegers says, with viewers subsequently coming to expect brave programming choices from the broadcaster. “With success, we dare to do it more and more. Is it helping us? I believe it is,” he says. But such success brings greater interest from third parties looking to get involved in the creative and production process, which in turn risks the quality of the original concept. “That’s nice and fun, and we have to look into it, but on the other hand, we should stick to what we’re good at,” Jansegers notes.

As well as Professor T, VRT has been the home of dramas including Tabula Rasa and Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate, pictured top), a heart-warming romantic comedy about a man’s journey across Europe to be reunited with the love of his life. Notably, producer De Mensen partnered with Theater Stap, a theatre company for people with learning difficulties, with its members playing all the lead roles. The series is now being developed for a UK remake through Reel One Entertainment and London theatre outfit Chickenshed.

However, unlike Medialaan, VRT looks for international potential in its series very early on in their development. “If we have a good concept, it has to be a local drama, a local story. We don’t want international stories. But if we think it has international potential, universal themes or emotions that attract a universal audience, together with the prodco we look at how can we raise the production values to a level where it can travel,” explains international drama executive Elly Vervloet.

Psychological thriller De Dag (The Day)

VRT first broke out internationally with Salamander, a crime drama about a detective who investigates the theft of 66 safety deposit boxes belonging to prominent Belgian citizens. It first aired in 2012, with UK network BBC4 among those that picked it up.

“It’s important when you make drama, as it’s such an expensive genre, to think long term because budgets are shrinking,” Vervloet continues. “We have to see if it’s possible to create a return on our investment, and then we can reinvest the money in new drama series. That’s how we try to make it sustainable for the next 10 or 20 years.

“The high-end drama we make is more expensive but it’s certainly not comparable to other international budgets. We try to see what we need to make a splendid drama series. It’s the only way to create a return on our investment and reinvest it in other drama series.”

Vervloet agrees Belgium should “stick to what we are good at,” rather than specifically trying to target international audiences at the cost of a series failing to gain traction at home. She points to series like supernatural crime drama Hotel Beau Séjour, which travelled around the world but is set in Dutch-speaking province Limburg and uses the area’s unique dialect. “We shouldn’t fall into the trap of making the huge, international drama series everyone is making. We should stick to who we are, with surreal stories and the out-of-the-box genres we explore.”

To do that, the industry must show faith in creative talent and help bring through the next generation of writers, Vervloet argues, adding that VRT will put more time and money into script development in 2019. Hotel Beau Séjour, which aired on Arte in France and Germany and worldwide on Netflix, is also in development for a second season.

Tytgat Chocolat (Team Chocolate) was made with Theater Stap, a theatre company for people with learning difficulties

“If you have a good writer and can attach a younger writer to them, maybe the young talent can learn from the experience and bring another point of view to the script,” Vervloet continues. “Malin-Sarah Gozin is so successful and creative – we really need more young female writers and showrunners. We have a lot of 40-plus male writers. Young female talent have another way of storytelling, another voice, another point of view.”

That Belgium is a creative hotspot isn’t news to Marike Muselaers, co-CEO of producer, financer and distributor Lumière, who says the country has always been that way. The danger now, she notes, is that increasing international recognition of its drama output will lead to it receiving a label that could constrict the risk-taking and creativity that got it noticed in the first place. Scandinavian drama becoming synonymous with – and perhaps limited by – Nordic noir is the most obvious comparison.

“They have to be careful because when a lot of money is flowing in, [creative] risks might not be taken,” Muselaers says. “We should not lose our connection to the audience. That’s the main risk of all these platforms, bringing in a lot of money but not really connecting us to the audience any more. Producers and creators need to keep that audience in mind. And as long as Belgians keep their own viewers in mind and don’t try to make generic, international stuff, they will be fine.”

Whatever’s happening in Belgium, it’s clear this small nation is among the most creative countries in the world when it comes to making drama. “It’s like Belgian chocolates,” Gozin concludes. “They’re all different inside the box but what makes them Belgian chocolates is the filling can be really unconventional. But it’s all quality.”

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Beyond borders

Israeli television rose to global prominence on the back of scripted series such as Hatufim (Prisoners of War) and Be Tipul (In Treatment). DQ explores what comes next from a country where big budgets are rare but no expense is spared on storytelling.

Locally made Israeli drama might only date back a couple of decades, but the country is recognised as one of the most respected producers of high-end TV series in the world.

The industry came to the world’s attention in 2011 when Showtime struck an instant hit with Homeland, which was in fact a remake of Israeli series Hatufim (albeit a heavily reworked one). But even before Homeland, another Israeli series, Be Tipul (2008), had been turned into HBO’s glossy therapy drama In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne. As a testament to Be Tipul’s quality, it was eventually remade into more than a dozen other versions.

Today, now that watching subtitled drama is as normal to many viewers as watching in their native tongue, Israeli productions are experiencing a second wave of interest – but this time in their original form. Hostages, False Flag (pictured above) and Fauda mean the ‘Israeli thriller’ is on par with Nordic noir.

But despite the industry’s success, it is facing challenging market conditions. Like everywhere else in the world, series in Israel are made for one of two reasons: first, by commercial or advertising-led channels that create ‘event TV’ to bring viewers to their brand; or, second, by subscription channels that want to add depth to their schedule alongside their usual roster of programming, such as sports, reality, children’s, factual and movies.

Fauda is available on Netflix around the world

In a country with a population of only around nine million, there are limited subscribers to fight over and advertising on TV is being hit hard as content gravitates online. Meanwhile, one of Israel’s main networks, Channel 2 was recently split into two (Keshet 12 and Reshet 13), so now each channel has less money from advertisers to fund these so-called ‘high-end’ productions.

Illegal downloads are also a particular problem in Israel, a result of loose intellectual property law and an entrenched cultural attitude that simply means the public do not take the matter too seriously. These challenges all manifest in the budgets allocated to Israeli series being startlingly low, particularly in contrast to their international peers; the pilot of Homeland cost the equivalent of two seasons of Hatufim. Similarly, the first episode of BBC1’s The A-word, a series about a young boy with autism (starring Christopher Eccleston), cost three-quarters of the price of the first season of the original Israeli series on which it was based, Yellow Peppers. Hatufim, Yellow Peppers and The A Word all come from Keshet International.

So how does Israel manage to make TV drama that is so good in this environment? Producers have very little money so they force production values where they can – and the cheapest place to do this is in the writing.

“With money you can make your show appear magical, you can hide your faults. But when you’re naked, you can’t. So it makes you work much harder, you can’t leave little holes,” says Keren Margalit, who created and directed Yellow Peppers (which has also been adapted for the Greek market, with talk of a German version too). Margalit also wrote season two of Be Tipul, a show that consists literally of two people talking in a room and embodies the Israeli spirit of good writing over lavish production values.

“We know what we don’t do,” says Danna Stern, MD of Yes Studios, the distribution and sales arm of Yes TV, which is the producer and broadcaster of Fauda. “We don’t have lots of money for special effects, nothing’s set in space and we don’t make lavish period pieces.”

Sleeping Bears launched on Keshet earlier this year

Budget restraints contribute directly to the aesthetic of realism in Fauda, which was shot very quickly, on location. “It’s an advantage in a way because it forces you to reinvent the profession, not only for me personally but for everyone on the team,” says Rotem Shamir, who directed season two of the series. “If everything was given the right amount of budget, I’m sure everyone would doze off, we would lose that kind of energy.”

Shamir also co-created Hostages, a series about a home invasion set in a single house. Speaking at the Fipa festival in Biarritz, which this year had a focus on the Israeli industry, he said of the show: “We achieved our dream of creating a thriller that could work on a tight Israeli budget.”

The US remake was cancelled after one season, perhaps because in that version the characters leave the house early on in the series – doing away with an essential element of the original.

Budgets aside, the other issue that cannot be ignored is that Israel is a country at war. Such a situation lends itself to highly compelling and globally significant stories – and it’s not just the conflict with Palestine that affects the country. There are also conflicts within Israel, between the Arabs and Jews who live there, between the religious and non-religious groups and so on. There is also a large immigrant community with stories to tell. The creative people living in Israel need to express themselves, and many do so by writing scripts.

A series like Fauda – a political thriller that airs on Netflix around the world – gives viewers a fascinating glimpse into one of the defining conflicts of our times and one which may have ramifications where those viewers live. The show has made a particular impact as the creators went to great lengths to portray characters from both sides of the divide.

Mama’s Angel was picked up by Walter Presents last September

“You can connect with the characters and see yourself in them, bad or good,” says Laëtitia Eïdo, one of the stars of Fauda, who was also speaking in Biarritz. “Of course, for some people it won’t be balanced enough. But you can discover the life and culture of both sides, which invades the other side’s subconscious.” At Fipa, which hosted the European premiere of Fauda season two, star and creator Lior Raz introduced the show as “a conversation about peace.”

However, Stern believes that while the ‘Israeli thriller’ may seem to epitomise the country’s drama output to the outside world, this is simply an accident of setting. “There’s just so much conflict in the news that people don’t want it for entertainment,” she says. “It’s not that we want to keep on talking about it – we really don’t.”

One merely has to scratch the surface of Israeli drama to see the rich tapestry of themes, ideas and issues that are being explored beyond thrillers. Sleeping Bears, the new series from Margalit, launched on Keshet earlier this year and was also among the official screenings at Berlinale in February. The show follows the fallout when a teacher finds an anonymous letter that contains summaries of her therapy sessions. The show explores the theme of trust and the myths surrounding what we think privately and what society allows us to say publicly.

Likewise, Endemol Shine comedy Nevsu, “the story of an Ethiopian and Israeli intermix family that deals with daily cultural clashes,” as described by Gal Zaid, head of scripted drama at Endemol Shine, “could be relevant anywhere.” It’s a point reinforced by the fact that a pilot for an adaptation was recently commissioned by Fox in the US.

Mama’s Angel, produced by Black Sheep Film Productions for YES TV and distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will be added to the UK edition of foreign-language drama streamer Walter Presents this summer. Set in a wealthy Tel Aviv neighbourhood, it explores the nature of prejudice when a community turns its anger towards a black graffiti artist who is the main suspect in a serious crime.

Israeli dramas and their overseas remakes (inset). From left are Hatufim and Homeland (US), the original Hostages and the US version, and Yellow Peppers and The A Word (UK)

Walter Iuzzolino underlines the attraction of Israeli content to the service he co-founded and curates: “Its culture is ingrained in a sense of family, values and religion, which is a powerful cocktail. The moment you talk about a conflict within a family, you have the most universal theme of them all. Your parents shout at you, repress you and make you slightly neurotic but then you rebel, fall in love, shout back and the cycle continues. The Israelis have a visceral way of exploring these issues – they’re very courageous.”

The list of unconventional shows Israel is making at the moment is so long it’s easier to say which genres aren’t on it, which tend to be traditional formats such as medical, cop or lawyer series. “And God bless them for it,” says Iuzzolino. The fact that all the major international distribution companies such as FremantleMedia, Red Arrow and Endemol Shine have set up offices in Tel Aviv underlines the value they attach to Israeli content.

Because of the average timescale of five years, it takes to get an Israeli series to screen and the relatively low pay local scriptwriters receive, they must have a strong sense of vocation. This desire to tell their story often manifests as a “burning look in their eyes,” says Stern, frequently coming from a real-life trauma or experience. Fauda creator Raz, for example, was part of the same special operations unit as the one the show depicts.

Producers in Israel also have a strong desire to make more drama despite the financial constraints on their industry, and they are looking to find foreign partners to help them do so. “There are more opportunities for international coproductions,” says Amir Ganor, CEO of Endemol Shine Israel. “Israel is a region that holds many burning issues that could be relevant worldwide. Most projects up until today were local; the future is focused on breaking these borders.”

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Walter’s Italian odyssey

Set in Sicily in the 1970s, Maltese tells the story of one man’s fight against the Mafia.

Dario Maltese (Kim Rossi Stuart) is a talented detective battling to stay moral in an immoral world. But when he returns to his hometown to attend a friend’s wedding, he is suddenly and violently sucked back into the world he fled 20 years before.

This time, however, he must stay to uncover the truth – but what starts out as a simple murder investigation quickly escalates, uncovering more disappearances, further murders and ultimately exposing a network of corruption and lawlessness.

In this DQTV video, Italian actor Stuart talks about why he chose to take on the role and how this 1970s set series speaks to modern-day audiences.

Meanwhile, Walter Iuzzolino, the curator of Walter Presents, reveals why he fell in love with Maltese and the elements that elevate it above other series to ensure it would become the first Italian drama to air on the streaming platform.

Iuzzolino also compares Maltese to two other shows – Spain’s Locked Up and Germany’s Deutschland 83 – that went on to become flagship series for their respective countries.

Maltese is produced by Palomar for Italian broadcaster Rai and distributed by ZDF Enterprises. It launches in the UK Channel 4 on February 4, with the entire series immediately available to view on Walter Presents.

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Walter’s World

Walter Iuzzolino, chief creative officer at GSN and curator of Walter Presents, reveals the shows that inspired Channel 4’s new global drama platform.

D83---Martin-after-bomb-blastGermany
German drama is undergoing a true renaissance. Once associated with gentle, mainstream cop shows and period pieces, Germany is suddenly bursting with edgy, powerful premium series, which have gained international acclaim and recognition in a very short time.
Generation War, a compelling miniseries offering a refreshingly different take on the narrative of the Second World War, was an early indicator of the quality of productions to come.
Deutschland 83 (pictured) is one of the strongest and most powerful pieces of storytelling I have seen in years. Written and produced by husband-and-wife team Anna and Joerg Winger, this is an iconic and stylish thriller that stands in a league of its own, totally redefining standards for excellence in global scripted programming. The unforgettable, fast-paced coming-of-age story of a young spy forced to leave his past behind to start a new life in the West is an irresistible cocktail of pathos, drama and humour, delivered with the most exquisite cinematography, art direction and aesthetic framework since Mad Men.
Line of Separation is another compelling historical drama, this time set in the Second World War. Produced by the Oscar-winning team behind The Lives of Others, it also stars Jonas Nay, the lead actor of Deutschland 83. The story, inspired by true events spanning 1945 to 1961, focuses on a small town torn apart by clashing ideologies and split down the middle by a carelessly drawn border dividing it between east and west – a miniature version of the impending Cold War.
Another historical drama and family saga, this time set in Berlin, is Hotel Adlon. Directed by top movie director Uli Edel, the series is inspired by the events that marked the first 90 years of Germany’s most extraordinary hotel. Personal and political narratives of love, war and the destiny of a family through three generations are skilfully interwoven in a beautifully crafted script and brought to life by an exceptional cast.
German detective series also feature in our mix, including hit franchise Nick’s Law, Nick’s Revenge and Nick’s Pain; Inspector Borowski and crime thriller Cenk Batu. All three series revolve around charismatic maverick detectives, all of them loners but with very different policing styles.
The breadth and quality of German drama now on offer and currently in the production pipeline will surely shine a bright light on Germany as the next big creative hub for scripted content globally.

Penoza-s1-1The Netherlands
Right next door to Germany is another country that’s largely undiscovered by global audiences in terms of scripted output. Famous for its blockbuster gameshow formats and reality juggernauts, the Netherlands has never really acquired an international reputation for its drama series – but that is about to change. We have assembled a powerful slate of 61 hours we hope will prove a bit of a revelation for critics and viewers alike.
Among the key Dutch offerings is Penoza (pictured), produced by NL Films. This seminal Sopranos-style crime saga is built around the compelling central character of Carmen, a housewife who is reluctantly forced to take charge of the family’s criminal business following his assassination. The multi-award-winning series is now in its fourth season.
The Neighbours is a sassy gem of a series – a dark, sexy and voyeuristic Fatal Attraction between two couples living in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. Based on the bestselling novels by Saskia Noort, its transmission on RTL last year attracted millions of viewers on 10 consecutive nights. A second series is currently in production.
The Prey is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated drama based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Jeroen Smit. It depicts the true story of the rise and fall of Dutch banker Rijkman Groenink and the downfall of the entire ABN AMRO Bank, which was one of Europe’s financial powerhouses at the time.
Bellyacher Cel is another hit drama series from Holland, starring JanAd Adolfsen. The six-part series follows a man wrongfully accused of a fatal hit-and-run. Hunted by the police and criminals alike, he attempts to find out who has stolen his identity and why they are determined to frame him.

Son-of-a-Bitch-(SOB)Brazil
A country normally associated with telenovelas, Brazil is producing some really exciting and innovative dramas, with standout visceral and dramatic tones which is totally unique.
SOB (Son of a Bitch, pictured) is a comedy series about a football referee who dreams of one day officiating the World Cup final. On the pitch he’s a man of high morals and a stickler for the rules, but off it his life is in freefall. Starring Eucir De Souza and directed by Katia Lund, whose previous credits include the Oscar-nominated film City of God, the series has a wonderful supporting cast of lovable characters and also features guest appearances by Brazilian football stars and commentators.
Magnifica 70’s season premiere became the second highest-rating Brazilian original production in the last 10 years. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of a married man bored with his job censoring films for the Sao Paulo government. Unexpectedly, he becomes obsessed with the beautiful Dora Dumar, an erotic actress whose films he is obliged to censor. To save her from ruin, he agrees to help write and direct her films to get them through the state censorship department. Stylish, evocative with a wonderful script and talented cast, Magnifica 70 stands out as a bold piece based on a truly unique and gutsy premise – the clash between personal freedom of expression and political repression, set against the unusual and captivating backdrop of Boca do Lixo, an iconic suburb of Sao Paulo, which was home to a flourishing erotic film industry in the early 1970s.

Blue-Eyes---Veritas-(1)Sweden
From Bergman movies to Strindberg plays, Sweden has always been the land of filmmaking, theatrical and literary excellence – and its TV drama output is just as exceptional. Having taken somewhat of a back seat to Denmark in the explosion of Nordic drama, Sweden now seems to be producing a much more diverse range of top-drawer series.
Thicker than Water is a 10-part drama set on an island in the enchanting Swedish Alandic archipelago. It tells the story of three siblings suddenly reunited and thrown together when their mother commits suicide. In order to inherit her money, the siblings are forced to live and work together in the family hotel for one summer. Dark secrets begin to emerge, compelling them to confront long-buried emotions from their past. Featuring an exceptional cast in a beautiful setting, this seductive family thriller has been a ratings smash hit and a second season is currently in production.
Blue Eyes (pictured) is another eye-catching Swedish series but for totally different reasons. A bold, edgy, contemporary political thriller, it focuses on the rise of political extremism in Northern Europe. There are only a few, crucial weeks left to the national election when a spate of brutal murders from a fringe group of young, dangerous Neo Nazis throws the country – and the corrupt political elite – into a state of shock.
This is as incisive and arresting as Scandi drama gets: a bold and daring approach to issues of racism, immigration and xenophobia in which the definition of good and evil is not always so black and white. It’s edge-of-your-seat television.

Burning-Bush-(1)Czech Republic
Finally, we’ve uncovered an unexpected treasure in the Czech Republic’s output. The Lens is a stylish and beautifully shot story about an aspiring young filmmaker who is devastated when his father dies following a hit-and-run. Determined to find his father’s killer, he joins the police force as a crime photographer.
Burning Bush (pictured), meanwhile, is a stunning three-part drama created by world-renowned Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Based on real characters and events, this haunting drama focuses on the personal sacrifice of a Prague history student, Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in
1969 – and his family’s fight against the Communist regime following his death. It’s a deeply moving story focusing on big themes of personal and political freedom, the fight against corruption and ideological repression – and the personal family tragedy that shook a country and changed its history.
This is the drama piece that inspired us to launch the service and start Walter Presents more than a year ago. When you come across something so exceptional and powerful, you can’t help wanting to share it.

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Channel 4 looks to set subs standard with 4 World Drama

One of the team behind Channel 4 and Global Series Network’s forthcoming subtitled series service 4 World Drama tells DQ why viewers can get excited about foreign-language drama.

This autumn will see a first in the UK as the collaboration of public service broadcaster Channel 4 and a collection of industry veterans known as Global Series Network (GSN) launch the subtitled series destination 4 World Drama.

Available free to viewers through digital hub All 4 via funding from advertising and sponsorship, 4 World Drama (working title) is a testament to the surge in popularity of subtitled drama in the UK – heralded in 2006 with the unexpected success of French crime drama Spiral on BBC4, and driven three years later with the channel’s first transmission of the original Swedish version of Nordic Noir drama Wallander.

Channel 4 will also offer an opportunity for selected titles to gain greater exposure by appearing on digital channel More4, which currently hosts foreign-language dramas such as political thriller Mammon and multi-lingual Second World War miniseries The Saboteurs.

Previously the niche preserve of late-night movies, or very occasional series on BBC2 and C4, subtitled drama is now an established (and growing) part of the UK’s TV landscape.

Clemence Poesy and Stephen Dillane in The Tunnel
Clemence Poesy and Stephen Dillane in The Tunnel

The Killing, The Bridge (as The Tunnel) and the aforementioned Wallander have all – with varying degrees of success – been remade into thoughtfully adapted English-language versions, as has movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the originals are still commonly held to be superior.

Not only has the Nordic Noir genre blossomed in the UK, its international cousins (Italy’s Inspector Montalbano and Belgium’s Cordon) and various European political (Borgen, pictured top), historical (1864) and supernatural (The Returned) dramas have also attracted appreciative audiences.

The success of subtitled drama has been attributed to a number of factors. Back in 2012, then-BBC4 controller Richard Klein said: “Most of this drama has got pretty mainstream appeal, it just happens to be in Swedish or Danish. One of the reasons they work is because they’re quite soapy – there’s a lot of domestic goings-on, as well as the police and procedural stuff. You’re drawn into the domestic lives of the people and see the long-term consequences of events.”

Aided by the success of the series and movies such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Headhunters, Wallander and The Killing, onscreen talent has crossed borders, with the likes of Michael Nyqvist (Mission Impossible 4), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and Sofie Grabol (Fortitude) all gaining international recognition.

So this is the fertile territory that 4 World Drama is hoping to capitalise upon, and indeed expand, as the GSN team – Jason Thorp (previously Fox UK), Walter Iuzzolino (Betty) and Jo McGrath (Tiger Aspect/Channel 4) – have sourced series from the ‘traditional’ suppliers of Western Europe but are also ranging much further afield to include Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and South Korea.

Thorp says: “The concept is to broaden the already sizeable audience for non-US and UK fare by showcasing the best drama from all over the world. This isn’t just about Nordic crime drama; there are a plethora of world-class shows already out there that simply would not see the light of day in the UK.”

Italy's Inspector Montalbano
Italy’s Inspector Montalbano

At this stage, the closest comparator is the US SVoD service MHz Choice, which relaunches this fall. It will boast a line-up of titles familiar to UK viewers but also many less well-known series from the past 30 years, including crime thrillers Ornen – The Eagle (Denmark 2004-2006), Johan Falk (Sweden, 1999-present) and La Piviora – Octopus (Italy, 1984).

Other genres in the MHz offering include classic drama such as the Italian adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, the German comedy Turkish for Beginners and the Altamanesque French series Paris.

Channel 4 is naturally keeping 4 World’s programme offering under wraps pre-launch, but we may speculate that content, at least initially, will bear some resemblance to that of MHz Choice, led by the detective genre.

At this stage it’s unclear how far back 4 World intends to go in its line-up, or whether it will hew to contemporary titles from the nineties onwards.

If successful, the eventual aim is for GSN is to try to replicate the model of its Channel 4 partnership and launch in territories across the globe – either as subscription VoD or free VoD.

Thorp comments: “Although all eyes are currently on the UK, there are plans afoot to launch in a number of other territories very quickly. The idea behind World Drama is certainly one that can travel. Almost every territory in the world airs US and UK drama but, with a few exceptions, there tends to be a somewhat blinkered view when it comes to drama from other parts of the globe.

“I think there is a lack of awareness about the quality of content available. The writing talent is there and, with the planet getting a whole lot smaller, the learning curves across other parts of the production process are much steeper than they used to be. The quality of the finished product we are seeing from many territories is excellent.”

Expectations for 4 World Drama will be high, as (with the odd exception) subtitled drama shown in the UK has raised the bar in terms of quality and audience appreciation and loyalty.

Thorp says: “We’re delighted to be in partnership with Channel 4. It’s key that we have the widest audience exposure possible, as we are not aiming to deliver a niche, art-house service.”

He adds: “We’re not kidding ourselves. It will be tough to effectively break new genres but we believe the sheer quality of the material will garner significant press support and the brand and promotional power of Channel 4 gives us a great head start.

“Being a VoD box-set service is also key. The serialised nature of many of the shows mean binge-viewing will deliver the majority of our eyeballs and we are afforded the flexibility to deliver various types of formats, from a 2×90′ miniseries to a 20×30′ comedy drama. It’s very liberating.”

As for the future? “In the long term, subject to success, we hope to be stepping into the coproduction and deficit-financing space once we have enough scale. First, though, we need to turn a few heads in the UK.”

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