Tag Archives: War and Peace

Trophy hunters

The Emmy Awards will celebrate the best creative work in television when the annual ceremony takes place over three nights this month. Three nominees tell DQ the story behind the work for which they were recognised.

Gregory-MiddletonGreg Middleton, Game of Thrones
Nominated for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series for the episode Home (season six, pictured above)
For the season six episodes I worked on – opener The Red Woman and episode two Home – I was paired with director Jeremy Podeswa. With Home, we tried to come up with a way to honour a slightly expected twist in the story of Jon Snow’s resurrection but not make it look like we were trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
We broke down the script based on the look and feel of each scene. There were a lot of different environments and a lot of time spent in Jon Snow’s office with the windows shut – we tried to keep the characters in the dark to create the moody look of a huddled cabal and to make the scene claustrophobic. We turned that atmosphere into something more mystical when priestess Melisandre brings Jon back to life.
We try to make scenes flow nicely – we scout locations in advance and put together a visual effects storyboard. We figure out the blocking and the use of sets. Unlike lots of drama shows, we have lots of different locations in different places. It takes some planning!
We drive the look and feel of a scene from the script. It also comes from the writers and showrunners. They encourage you to do your best possible work and to add something to every scene.

Greg Middleton stands over Kit Harington as they film the resurrection of Jon Snow
Greg Middleton stands over Kit Harington as they film the resurrection of Jon Snow

Every episode has its individual challenges. For the resurrection scenes, they included working in a small room, keeping things tense and interesting – and putting a fake Ghost (Jon Snow’s dire wolf) in there. We used a stuffed animal as a stand-in! We had to shoot the scene in multiple passes and the wolf was shot separately. These things are all very complicated.
In a separate scene depicting the death of Balon Greyjoy, we built a rope bridge between two parts of the Iron Islands castle. It took place in the middle of a storm – it was so windy on set that we had to light the scene completely differently. Most of the rain blowing around is real. It was a hilariously miserable experience for the actors but it looks fantastic. That was a tricky thing to figure out and to capture the real rain and the atmosphere.
I feel honoured to be part of the Game of Thrones team. Everyone has a huge amount of pride in it. It’s a totally unique experience. There are five films in production at the same time. All the departments, from special effects to costumes, art and armoury, are doing the kind of work you’d do for a two-hour film, but are making five in a row.

Martin-PhippsMartin Phipps, War and Peace
Nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special
I was really proud of the War and Peace score. It was seven months’ work and was a labour of love for me.
Initially I passed on it because I’d done a lot of period drama and was doing more film at that stage. It just felt like such a big commitment – but the producers kept coming back to me and, after a while, I thought, ‘Who am I to turn down War and Peace?’ It was too tempting in the end.
I started quite early, which is a really positive thing for a composer. I began writing music while they were still filming. Tom Harper, the director, flew me out to Lithuania, where the show was being filmed, and I met him for breakfast each morning. We’d listen to Russian choral music, pop tracks – a whole variety of stuff just for us to cook up some basic ideas.
I really like putting new music against old pictures but you don’t want to jar the viewer too much or make them feel disorientated. I’m not interested in writing authentic period music. It’s really about trying to find an element in it that resonates, and for us it was the big choral stuff, the ‘Man Choir,’ as we called it. That just had Russia written all over it and had such an immediate connection. I took that and mixed it with very modern, driving synthesisers and guitars and other elements. It didn’t end up like a traditional Russian choral piece at all.

War and Peace boasted a star-studded ensemble cast
War and Peace boasted a star-studded ensemble cast

The choral stuff was a real starting point for us. I then did some orchestral sessions as well with the BBC Welsh National Orchestra. But I was really trying not to write conventional, not even authentic period music. I did it in two halves: I tried to write big, epic choral-driven pieces and then I went for very small, intimate, incredibly simple piano or just a solo voice. It was the big landscapes and the battles against the very small, emotional, intimate stories of the characters. I was trying to use the music to juxtapose between the two elements.
Music is such a brilliant fast track to emotion. It bypasses the verbal/visual thing. It can tap into the viewer’s psyche and emotions straightaway. That can be very powerful. For me, the music should add a new layer to the picture – something you might not have known was there but somehow makes sense when you hear it matched to the picture.

Michelle-DoughertyMichelle Dougherty, Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Vinyl
Nominated for both series for Outstanding Main Title Design
Jessica Jones creator Melissa Rosenberg was open to a lot of ideas for the main titles. She gave us the lowdown on the character – an investigator – and we thought it was natural to make the audience feel this sense of voyeurism, as that’s what she does, she’s a voyeur into people’s lives. We had this idea of having glimpses of information and using her point of view.
The painterly quality was inspired by David Mack’s artwork in the original Jessica Jones comic books. He worked on the sequence with us and painted some new elements for us. Then our designer, Arisu Kashiwagi, took all those paintings and some photographs and put them together to create a piece that felt true to the show. You also want to be a little abstract so you’re not rewatching the show in the main titles.

Vinyl-opening-titles-5
A still from the Vinyl title sequence

On Vinyl, we met with the creators and they gave us their take on it. We got to watch the first episode, which was so thrilling. It was shot beautifully and the story was amazing. We were trying to capture that feeling of when music moves you inside and we wanted to convey that in the title, like the first time you ever heard your favourite band.
The process varies with each sequence because sometimes they haven’t started shooting yet. We had already pitched our storyboards for Jessica Jones by the time we saw the first episode. After seeing it, you can then see if you were off on the colour pallet, but Melissa directed us nicely so we weren’t too far off.
Sometimes we’ll work with tracks of music and then the producers will come back with something they feel is right. With Jessica Jones, we had a rock track but they came back with something Shaun Callery, the show’s composer, created. It was so different from our idea but we loved it.
For Vinyl, we researched a lot of music from the time that maybe wasn’t so popular but that was really interesting to us. Then the musicians working on the series composed an amazing piece of music that was exactly what we wanted – something that weakens your soul.
When we’re talking to the creators, sometimes they want to use the titles to tell a back-story, to set a mood or a tone or to introduce a character. But sometimes they’re very open and want us to decide which way we think it should go.

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BBC1 drama dominates UK viewing

Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)
Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire (left)

Amid all the controversy about the future of the BBC’s licence fee, it’s interesting to note that the UK public broadcaster’s flagship channel BBC1 has had a storming start to the year in terms of its scripted content. Whether it’s crime, espionage, period or soaps, it’s been delivering on every front.

Go back to the very start of January, for example, and BBC1 achieved an audience in excess of 11 million for its much-publicised Sherlock special. This was ably supported by the launch of War & Peace, which debuted to 8.4 million.

War & Peace continued to perform well throughout January and was joined by schedule stalwarts such as Death in Paradise, EastEnders and Silent Witness – all of which racked up audiences in excess of eight million. The latter show topped the ratings in the second week of January with 8.72 million – impressive when you consider it has been running since 1996.

In the week commencing January 11, BBC1 turned the screw on its rivals further still by launching the latest season of Call the Midwife, which immediately went to the top of the charts with 9.88 million.

Supporting it with eight million-plus viewers were Silent Witness, Death in Paradise and EastEnders, with the complex period drama War & Peace holding up well at 6.6 million. Not quite as strong, but still respectable, was the third season of crime series Shetland, which debuted with more than six million.

Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace
Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace

Late January and early February offered more of the same, but then the week commencing February 8 saw the return of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley to a massive 8.63 million viewers. Only Call the Midwife scored higher, bringing in 9.6 million.

For the week commencing February 15, BBC1 upped its game again, with the launch of The Night Manager on Sunday evening. While it wasn’t able to outscore the much-loved midwives, it did debut with 8.25 million, neck and neck with episode two of Happy Valley. This meant the channel’s top five broadcasts were all dramas attracting in excess of 7.5 million viewers (with Shetland still bobbing along nicely at around six million).

The following week, all of the above were rock solid – with The Night Manager actually posting a slight increase to 8.42 million. That in itself is a very impressive achievement, because most dramas shed a million or so after their first episode. By this token, Happy Valley also deserves some credit for managing to keep its second and third episodes well above the eight million mark.

All of the above figures are BARB seven-day data. So we’ve now moved into territory where the latest figures have not yet been released. Instead, we need to look at BARB overnights (which are subject to change once time-shifted viewing is included).

With this proviso, The Night Manager continues to perform strongly. On Sunday, March 6, for example, it faced tough competition from the launch of Julian Fellowes’ new project on ITV, Doctor Thorne, but won convincingly. Around 6.2 million tuned into The Night Manager (overnight score) while 3.8 million opted for Fellowes’ Anthony Trollope adaptation.

ITV's Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes
ITV’s Doctor Thorne is the new series from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes

ITV is BBC1’s main commercial rival. So how has it been doing across the same period? On the whole, the picture isn’t quite as healthy.

Coming into the new year, its ratings were led by its soaps, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, with audiences in the 5.5-7 million range. Behind this came crime dramas Endeavour, Vera and Midsomer Murders which, with audiences of around 5-5.5 million, lag behind Silent Witness.

It’s likely to be a similar story for the next few weeks, with Happy Valley’s final episode coming up and The Night Manager still good for a few more episodes. It will be interesting to see if BBC1 can sustain its performance through the spring and summer.

In the US, meanwhile, CBS CEO Les Moonves used the Deutsche Bank 2016 Media, Internet and Telecom Conference in Florida to say: “We have five new shows on this year. I believe all five will be renewed, and we own four of them.”

This comment has been interpreted to refer to Supergirl, Limitless, Code Black, Life in Pieces and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. However, there is some uncertainty because CBS also has a TV reboot of Rush Hour coming up. So either Moonves overlooked that show, or it’s already being lined up for the chop – which seems a bit harsh ahead of its actual launch.

In terms of the other five, Supergirl and Limitless were widely expected to get picked up again, as was sitcom Life in Pieces.

Code Black
Code Black has been picked up by UKTV

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders doesn’t debut until March 16 but, as a spin-off of the popular Criminal Minds franchise, it stands a decent chance of doing well. The show that has, perhaps, dodged a bullet is medical drama Code Black.

With its 18-episode first season now complete, Code Black attracted an average audience of 7.1 million. This isn’t terrible but it is undermined by the fact that the show’s appeal to 18- to 49-year-olds is at the lower end of the CBS spectrum.

The fact it has survived is probably explained by CBS’s need for some classic procedural-style dramas to sit alongside hit series NCIS. If CBS can manage to make Code Black a hit then it will also have a useful asset for its international sales catalogue. The show has already been picked up in the UK by UKTV.

Still in the US, public broadcaster PBS has just given the greenlight to a second season of Mercy Street, its first original drama in more than a decade. A medical series set during the US Civil War, Mercy Street’s first season was executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W Zucker, Lisa Q Wolfinger and David Zabel.

The show debuted with an impressive 5.7 million viewers and its six-episode run was streamed two million times. It trended strongly on Twitter on numerous occasions and its website – filled with factual supporting material – has had more than 600,000 unique visitors since its launch.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street, which is heading into season two

“We are thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive response to Mercy Street and the return of high-quality American drama on PBS stations,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming officer and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “We’re looking forward to a second season offering more fascinating stories inspired by historical events. The effort from everyone involved, including producers, directors, historical consultants, actors and PBS stations, resulted in an extraordinary series.”

Mercy Street’s first season took place in the spring of 1862 in Alexandria, Virginia, a border town between north and south and the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free black people, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The show follows the lives of these characters, who collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel, which has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army hospital. Season two picks up directly from the events at the end of the first run’s finale.

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Apple eyes TV collaboration with Dr Dre

Dr Dre
Dr Dre is developing a scripted series with Apple, according to reports

Assuming it turns out to be true, the biggest content story of the week comes courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, which says that tech giant Apple is making a six-part TV series with rap legend and Beats Music co-founder Andre Young, better known as Dr Dre.

According to the story, which has subsequently been picked up by a number of major US media outlets, the show will be a semi-autobiographical “dark drama” that will be liberally laced with sex and violence. Apple and Dr Dre have not yet commented on the nascent project, which will be made available via the subscription service Apple Music.

The prospect of Apple moving into content has been mooted for some time. But with Amazon and Netflix rapidly ramping up their original content slates, the company is clearly starting to get anxious it is falling behind. Working with Dr Dre is, however, a great way to signal its ambition. The movie Straight Outta Compton, which looked at Dre’s involvement with the band NWA, grossed US$200m worldwide – suggesting there is a large potential audience for the new show (which will be executive produced by Dr Dre, just like Straight Outta Compton). Fox’s success with Empire and Starz’s success with Power reinforce the idea that the black music industry is fertile creative ground.

Meanwhile, SVoD platform Amazon Prime Instant Video has announced a couple of interesting commissions this week. Echoing developments at its arch-rival Netflix, it is now getting into non-English-language production with a German-language series called Wanted.

Wanted will star German actor-writer-director Matthias Schweighoefer and tells the story of a Berlin convention centre project manager who becomes the victim of a mysterious hacking attack. Schweighoefer’s company Pantaleon Entertainment, Warner Bros Entertainment and Warner Bros International Television Production Deutschland are attached to produce.

Mozart in the Jungle has been given a third season
Mozart in the Jungle has been given a third season

Christoph Schneider, MD of Amazon Video Germany, said: “With our first regional Amazon original production we implement not only the desire of many of our customers for exclusive German content but also extend our service to new audiences and establish Amazon Prime as an important partner for producers and creative professionals in this country.”

This week also saw Amazon order a third season of its Golden Globe-winning series Mozart in the Jungle. Mozart is a show about the politics and relationships in a leading symphony orchestra. Season two began streaming in December 2015.

Over at Netflix, meanwhile, there was also a renewal for Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. The show stars Ansari as Dev, a 30-year-old actor attempting to make his way through life in New York City. Netflix doesn’t release viewing data, but an 8.4 rating on IMDb suggests the show has picked up a pretty loyal audience.

Premium pay TV network Starz has been talking about doing a sequel to period drama The White Queen for two or three years now. Finally, it has committed itself to an eight-episode limited series called The White Princess, which will air in 2017. Like the previous series, this one is based on the novels of Philippa Gregory and will be adapted for the screen by Emma Frost.

Aziz Ansari's Master of None will return to Netflix
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None will return to Netflix

The White Princess, which is told through the eyes of a female protagonist, concludes the story of England’s War of the Roses and charts the rise of the House of Tudor. Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik said: “There is a dearth of programming that tells women’s stories and The White Queen was embraced with great success by audiences worldwide. The fanbase for Philippa Gregory’s historical novels is undeniable, and we are confident The White Princess will become the next must-see fandom drama series.”

The show will be produced by Company Pictures, with Playground’s Colin Callender on board as an executive producer.

In recent months there has been a lot of activity among Italian producers seeking to raise their profile on the international market. One of these is FremantleMedia-owned Wildside. This week, the company announced it is developing a series based on Elena Ferrante’s four acclaimed Neapolitan Novels. The plan is for each of Ferrante’s four female-centred books, which are set against Italian society changes from the 1950s to the present day, to become an eight-episode series (32 episodes in total). The show is being coproduced by Wildside with Domenico Procacci’s Fandango, which owns the rights and originated the project. Fandango was one of the producers on the hit series Gomorrah.

Deadline has also been running an interest story this week suggesting James Bond star Daniel Craig is to star in a new drama series called Purity, based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Franzen. Showtime, FX, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all still in the running to secure the series, according to Deadline.

War and Peace has sold to channels around the world
War and Peace has sold to channels around the world, including Russia’s Channel One

Meanwhile, Hulu is reported to have linked up with UK producer Stephen Garrett, who has recently launched a new drama indie called Character Seven. Garrett is developing a London-set supernatural series for Hulu called The Rook, in partnership with Twilight author Stephanie Meyer’s company Fickle Fish and Lionsgate.

Finally, BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) has announced a slew of new sales for its adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Pick of the bunch is the sale to Russia’s Channel One, though the show has also been sold across Asia and Scandinavia and to France.

BBCWW president of global markets Paul Dempsey said: “It is fitting that Russian audiences will get the chance to enjoy this thoroughly modern adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. They’ll join millions of viewers around the world who have been enthralled by Andrew Davies’ stunning interpretation of War and Peace.”

Previously, the Weinstein Company licensed the series to the A+E Networks in the US.

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Billions attracts millions, Midwife delivers

Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening
Billions gave Showtime its best ever opening

Pan-European pay TV broadcaster Sky has just announced that its Sky Atlantic channel will now be the exclusive home to programming from CBS’s premium US cable network Showtime in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.

Previously, Sky licensed select Showtime content on a case-by-case basis – one example being the excellent scripted series The Affair.

The deal is an important one for Sky, which is facing increased competition for content rights (and not just for drama) from the likes of BT, Netflix, Amazon and Viacom (owner of Channel 5). It’s also significant for Showtime, which is keen to see its brand better known around the world. This deal gives it access to 21 million European pay TV households at a single stroke.

One of the titles included in the new deal is Billions, an ambitious drama set in the world of New York high finance. The show, which stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, has just debuted to strong audiences in the US.

David Nevins
David Nevins

According to Showtime, Billions is its best-ever launch, attracting 2.99 million viewers to its premiere. This is marginally more than Showtime’s previous best, which was Ray Donovan in 2013 with 2.91 million viewers.

Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “It’s a testament to the timeliness of the subject matter, the power of its stars and the brilliance of the show creators that Billions has had such a big start.”

The way Showtime derives its 2.99 million figure is an interesting snapshot of how viewing in the digital era is measured. Around 1.6 million of the viewing total was generated by a preview of the show that was offered to Showtime subscribers in advance. The other 1.4 million was the cumulative total for multiple broadcasts of the show on its premiere night (last Sunday). The first of these contributed around 900,000 to the evening’s 1.4 million total.

Notwithstanding this fragmented viewing pattern, the 2.99 million total is a very impressive launch for Billions. The show also got an 8.4 rating on IMDb, which suggests it is in good shape on the audience appreciation front. If it continues in the same vein across its first season of 12 episodes, it will fit in well among other strong Showtime series such as Shameless, Homeland, Ray Donovan, The Affair and Penny Dreadful.

That would also be good news for Sky, which generally does well with Showtime titles – in fact, the two are coproducers on Penny Dreadful.

Call the Midwife's new season pulled in eight million viewers
Call the Midwife’s new season pulled in eight million viewers, two million more than its slot’s average

In recent weeks, we’ve flagged up a number of BBC UK dramas that have done well in the post-Christmas period. Today we can add another one following the successful return of Call the Midwife on Sunday evenings at 20.00.

Now in its fifth season, the show attracted an impressive eight million viewers. Although this is down a bit on the last couple of seasons, it is still well ahead of the slot average of six million. The show also does extremely well internationally, with BBC Worldwide having sold it to around 100 territories including the US, France and Australia.

The show is a classic example of how hyper-local subjects (midwives London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s) can appeal to global audiences if they contain strong stories and universal characters. It’s interesting to note as an aside that both Penny Dreadful and Call the Midwife are made by the same production company, Neal Street (now part of All3Media, which itself is owned by Discovery and Liberty Global).

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

Still with the BBC, we took the view last week that anything above 4.5 million viewers for episode three of War & Peace would be a solid result. So the 5.1 million that tuned in represents a strong endorsement for the show.

The Andrew Davies adaptation also won numerous plaudits from the British press, with the Daily Telegraph giving it five stars and calling it “utterly captivating.” There’s no question that Davies’ writing is also benefiting from some terrific performances by the likes of Paul Dano, James Norton, Tuppence Middleton and everyone’s favourite fairytale princess Lily James. Being able to call on the likes of Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Jim Broadbent and Ade Edmondson as supporting cast reinforces the credentials of the show yet further.

ITV, by contrast, has been having a more mixed time with its drama recently. After Jekyll & Hyde’s cancellation, the broadcaster’s latest fantasy epic, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, is also struggling to find its footing. The latest episode attracted two million viewers, which isn’t really enough for a mid-evening slot. The performance of the two shows raises questions about whether there is really room for fantasy drama in the heartland of free-to-air commercial primetime. Maybe fantasy works better when it is tucked away slightly out of sight on pay TV (the way it is in most mainstream bookshops).

Beowulf has started disappointingly
Beowulf has started disappointingly

ITV is, however, on much firmer ground with Victoria, its upcoming eight-part period drama written by novelist and erstwhile TV executive Daisy Goodwin. This week, PBS in the US announced it has acquired the show, which it will schedule in the slot formerly occupied by fellow ITV acquisition Downton Abbey.

The eight-part series, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Colema, follows Victoria from when she first becomes Queen in 1837 at the age of 18 through to her marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes).

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’s Masterpiece strand, said: “Downton Abbey has proved that millions of viewers will turn up year after year for a beautifully crafted period drama. Victoria has it all: a riveting script, brilliant cast and spectacular locations. And it’s a true story. This is exactly the programming Masterpiece fans will love.”

Finally, an interesting story in the US regarding Netflix and Amazon ratings. The SVoD platforms are notorious for not releasing data on the performance of their shows. But Alan Wurtzel, head of research at rival NBCUniversal, provided some insight at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.

Krysten Ritter as the titular character in Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter plays the titular character in Netflix hit Jessica Jones

Using data from a company called Symphony Advanced Media, Wurtzel said that Netflix series Jessica Jones averaged 4.8 million 18-49 viewers per episode in the 35 days after its November launch. By a similar count, Narcos attracted 3.2 million and Master of None attracted three million. Amazon’s critically acclaimed series The Man in the High Castle drew 2.1 million 18-49 viewers.

If these numbers are accurate, then all of the above shows would compare favourably with most US cable shows. No real surprise, then, that Jessica Jones has been given a second season.

That said, NBCU’s analysis must be handled carefully. In response to Wurtzel’s findings, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said he hoped NBC didn’t “spend any money” on the Symphony research since it was “really remarkably inaccurate data.” However, people will keep speculating until Netflix finally decides to reveals some numbers itself.

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Fans go Gaga for Hotel – but what next?

Lady Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel
Lady Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel

The Golden Globes award ceremony was a perfect example of why you might want to put Lady Gaga in your TV drama. Not only is she a good actress, as evidenced by her performance in FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel, but her every slightest action sends the media into a feeding frenzy. When she brushed past fellow actor Leonardo DiCaprio to collect her award for her role in the anthology series, she made front-page news around the world.

The Gaga factor was also evident during the first episode of AHS: Hotel, which attracted a staggering 5.81 million viewers when it launched on October 7 last year. Within weeks, FX had announced an order for season six of the franchise. Creator Ryan Murphy even went as far as to suggest that it might be possible to run two seasons of the AHS franchise per year, in spring and autumn.

Celebrity casting is, however, the TV equivalent of a sugar rush. Although Gaga’s casting had an amazing impact on AHS: Hotel’s first few episodes, the show has actually been on a steady downward slide across its entire run. From its opening high it has dropped to just 1.84 million (with the figures for the most recent episode not in at time of writing).

FX can still argue, truthfully, that the show is one of its strongest performers and that its average across the season is well ahead of channel average. But to shed 70% of its audience across a season still seems like a missed opportunity. It didn’t happen to other standout cable shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy.

So, given that Gaga triumphed at the Globes – which means her performance was, objectively, speaking a good one – what does AHS: Hotel’s ratings decline tell us? Well, possibly it means Hotel wasn’t very good. For comparison, AHS season four, Freak Show, rarely dropped below three million viewers and finished with an average of 3.85 million.

Scream Queens
Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens has achieved so-so results on Fox

Or maybe the audience is getting bored with horror – a genre that has been on the crest of a wave recently. After all, Murphy’s other anthology horror offering, Scream Queens has only managed to turn in a so-so performance on Fox. Just how many malformed monsters can squeeze underneath one bed?

Or maybe the AHS production team needed to carry out a bit more pre-production analysis into the kind of celebrity whose fans might stick with the show (a kind of Amazon or Netflix-style data analysis). A Golden Globe winner she might be, but perhaps there wasn’t a close enough overlap between Lady Gaga’s fanbase and that of AHS. For the long-term health of the franchise, it might have been better to cast a celebrity whose fanbase wasn’t likely to jump ship halfway through. Whatever FX chooses to glean from the show’s decline, there’s no question it’s going to have to find another big name to lead in the sixth series, the subject of which is yet to be revealed.

Heroes Reborn will not return
Heroes Reborn will not return

Still in the US, NBC has just announced that Heroes Reborn will not be renewed. Speaking to journalists, NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt made out it was no big deal by suggesting the show was only ever meant to be a limited series. But the reality is that the show didn’t really capture the audience’s interest. Having started at the 6.5 million mark, it settled down at 3.7 million for the back end of the 13-part run (this is on network television, as opposed to the lower-scoring cable universe).

As its name suggests, Heroes Reborn was a reboot of Tim Kring’s original Heroes series – but it looks like the latent demand for the franchise that NBC had anticipated didn’t really exist. Perhaps we will see the franchise return again in a decade or two. But for now it’s a reminder, if we needed one, that bringing back a classic series isn’t a guarantee of success. The news won’t be too disheartening for Kring, who is partnering with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on Fox series Boost Unit.

Pretty Little Liars
Pretty Little Liars is still going strong

Pretty Little Liars, a hit show for Freeform (the new name for ABC Family), returned to the air this week after a four-month break. And it did pretty well, generating an audience of 2.25 million viewers. There had been fears the show might suffer after a closely followed plotline was resolved in the last episode before the break. Figures were down, but not enough to set any alarm bells ringing.

In fact, it also provided a good launch pad for a new show called Shadowhunters, which followed it in the schedule. Shadowhunters, about a group of demon-hunting teenagers who are part angel, part human (sound like Buffy?), attracted 1.82 million viewers, making it the channel’s best new show in two years. The last big debut for Freeform was Ravenswood, a spin-off of the bankable Pretty Little Liars.

Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters opened strongly

In the UK, all eyes are on the BBC’s lavish six-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The first two episodes were pretty good and have drawn a positive critical response. The harsher critics have accused it of being a bit soapy, a bit racy, a bit English and maybe just lacking some of the gravitas you’d associate with Tolstoy. But as Sunday evening entertainment, it’s a noble effort that benefits from a strong cast and Andrew Davies’ clever ability to cut to the heart of a complex story.

In ratings terms, it debuted to 6.3 million and then dropped to 5.3 million for episode two. That’s a strong performance with a not-unexpected drop for episode two – more like Poldark than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The performance of episode three will probably give us our best insight into how this six-part series will pan out. Lose another 1-1.5 million and it will look as though viewers are tiring of the show. But anything above 4.5 million and it will feel like it has found a loyal audience. All of which is significant to the international drama market because the performance of War and Peace may impact investment decisions related to other classic doorstop-novel adaptations.

Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace
Gillian Anderson and Paul Dano in War and Peace

Playing opposite War and Peace in the UK was German-language drama Deutschland 83. Broadcast by Channel 4, the first two episodes of the show have scored 1.5 million and 1.1 million respectively, a strong performance.

With The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) achieving audiences of around 1.4-1.5 million on BBC4 just before Christmas and The Young Montalbano (Italy) debuting with one million in January (also BBC4), it’s clear that a significant section of the UK population is now comfortable with non-English content – which is good news for mainland Europe.

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BBC heads in the write direction

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

UK TV audiences enjoyed some great drama over the Christmas period. But while all the major broadcasters offered something of interest, the BBC’s scripted output was simply outstanding.

A key reason for this is the corporation’s excellent relationship with writing talent. The Sherlock Christmas Special’s slightly warped view of the suffragette movement may have had its critics, but the episode – titled The Abominable Bride – was still a brilliantly written piece of TV from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that was watched by 8.4 million viewers.

Equally enjoyable were the opening episodes of Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sarah Phelps’ take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And not to be overlooked is Tony Jordan’s Dickensian, an inspired piece of TV that I watched out of idle curiosity and which thus far has more than exceeded my modest expectations. See this Telegraph review for a good summary.

Charles Dance in And Then There Were None
Charles Dance in And Then There Were None

The strength of the BBC’s Christmas drama slate won’t have come as a surprise to those who have been following the broadcaster’s scripted output over the last year or two. Among numerous highlights have been Wolf Hall (adapted from the Hilary Mantel novel by Peter Straughan), The Honourable Woman (written by Hugo Blick), Banished (Jimmy McGovern), Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright) and Doctor Foster (Mike Bartlett). In each case, it has been the quality of the writing that has really shone through.

Coming into 2016, it looks like the BBC is sticking with the same successful formula. Announcing a new slate of 35 hours of drama, Polly Hill, controller of BBC drama commissioning, said: “I will continue to reinvent and broaden the range of drama on the BBC. It is because we make great drama for everyone that we can offer audiences and the creative community something unique and distinct. I want the BBC to be the best creative home for writers.”

Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman
Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman

So what’s on offer? Well, Hugo Blick will be back with Black Earth Rising, a BBC2 thriller set in Africa. Blick describes the show as a “longform thriller which, through the prism of a black Anglo-American family, examines the West’s relationship with Africa by exploring issues of justice guilt, and self-determination.”

The series will be produced by Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Production. Drama Republic MD Greg Brenman, whose company also produced The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster, said: “We are excited to be teaming up with Hugo once more. Black Earth Rising is ambitious, thought-provoking and searingly relevant – the hallmarks that are fast defining Hugo Blick.”

Also recalled for 2016 is Bartlett, whose Doctor Foster was the top-rated UK drama of 2015. With Bartlett already committed to writing a follow-up series, Hill revealed the writer will also be writing a six-hour serial called Press for BBC1. Press is set in the fast-changing world of newspapers.

The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett
The critically acclaimed Doctor Foster was written by Mike Bartlett

Explaining the premise, Bartlett said: “From exposing political corruption to splashing on celebrity scandal, editors and journalists have enormous influence over us, yet recent events have shown there’s high-stakes, life-changing drama going on in the news organisations themselves. I’m hugely excited to be working with the BBC to make Press, a behind-the-scenes story about a group of diverse and troubled people who shape the stories and headlines we read every day.”

Although Jimmy McGovern’s period drama Banished was not renewed, the programme was a tour de force – so it’s no surprise the BBC has commissioned McGovern to write a new show. Broken “plots the perspective of local catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan and that of his congregation and their struggle with both Catholicism and contemporary Britain.”

Set in Liverpool, the six-hour series will be produced by Colin McKeown and Donna Molloy of LA Productions. McGovern and McKeown said: “We are both proud and privileged to be producing this drama from our home city of Liverpool. The BBC is also the rightful home for this state-of-the-nation piece.”

Jimmy McGovern's Banished will not return
Jimmy McGovern’s Banished will not return

One writer joining the BBC fold for the first time is Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter/playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who has been tasked with adapting EM Forster’s Howards End for BBC1.

“I’m very proud to have been entrusted with this adaptation of Howards End,” he said. “The book belongs to millions of readers past and present; I only have the nerve to take it on at all because of the bottomless wealth and availability of its ideas, the richness of its characters and the imperishable strain of humanity running through every scene.

“The blissfully expansive miniseries format makes it possible to mine these materials with a freedom and fidelity that would be otherwise impossible. It’s a thrilling creative venture transporting the Schlegels, Wilcoxes and Basts from page to the screen. I hope audiences will enjoy spending time with them as much as I do.”

The show is being produced by Playground Entertainment, City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment for the BBC. Rights to use the original novel as source material for the miniseries were acquired from Jonathan Sissons at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, on behalf of the Forster estate.

Playground founder and CEO Colin Callender said: “At a time when there is a raging debate about the BBC licence fee, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is because this great institution is funded by a licence fee rather than advertising or subscription that it is able to bring to the British audience dramas that no one else in the UK would produce. The boldness of commissioning a playwright like Ken Lonergan to adapt this great literary classic and make it accessible and relevant to a modern audience is a testament to the BBC’s crucial and unique role in the broadcast landscape worldwide.”

Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White
Fiona Seres, who wrote The Lady Vanishes (pictured), is now working on Woman in White

Equally exciting is the prospect of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White coming to BBC1. Made by Origin Pictures with BBC Northern Ireland Drama, the four-part adaptation will be written by Fiona Seres, who wrote a new version of The Lady Vanishes for BBC1 in 2013.

David Thompson and Ed Rubin, from Origin Pictures, said: “We are so excited to be bringing a bold new version of Wilkie Collins’ beloved Gothic classic to the screen. His gift for gripping, atmospheric storytelling is as thrilling for contemporary readers as it was for Victorians, and Fiona’s unique take brings out the intense psychological drama that has captivated so many.”

Other writers lined up include Joe Ahearne (for The Replacement), Conor McPherson (for Paula) and Kris Mrksa (Requiem). The decision to work with Mrksa, best known for titles such as The Slap and Underbelly, is interesting because he is Australian.

The BBC’s blurb for Requiem (which will be produced by New Pictures) says: “What if your parent died and you suddenly discovered that everything they’d said about themselves, and about you, was untrue? Requiem is part psychological thriller – the story of a young woman, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, sets out to learn the truth about herself, even to the point of unravelling her own identity. But it is also a subtle tale of the supernatural that avoids giving easy answers, playing instead on uncertainty, mystery and ambiguity.”

Mrksa calls it “a show I’ve always wanted to make. To be making it with the team at New Pictures (Indian Summers), and for the BBC, a network that I so greatly admire, really is a dream come true.”

Right now, that would probably be true for any TV writer.

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Making Peace

Writer Andrew Davies has slimmed down Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace into a new six-part drama for the BBC. DQ hears from the creative team behind this lavish production.

For anyone who’s always wanted to read War and Peace but never found the time, Andrew Davies might just have the answer.

The acclaimed writer has previously adapted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, among others.

Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it
Andrew Davies had never read War and Peace before he was asked to adapt it

But now he has turned his attention to Tolstoy’s weighty tome, condensing it into a lavish six-part drama for BBC1 that will premier on January 3.

“I’d never read War and Peace; I’d been saving it up for my old age,” he jokes. “So I was pleased when Faith (Penhale, then head of BBC Wales Drama but set to become joint CEO of Lookout Point in February) invited me to read it with a view to adapting it. I took it on holiday and read it on a beach in Antigua and came back very enthusiastic about the book and very positive. It’s a little bit difficult to get into at the beginning but I’ve sorted it out.

“You have to remember the names of three families, that’s all it is. Nobody need bother reading it now because I’ve got all the best bits out of it! I didn’t find it too daunting. You have to be very arrogant to take on these jobs with these great works of literature and not be frightened of them. I give my own interpretation, take the bits that I love and express them as well as I can.”

Described as “a thrilling, funny and heartbreaking story of love, war and family life,” War and Peace features an ensemble cast headed by Lily James, James Norton and Paul Dano. It also stars Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Rebecca Front, Aneurin Barnard, Tuppence Middleton and Stephen Rea.

It’s produced by BBC Cymru Wales Drama, in partnership with The Weinstein Company, BBC Worldwide and Lookout Point, while Tom Harper is on directing duties.

“It’s the weight of it – everyone looks at it and goes ‘Oh, no!’ People don’t even want to start it,” producer Bethan Jones says of Tolstoy’s 1,300-page book. “How many of us have it on our shelves and have never read it? But we were looking for a piece that hadn’t been done for a long time, something we thought was due, that we needed to make, something we felt had a contemporary feel.

“It’s all about young people – their lives, their loves and the mistakes they make; the things they go through and the process of growing up, emotionally as well as physically.”

Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson
Stephen Rea in War and Peace alongside Gillian Anderson

Rea, who plays Prince Vassily Kuragi, adds: “Sometimes the translations of War and Peace are very poor or heavy-handed, but the first thing I saw with Andrew’s script was how easy it would be to play. The language was light and easy. It’s an incredible piece of work.”

Davies focused the story around three characters in particular. Pierre, Natascha and Andrei are at the heart of the story, with their families and their relationships built into the wider narrative.

The writer’s preference for focusing on youth was shared by Harper. Jones says: “Tom’s brilliant. He’s very young and he brings youth to the piece so it feels very contemporary – not through any wobbly camera style but through the real, young heart he’s brought to the show. Tom also works so well with the actors and draws out interesting, fresh performances.”

Filming for the production took place across six months in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania as the production team quickly decided that 19th century Russia couldn’t be replicated on the backlots at studios such as Pinewood.

“It felt important for the creative direction of the show that it should feel very authentic,” says Penhale. “If we were building, we would have had to build five Russian palaces, which, given the budget, wouldn’t have been feasible. But it also mattered to us that we shot in St Petersburg, that we went to some of the locations where some of these events would have taken place. It adds to the sense of truth and naturalism to the production. I hope viewers get a sense of Russia as a character in the piece.”

Faith Penhale
Faith Penhale is set to join War and Peace coproducer Lookout Point early next year as joint CEO

The seven-year timespan during which the story takes place also meant the crew was always on the move to film scenes at each location in both summer and winter.

“We started in January in winter in St Petersburg and moved to Lithuania, and we did some in Latvia as well,” explains Jones. “As the seasons wore on, in the beginning of the summer we went back to St Petersburg, so it was a very well-thought-out shoot. The crew were brilliant.”

Overseeing such a huge production did have its challenges, of course, and none so big as the language barrier. “We’d be doing a big scene with lots of extras, either military or a huge dance scene, and we’d have English, Lithuanian, Russian and Latvian speakers,” Jones recalls. “If we had any huge challenge, we couldn’t move as swiftly because we were having to tell everybody in their own language what to do. It was fascinating, though, I really enjoyed it. A couple of us are also Welsh speakers, so we threw that into the mix and really freaked them out!”

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein might be best known for award-winning films such as The Artist and The King’s Speech, but within 24 hours of BBC1 announcing its plans to adapt War and Peace, he was on the phone to Penhale to help bring his “passion project” to life.

“Harvey tracked me down to my office in Cardiff and was ringing repeatedly on the hour,” Penhale says. “We had a great phone call where he said, ‘If you’re doing War and Peace, I want to do it. This is my favourite book of all time,’ and it went from there. It’s really born out of his passion for it.”

Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast
Hollywood actor Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave) is among the big names in the ensemble cast

Negeen Yazdi, president of international production at The Weinstein Company, says of the coproduction process: “The project matches the ambition, scale and material we want to be working on. With the BBC, we discovered very quickly our tastes were aligned, our ambitions for the project were aligned and that we’re not that different in the way we work. We’re all committed to the show and, above all, the show comes first. Like any working family relationship, there were disagreements and discussions but all in a very healthy way.”

Once The Weinstein Co was onboard, War and Peace was subsequently picked up in the US by A+E Networks-owned Lifetime, A&E and History, which will all simulcast the series from January 18 next year.

“The BBC and Weinstein marriage has been a surprisingly effective and powerful thing, in terms of both attracting talent and cast and making a statement to the industry that this is a big deal and you’d better pay attention,” says Simon Vaughan, CEO of Lookout Point. “That’s what it takes to get heard in a marketplace where thousands of new hours of TV are being produced each year.”

Vaughan adds that while coproductions of this magnitude can be tricky to navigate, all parties united behind Penhale’s leadership to bring the series to air.

“It’s about leadership – who’s the boss?” he says. “Faith was the boss and we all work for Faith. That is how it was from the beginning. As difficult as some moments were, when a call needed to be made, it got made. Somebody has to drive the train and if you don’t have that, run a mile. I’ve been around the block and done difficult coproductions and if there isn’t one clear leader, forget it. Don’t make it.”

As with any adaptation, plot points and character details have been chopped and changed, but Jones says Davies’ War and Peace is “very true” to Tolstoy’s original text.

“Inevitably there are some changes and characters that aren’t there – otherwise we’d be doing a 95-part series,” she says.

On the back of Doctor Who and Sherlock, BBC Wales has built up an impressive drama slate, and War and Peace is set to be the most ambitious yet.

“It is a great place to work,” Jones adds. “It started some time ago with the regeneration of Doctor Who. We’re quite bold. It’s very small but tight and hardworking team. We like to push ourselves.”

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Mipcom 2015: The peak of drama’s golden age?

Michael Pickard reflects on Mipcom 2015 and finds that while the huge supply of television drama shows no sign of abating, the business is getting much more complicated.

Was this it? Was this the peak of the latest golden age of television drama? Walking through Cannes this week for the annual Mipcom market, it was difficult to imagine what the next step might look like. What could possibly be around the corner that would make Mipcom 2015 look like a mere stepping stone to an even higher standard – a platinum age?

The evidence was there from day one, or more precisely, 08.00 on day one when hundreds of television executives took every last seat inside a screening room at the Majestic hotel to watch ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s flagship new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands.

Shiri Appleby in Cannes promoting UnREAL
Shiri Appleby in Cannes promoting UnREAL

This was the morning after the world premiere the night before of The Art of More, US VoD platform Crackle’s first foray into original drama that distributor Sony Pictures Television later revealed had been sold to 25 territories around the world.

Further screenings included crime thriller The Last Panthers, shopped by StudioCanal and Sky Vision, 20th Century Fox Television Distribution’s The X-Files, CBS Studios International’s new Showtime drama Billions, Starz’ The Girlfriend Experience, Endemol Shine International’s The Frankenstein Chronicles, Electric Entertainment’s period drama Mercy Street and Constantin Film’s young-adult novel adaptation Shadowhunters.

Many of the on-screen stars were also in Cannes to support their shows. Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth were on La Croisette to support The Art of More; Kieran Bew, Joanne Whalley and Ed Speelers championed Beowulf; Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen was promoting his new Australian drama Cleverman; and Stephen Rea and Tuppence Middleton spoke on stage during a session for the BBC’s epic new period drama War and Peace.

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer also flew into Cannes from the US to promote their Lifetime drama UnREAL, which is sold by A+E Networks, while Riley Keogh was talking about The Girlfriend Experience.

The Girlfriend Experience's Riley Keough
The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough

As the market played out, there were also no end of programming deals done and new partnerships formed. SundanceTV joined Sky and Canal+ as a coproduction partner on The Last Panthers, A&E picked up The Frankenstein Chronicles, Globo Brazil’s La Fiesta (The Party) travelled to buyers across Latin America, Asia and Europe, while Ale Kino+ in Poland grabbed rights to Franco-Norwegian political thriller Occupied.

Elsewhere, Germany’s ZDF landed The Missing, Finland’s YLE picked up Mr Robot (arguably one of the most sought-after series at this year’s market), France Télévisions added police drama No Offence and TF1 came on board RTL’s Hitler biopic. There were also more sales for Cold War series Deutschland 83.

But perhaps the deal of the market was pulled off by Israel’s Keshet International, which sold new eight-parter False Flag to Fox International Channels – the first time the broadcast group has picked up a foreign–language series for its global network.

The Palais itself (main image) and the nearby hotels were adorned in billboards promoting drama from around the world. The next big entertainment format might have been there too – it was hard to see.

Iain Glen attended to support Cleverman
Iain Glen attended to support Cleverman

But we knew this already. We knew there is more original drama being produced around the world than ever before and that audiences have an apparently insatiable appetite to immerse themselves in story. And we knew that, thanks to FX Networks chief John Landgraf’s summer briefing that sparked ongoing debate, this content bubble might burst in the next couple of years. Viewers might never have it so good again.

So despite the glut of international productions being pitched to potential buyers, new challenges emerged. In particular, the necessity for broadcasters to have on-demand and catch-up rights as well as linear is proving a tricky hurdle during negotiations.

During one panel highlighting buyers’ needs, Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom UK, said: “One of the biggest challenges for us at the moment is the ability to give our viewers the access when and where they want it. That’s a key focus for me.”

Jason Simms, senior VP of global acquisitions for Fox International Channels, echoed: “It’s not just the rights but where and how you can watch it. Buying wasn’t rocket science when I first started but it’s getting closer because of the technology. You have to keep on top of it.”

Tuppence Middleton spoke about the forthcoming War and Peace
Tuppence Middleton spoke about forthcoming BBC epic War and Peace

However, Jakob Mejlhede, exec VP of European broadcast giant Modern Times Group’s programming and content development, plotted a different course: “We want to secure good, strong catch-up rights but, having an SVoD service, it’s also in our interest that we guide our users behind the subscription window. It’s not in our interest to have a very long catch-up, we want a couple of weeks and then to bring them behind the subscription window.”

Mejlhede went on to say that although there’s plenty of demand for drama, the supply is perhaps too high: “There’s so much I can’t figure out what’s out there and what I haven’t watched. I think it may slow down a little bit.”

And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many dramas are available on the international market if the type of show you’re looking for isn’t there.

Mejlhede continued: “Generally there’s big difference between linear and online viewing. On linear, there’s a shortage of the good old procedurals. The last big launch we had was The Mentalist. Online, there’s much more room for experiments and serialised shows.”

Fox International Channels during a Mipcom panel
Fox International Channels’ Jason Simms during a Mipcom panel

Television drama continues to dazzle and amaze with fresh and innovative storylines, backed up by bigger budgets that are needed to create new, fantastical characters and the worlds they live in. Indeed, we’re running out of precious metals to describe the times the genre is living in.

If a show is good enough, it will always find a home, particularly now in the age of VoD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But they can’t buy everything, and if traditional broadcasters can’t find the show that fits their need, or win the rights they want to go with it, we could see either a downturn in production, more development deals between broadcasters eager to own rights from the start, or a mixture of both. We’ll have to wait until Mipcom 2016 to find out how this drama plays out.

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Master adapter gets real

Andrew Davies
Andrew Davies

Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies is primarily known for his superb adaptations of literary classics. Among his many, many TV credits are To Serve Them All My Days, House of Cards (the original version), The Old Devils, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Doctor Zhivago, Tipping The Velvet, He Knew He Was Right, Bleak House, A Room with a View, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit and the in-production War and Peace.

To this list must be added film credits such as Circle of Friends, The Tailor of Panama, the two Bridget Jones movies and Brideshead Revisited – confirming the view that Davies could probably adapt any book on the planet.

In a 2014 interview Davies was asked why he invested so much time on adaptations and came up with a beautifully succinct answer – that “fuck all happens to you” when you are a full-time writer. “There was plenty of material in the early days about infidelity, friction and all those kind of things. But I’ve settled down to a very even plane. So I haven’t really got material I would want to write about from my own life.”

As if to support this observation, one of Davies’ most famous original creations was A Very Peculiar Practice, a 1980s drama about a young doctor who takes up a post as a member of a university medical centre. This series, reportedly, was based on Davies’ experiences as a lecturer at Warwick University. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Davies didn’t become a full-time writer until 1987, aged 50 – juggling his teaching responsibilities with a burgeoning career as a TV writer.

War and Peace is currently in production
Davies’ adaptation of the classic novel War and Peace is currently in production

While Davies’ work on War and Peace shows that he continues to be in demand as a novel adapter, he has entered an interesting new dimension in his work in recent years – dramas based on real lives. The link is obvious, which is that both areas provide source material to work with. But the beauty of the real-life/biopic format is that Davies can take greater liberties with storytelling. On the one hand, he doesn’t have to try to shoehorn any book-based dialogue into his screenplay. On the other, he can enter the central character’s story wherever he chooses, taking a pivotal period in their life and using it as the starting point to provide a coherent character analysis.

ITV’s Mr Selfridge, for example, focuses on Harry Selfridge as he begins setting up Selfridge’s department store in London. But TV movie A Poet in New York looks at Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as he moves towards his untimely death (aged 39).

The idea for the Dylan Thomas project was initially brought to Davies by comedian/presenter/producer Griff Rhys Jones via his indie company Modern TV. Davies has talked about it in affectionate terms because of similarities between his own upbringing and that of Thomas. With both Welsh and born into teaching families, Davies says Thomas was “very big in my life.”

Now, Davies is writing another film-length biopic about a Welsh icon, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. Once again the idea, entitled A Nation’s Health, has come to him via Modern, and once again he will take a tangential look at his central character’s life.

A Poet in New York focused on Dylan Thomas's last days
A Poet in New York, another Davies show, focused on Dylan Thomas’s last days

Bevan is best known as the post-Second World War health minister who founded the UK’s National Health Service in 1948. But that could potentially make for quite a dry piece of TV. So Davies is going to drive the narrative along by focusing on Bevan’s fiery romance with his wife Jennie Lee. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: “I want it to be both personal and political. They would argue a lot. She kept him socialist and would have the last word on political matters, last thing at night in bed.”

The timing of the project is interesting, given the polarisation of British politics being witnessed at present. With the BBC also at loggerheads with the UK government over its future funding model and the question of impartiality, telling the story of an ardent Tory-hating socialist could be seen as bear-baiting. So the way Davies handles the story will attract close attention. That said, Davies is the man who adapted Michael Dobbs’ wicked political satire House of Cards for TV, so if anyone can steer a steady course through political controversy it’s him.

There was good news for another of the UK’s screenwriting titans this week with Stephen Poliakoff’s Closer to the Enemy being picked up by pay TV channel Starz in the US.

The six-part series, distributed by All3Media International, is a post-Second World War thriller that sees actor Jim Sturgess playing British intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson. Ferguson’s final task for the Army is to convince a captured German scientist (August Diehl) to hand over cutting-edge military technology crucial to national security – the jet engine.

The show will premiere in the UK on BBC2 before appearing next year on Starz, which previously picked up The Missing from All3. Stephen Driscoll, senior VP for sales at the distributor said: “Stephen Poliakoff and this wonderful cast of actors are creating a thrilling miniseries that will enthral audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. We look forward to announcing further deals in the near future.”

The movie version of Time After Time
The movie version of Time After Time

Still in the US, there was news this week that Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) has been commissioned to write the script for Time After Time, a TV adaptation of the 1979 novel of the same name by Karl Alexander.

Time After Time, which has already been adapted as a movie, imagines a world in which author HG Wells has invented a time machine that is then stolen by Jack the Ripper. Wells pursues the Ripper to 1979 in a bid to bring him to justice. Williamson is writing the script for Warner Brothers TV with Disney-owned ABC the commissioning network.

Another interesting story to come out of the US is a new Directors Guild of America (DGA) study that shows TV series with female showrunners are more likely to employ female writers, directors, editors and actresses than those exclusively run by men: “The findings suggest that creators and executive producers play an instrumental role in shifting the gender dynamics,” says the report’s author, Dr Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

“For example, on broadcast programmes with at least one female creator, women comprised 50% of writers. On programmes with no female creators, women comprised 15% of writers.” It’s not too surprising, but this kind of statistic clearly warrants attention.

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