Safety in numbers
Juliette Howell, co-CEO of House Productions, tells DQ about the prodco’s creative ambitions on the back of hit BBC series Sherwood and previews forthcoming ITVX crime drama Six Four.
While UK shows Sherwood and Six Four are both billed as crime dramas, that’s where the similarities end in terms of story. But what they do have in common is that both series are produced by House Productions, the London-based company established by Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell in 2016.
BBC drama Sherwood, one of the best British series of the past year, tells the story of the search for a double murderer in a small Nottinghamshire community that is still living with the divisions formed by the miners’ strike 40 years earlier.
Meanwhile, Six Four is based on Hideo Yokoyama’s novel and is set to launch next month. Set in Glasgow, it introduces detective Chris (Kevin McKidd), who is left startled by a new revelation about the unsolved case of a missing girl called Julie. When his own daughter goes missing, Chris learns of a cover-up in Julie’s case and soon uncovers a series of errors, corruption and unbridled ambition.
Chris’s wife Michelle (Vinette Robinson), a former undercover officer, then takes matters in her own hands to find their daughter, following a trail of clues into the criminal underworld from which she previously escaped.
The cast also includes Richard Coyle (Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore), James Cosmo (The Bay), Alex Ferns (The Irregulars), Iona Anderson (The Long Call), Andrew Whipp and Nalini Chetty. BBC Studios is distributing the series and will present the series to international buyers at BBC Studios Showcase taking place this week.
Here, House Productions co-CEO Howell tells DQ more about the company and the making of Six Four, which debuts on ITVX on March 30.
When House Productions started in 2016, what were your ambitions for the company?
Our vision for House was to be a home for exceptional creative talent working across scripted TV and film. As a company, our priority is to build a nurturing, supportive environment for emerging and established writers and directors in which their most original, exciting ideas can flourish.
We are intent on allowing ideas to take whatever shape best suits them, maintaining a fluid relationship between our film and TV slates. Last year, we confirmed that we at House have become wholly owned by BBC Studios. We know how lucky we are to have partners in them who share our ambition not just for growth and scale, but also for the way in which we achieve that growth, for the people we work with and the stories we tell.
How have those aims been met through a diverse slate of shows such as Sherwood, Life After Life, Trigonometry and Brexit: An Uncivil War?
We always aim for all our projects to have a sense of authorship and to be led by the creators we are working with, and I think you can sense that across the whole range of work we have produced so far, whether original ideas or adaptations.
Sherwood, for example, was our second project with playwright and screenwriter James Graham and is an original crime drama that is also a deeply personal project for James, being loosely based on two murders that took place in the Nottinghamshire town he grew up in. We are now thrilled to be working on a second season with James.
Life After Life, on the other hand, was based on the brilliantly inventive, award-winning novel by Kate Atkinson. The epic scope of the book posed some challenges in adapting it for the screen. But thanks to the wonderfully inventive creative team of our writer Bash Doran and director John Crowley, we were able to deliver a powerful, complex and life-affirming piece of television that nonetheless felt true to the grand poetry and scale of the book.
Sherwood was one of the standout British series of last year. Why do you think it caught the nation’s attention?
One of the things that made Sherwood particularly special was that, in James’s telling of this crime drama, he found a way to shine a light on a number of themes that not only resonated within the specific Nottinghamshire community in which the show is set, but also spoke to wider national issues.
Add to this the phenomenal work of our directors, Lewis Arnold and Ben Williams, and a cast of some of the finest British actors working today, and we found ourselves with a unique piece of television. It was brilliant to see this very specific story based in a very small English town have such resonance with audiences not just in the UK but globally. It really does show the power that good storytelling can have for audiences the world over.
What are your plans for season two?
S2 will feature a brand-new story set in the world of Sherwood, one which will nevertheless keep many of the defining features of the first season and see the return of several of our key characters. Once again, James’s story will be inspired by two real-life crimes and will look at how they impact on the community in which they take place. In doing so, the second series will pick up on many of the themes of the first, taking in the legacy of industrial relations and examining community, power, police, government, and the relationship between past and present in modern Britain.
You have built a strong partnership with writer James Graham through Sherwood and Brexit: An Uncivil War. How do you like to work with writers and other creative talent?
At House, we want to keep working with the voices we are passionate about, so having the chance to build such a strong partnership with James across multiple projects is very much a model for how we hope to work with the other talent on our slate. This is true of Six Four too, where we are working again with Ben Williams, one of our directors on Sherwood, as well as a number of other writers and directors we have worked with both at House and prior to setting up House.
Are there any connections or similar themes between your previous work and Six Four?
I think you could certainly draw parallels between Six Four and Sherwood as crime dramas, which are interested in institutions and power, but in all our work we’re keen to tell stories that feel distinctive in the way they approach different genres and layered in their approach to the themes and ideas at their heart. This is certainly true of Six Four, as it is for all our previous series. We are very excited to introduce the series to global buyers this week at BBC Studios’ Showcase 2023 and for them to find out more about why Six Four is a brilliant but also unique crime drama that will have audiences invested immediately.
What are the origins of the project and why were you interested in adapting Hideo Yokoyama’s novel?
We came across Hideo’s novel in early 2017 and were immediately struck by how original, complex and compelling the story felt, and how deeply rooted it was in the rich character journeys at its heart. Although it’s set in Japan, the themes of the story felt incredibly relevant to the political climate in the UK, and specifically Scotland, so we were confident it could be the basis for a powerful, character-led crime drama.
How faithful is the series to the source material?
Our series is inspired by the book, rather than being adapted directly from it. Many of the key themes and structures of Hideo Yokoyama’s work remain, but the source material served as a jumping-off point for Greg Burke’s scripts, rather than as a blueprint.
Setting it in the UK also required significant changes to elements that felt particular to Japan. For example, the novel speaks to a hierarchy and a deferential society that is specific to Japan, and the Japanese police in particular, and these structures hia are not reflected in quite the same way in Scottish society.
Grey’s Anatomy star Kevin McKidd returns to his native Scotland to play Chris. How did you cast him?
It was a mix of good fortune and a great match between actor and script. Kevin was our first choice from an early stage, so we were very lucky not only that he said yes, but also that the shoot landed at a time when he had a break in his Grey’s Anatomy schedule and could come back to Scotland and work on Six Four. Kevin loved the scripts and had worked with our writer, Gregory Burke, on the last drama series he shot over here, so it was a perfect fit.
How did you pair Kevin with Vinette Robinson, and how did they work together?
As with Kevin, we were very lucky to attach Vinette, who had been our first choice for Michelle from very early on. We’ve been fans of her work for some time, but her recent performance in Boiling Point felt like a particularly good calling card for the wonderful blend of warmth and steeliness that she brings to Michelle. She and Kevin were an even better combination than we could have hoped; they had a brilliant, instinctive chemistry from the very beginning and their styles felt very complementary.
What challenges did you face in development or production?
The novel is set within a very specific cultural context, so translating this story from Japan to the UK was an initial challenge, but one we felt Greg rose to magnificently.
When it came to the shoot, we were keen to achieve a sense of scale and cinema for the show, which meant embracing a number of challenging locations. For example, we shot in the Southern Highlands, which offered us a spectacular, atmospheric location but was particularly difficult to service and manage. The shoot also took place at a time when we were still managing Covid, and we had a number of key crew get sick when we were working on a very tight schedule, so we had to think on our feet and even managed to navigate some elements of production over Zoom.
How does Six Four offer something new for crime drama fans?
What feels particularly special about Six Four is its deeply human focus. In its essence, the story is about a relationship and how the events of the series impact on the crisis in Chris and Michelle’s marriage. The corruption in their marriage is reflected in the corruption they uncover in the institutions around them. As they are drawn deeper into the mystery of the story, they must navigate grief and betrayal and try to find their way back to each other. It’s moving, powerful and completely gripping.
Why do you think the series can also appeal to audiences around the world?
As well as being a compelling story, the themes at the heart of Six Four – themes of family, power and corruption, of who you should trust and how well you know the people you do trust – are universal, so we hope the show will speak to audiences around the world. There is also something wonderful about the striking Scottish setting, with its magnificent landscapes and urban spaces, that gives the series a particularity that we hope will appeal not just to a British audience, but to a wider global audience as well.
tagged in: BBC, BBC Studios, House Productions, ITVX, Juliette Howell, Sherwood, Six Four