From Dickensian and The Crimson Field to adaptations of Great Expectations, The Casual Vacancy, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution, Sarah Phelps is one of the UK’s most vibrant screenwriters. She tells DQ how she brings a novel to life on the small screen and reveals some of the most important writing lessons she has learned during her career.
Writer Sarah Phelps reunites with Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions to adapt another classic Christie novel. Michael Pickard finds out more about The Witness for the Prosecution.
At just 23 pages long, Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel The Witness for the Prosecution might seem a fairly lightweight proposition for a television adaptation.
But after the success of 2015’s And Then There Were None, writer Sarah Phelps and coproducers Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions have combined once again to bring another Christie tale to BBC1. It is due to premiere later this year and will also air on Acorn TV in the US.
“In the world of Agatha Christie, in terms of her iconic titles, it’s absolutely up there,” executive producer Damien Timmer says of the source material. “Some of her novels cast a very long shadow but The Witness for the Prosecution is one of her best conceits. It’s a very dark, twisted love story that collides with a big courtroom drama. It’s irresistible.”
Set in 1920s London, the short story opens with the brutal murder of glamorous and rich Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall, pictured top). All the evidence points to Leonard Vole (Billy Howle), a young chancer to whom the heiress left her vast fortune and who ruthlessly took her life, at least according to the housekeeper, Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan).
Leonard, however, is adamant that his partner, enigmatic chorus girl Romaine (Andrea Riseborough), can prove his innocence. Solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) and Sir Charles Carter KC (David Haig) represent him in court.
“It is one of her absolute best stories,” exclaims James Prichard, chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd and the author’s great-grandson. “It’s got a phenomenal twist to it. Romaine is one of the best characters my great-grandmother wrote. It’s a great story and it deserves the Sarah [Phelps] treatment.”
The length of the original tale failed to faze Phelps, who was new to the story and has stuck to her rule of not seeing previous adaptations of a property she is working on. She also specifically wanted to adapt the original short story, rather than the 1953 play Christie wrote based on it.
“I wanted to do the short story because it was the one that grabbed my imagination,” she admits. “Even though it’s incredibly brief, it builds up to this extraordinary twist and it felt exciting, like there was a lot of room in it for extrapolation and interpretation and creative input.”
She adds of the adaptation process: “It’s always about finding the story. You can have a novel that’s 800 pages long or a 20-page short story, but it’s always about asking what the story is. Whether it’s finding the key line through it like with Great Expectations, or with Witness, it’s the tiny little mentions and suggestions that make me think of something and it just sort of breathes and grows. I really enjoyed working on it.”
Published in 1925, it was one of Christie’s earliest works, set during a fascinating period of British history in which society was polarised between the rich and glitzy society life and the poverty experienced by many people in London in the years after the First World War.
“We talk about the glamour of the 1920s but the champagne, the shingled hair and the dancing on tables was only present for the proportion of the population who had money,” says Phelps. “Everybody else was caught up in a terrible postwar depression where people were starving. People came back from the war and pawned their medals and begged on street corners. So within those two extremes of that world, you throw in a story about money, sex and murder and it feels really explosive.”
Prichard continues: “There is this extraordinary disparity between the rich world of Emily and her ilk and the poorer world of Leonard, Romaine and Mayhew. Whereas And Then There Were None played towards the fears of the Second World War, this harks back to the after-effects of the First World War and how it impacted on everyone.”
Filming for the two-part drama took place earlier this year in Liverpool, which Timmer explains was a good match for a foggy 1920s London. “But we also needed locations outside London – big theatre set pieces and scenes set in the south of France,” he reveals. “We scouted all over the place and found Liverpool had more to offer than anywhere else. It has some glorious exteriors that do a very good job of passing for period London, arguably better than London itself.”
Telling a story that spans several different locations also presented a challenge for Timmer and Mammoth Screen, with just 120 minutes of screen time to fill.
“It’s two hours of television but in that time you’ve got to recreate large-scale courtroom scenes, London exteriors, 1920s vaudeville, big lavish scenes in the south of France and scenes in First World War trenches,” he notes. “We’re lucky to have [director] Julian Jarrold, who is one of our best filmmakers, and a pretty amazing production team assembled around him. We haven’t stinted at any of these things; the sheer scale of it is pretty remarkable.”
Phelps picks up: “It’s claustrophobic as well. You do spend a lot of time in the courtroom but it became a set of staircases and small rooms full of dark corners. It felt like place was really important and it was about creating a city around the people in The Witness for the Prosecution, all of whom were carrying this trauma of the war with them.
Collaborating with Jarrold was also a positive experience for Phelps, though the writer admits her scripts can be quite detailed in how she sees the story being brought to life on screen.
“I’m very descriptive with stage directions and almost what you could smell or feel if you were really there,” she admits. “I explain how cold it is or whether the carpet’s thin or so plush that your foot sinks in and leaves a footprint like Robinson Crusoe seeing a footprint on the beach. So that’s all there for anybody reading it to feel the world the way I feel it.
“You always have these conversations with your directors and you can tell people get really into it. Our art designer fell in love with the Mayhew house and was incredibly proud of the set. You have those conversations and you understand each other. The director and director of photography will also have thoughts and ideas of how to realise what I’ve written in the script, so there’s always got to be a trust and you’ve got to give people their own artistic licence.”
Timmer says Phelps is “brilliant” at adapting classic material. “Sarah claims not to have read any Agatha Christie so by coming to her work fresh and simply treating it as a classic novel, it leads to something very fresh in the world of Christie adaptations,” he explains. “Having been on the journey with her for And Then There Were None, we all felt her sensibility applied to Agatha Christie’s best stories is a very fruitful one.
“Sometimes people see Agatha Christie as much lighter than the writing actually is. They think it’s a very chintzy, Cluedo murder mystery but actually she is almost always much more complex than that. And Then There Were None was partly an exercise in making people reassess her and see quite how stark and dark and psychologically complex her writing can be, and Sarah is well placed to get to grips with that.”
Prichard says of Phelps: “She seems to be able to get between the lines of Agatha’s writing in a way that is very special. One thing she says is it’s an adaptation, it’s not a translation, so she does adapt, but to adapt means you’re working from the original and it has to be based in the original. And she does have this ability to take my great-grandmother’s stories and make them very real and bring them into a modern sensibility in a way I haven’t seen for a while. She’s just a great writer, and great writers create fantastic television.”
Following the success of And Then There Were None might seem daunting, but while Prichard admits that show was “the best thing we’ve done on TV ever,” he adds that with Phelps and Mammoth back at the helm, The Witness for the Prosecution could be even better. A+E Networks is distributing the series around the world.
“What Sarah and everyone else has brought to this is a different insight,” he says. “Everything Sarah puts in the story is in the original works if you read them properly. Particularly with Witness, which is just a short story, she’s added bits and given backstories but actually it all feels as if it fits within that. She’s taken a cough that the solicitor Mayhew has and she’s built a complete backstory around this one line in the book. It’s extraordinary how she gets this feel from these stories.”
Mammoth and Phelps will be back together again for another Christie adaptation in 2017, this time taking on Ordeal by Innocence, which is the first of seven adaptations the BBC will air over the next four years. Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders will follow, with writers and producers to be confirmed.
“I’m in no way an aficionado of her work; all I can say is this is my take and this is what I think, what I see and what I think these stories are about,” Phelps explains. “But maybe because I’m unfamiliar with them, that unsettling quality perhaps comes across because I don’t have any prior relationship with them.
“I think she is an unsettling writer and she nails very succinctly and very forensically a sense of identity, a sense of Englishness where actually there’s a real tension to that identity – and there’s a tension to it because there’s a body on the floor and that body’s been murdered. They’re entertaining stories and deliciously plotted but there’s also something else going on, something quite worrying and dangerous.”
Having produced the long-running Poirot series for ITV, Timmer says he has a soft spot for the author and hopes to continue that relationship in the future.
“We’re relishing this chance to take some of the very best titles and treat them as standalone modern classics,” he adds. “As long as one can access those titles, we’re happy to continue as long as we’re wanted.”
Opportunities for international content to be aired in the US have always been limited – outside of scripted formats, Spanish-language drama for the Hispanic audience and commercially driven Canadian series produced with the US in mind.
However, the emergence of SVoD platform Acorn TV has helped open up the market. Over the last few months, the platform has acquired rights to shows like The Secret Agent (UK), Jericho (UK), Jack Irish (Australia), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Dominion Creek (Republic of Ireland) and The Disappearance (France).
This week, RLJ Entertainment-owned Acorn has continued its acquisition spree by picking up exclusive SVoD rights to UK dramas And Then There Were None and Capital from Agatha Christie Limited and FremantleMedia respectively.
Both are miniseries, underlining the fact that Acorn is a way for producers of short-run content to reach a market that favours longer series.
Acorn’s role in the market is reinforced in a couple of other ways. The first is that it is also an established player in DVD and blu-ray, which means it is able to offer content owners broad-based home entertainment deals. The second is that it is also exploring the potential for coproductions with European partners. Its goal is to make original Agatha Christie dramas for the US market.
Acorn isn’t the only emerging opportunity for non-US content to crack the Americas. This week, Zodiak Rights licensed all North and Latin American rights for Australia thriller Wolf Creek to Lionsgate. Within the US, Wolf Creek will air in 80 million homes via Pop TV, a joint-venture channel that Lionsgate runs with CBS.
Based on the feature film of the same name, Wolf Creek tells the story of a murdering psychopath who wreaks havoc in the Australian Outback.
Lionsgate president of worldwide television and digital distribution Jim Packer said: “This is the kind of terrifying, in-your-face thriller that has become a Lionsgate trademark, and we expect it to resonate with audiences. We believe Wolf Creek will add an exciting new dimension to Pop’s growing roster of programming.”
Still on acquisitions, Viacom International Media Networks has picked Syfy’s Wynnona Earp series for its Spike channel in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. The series is based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel from Beau Smith, which follows a descendent of Wyatt Earp as she battles demons and other supernatural beings. VIMN’s pick up follows Syfy’s decision to renew the series for season two last week.
Main production headlines include the news that A+E-owned channel Lifetime has greenlit a TV version of 1988 movie Beaches, with Frozen star Idina Menzel in the lead role. The movie-to-TV series trend has been very prevalent in the US over the last couple of years, with cable channels tending to fare a bit better than the big four networks.
Lifetime, for example, adapted Steel Magnolias in 2012 and was rewarded with record ratings. Beaches was a big hit in 1988. It starred Bette Midler and introduced the world to the Grammy award-winning song Wind Beneath My Wings.
HBO, meanwhile, has renewed Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s sports-themed comedy-drama Ballers for a third season. Created by Stephen Levinson, the show features Johnson as a retired NFL superstar mentoring younger players. The season three renewal comes despite the fact the second season has just kicked off with low ratings compared with season one. The latest episodes scored 1.3 million viewers compared with season one’s 1.7 million average.
HBO is also having to field constant questions about the future for its hit series Games of Thrones, season six of which finished in late June. The network has said the show will end after season eight, but rumours abound that HBO is looking at spin-offs. Such is the strength of the franchise that it would be very surprising if HBO gives up on this ratings juggernaut without a serious fight.
Also renewed this week was TNT’s The Last Ship, which has been given a fourth season of 13 episodes. That decision is no surprise given that the show is reaching an average of 7.6 million viewers per episode across all platforms.
Based on William Brinkley’s novel, the series chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly wipes out the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer USS Nathan James avoids falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now, the captain and crew must confront a new existence where they may be among the few survivors.
In a slightly unusual story, US pay TV network Epix has created a 360-degree interactive video experience to support its upcoming original drama Berlin Station. The interactive video, which is available online and via mobile, includes extended storylines developed with the show’s writers. According to Epix, the interactive content will “provide additional information about the characters and extend plot lines with an immersive experience that expands with each new episode of the series. (It will) build fan engagement and facilitate deeper exploration of the plot.”
Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix, added: “Epix was designed for cross-platform viewing. Now, we’re tapping the latest technology to create new approaches to storytelling.”
Ayzenberg designed the digital experience and led the project development. “The best stories have many layers and seemingly endless possibilities,” said Rebecca Markarian, its senior VP of digital and social media. “We aimed to deliver that with BerlinStation.com and I’m confident we delivered through authentic storytelling and innovative technology.”
In other news, Amazon has greenlit a full miniseries version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon after the pilot received a positive response from subscribers.
News from Canada, meanwhile, is that production company True Gravity has joined a sci-fi drama series from filmmaker Robert Watts. Called Election Day, the show is set in the year 2055 with the world heading towards economic collapse. It follows the first election to select a world president whose mission is to contain a global revolution from humans with enhanced capabilities.
tagged in: Acorn, Amazon, And Then There Were None, Ballers, Beaches, Berlin Station, Capital, Election Day, Epix, Game of Thrones, HBO, Jim Packer, Lifetime, Pop TV, The Last Ship, The Last Tycoon, TNT, True Gravity, Wolf Creek, Wynonna Earp, Zodiak Rights
And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s seminal murder mystery – but just how was this story of 10 strangers stranded on an isolated island brought to the screen?
It was first published in 1939 as the world stood on the brink of war, but Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (ATTWN) remains the celebrated author’s most popular work.
More than 70 years after it was written, the chilling murder mystery is still the best-selling crime story of all time and was recently voted Christie’s most popular novel.
And now it’s been given the television treatment after BBC1 and US cable network Lifetime partnered to bring it to the small screen – but just how did Agatha Christie Ltd (ACL), producer Mammoth Screen and writer Sarah Phelps adapt the story?
And Then There Were None sees 10 strangers brought together on a mysterious island, but as they wait for their hosts, they find themselves cut off from civilisation. The guests then start to die, one by one, according to the rules of Ten Little Soldier Boys, a nursery rhyme that ends with the words: “… and then there were none.”
The ensemble cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor and Aidan Turner.
Best known for her “cosy crime” stories featuring Miss Marple and Poirot, it was time for people to see the other side of Agatha Christie, says Hilary Strong, CEO of ACL. “And Then There Were None is probably Christie’s seminal book,” she says. “Sarah did an amazing adaptation but the book itself is very dark and brutal. We haven’t changed the tone of it. That’s how she wrote it.”
Mammoth’s executive producers Karen Thrussell and Damien Timmer have a long history with Christie, having previously produced Poirot for ITV. Thrussell says that with no detective at the centre of the plot, ATTWN immediately stands out as “amazingly different and inventive.”
She adds: “It’s a dark, dark book – the original slasher thriller – but it’s also very psychological. It was absolutely the one we most wanted to do. So we got in touch with Sarah, who’s one of our favourite writers. I don’t think she’d actually read Agatha Christie before and I think she was knocked over sideways actually reading this book because it’s not what you expect from Christie.”
Phelps describes the story as “remorseless. You thought you knew what this woman (Christie) was about,” she says. “Her mind was absolutely extraordinary. You kind of forget that. Agatha the writer and Agatha the brain get lost in Agatha the brand. I was profoundly shocked by it in a really exciting way. That’s what I really hope comes across. It’s brutal.”
When writing the book, Christie worked backwards, starting at the end when everyone is dead and the police arrive too late, penning it over two years. Phelps similarly approached the adaptation as a puzzle, trying to make sure all the characters’ whereabouts were known when another person died and yet ensuring that each remained a suspect.
“You have to build it inside your head and let the characters walk around it,” she says. “I took the dog on really long walks and stamped around to get the atmosphere of it and then I sat down and threw everything I had at it and hoped for the best. You can find yourself thinking, ‘Well, in the book you know this person’s there because you’re told.’
“When you put it in a three-dimensional setting, you need to make sure that when a murder happens, viewers know where everybody is and yet they could all legitimately be the murderer of the person that’s just died. You can bash your head against the walls a couple of times thinking about how to solve that. But that’s part of the fun. And if you can make those reasons characterful, then it’s dramatic.”
The reveal in the original text was also saved for two epilogues at the end of the story, meaning Phelps also had to find a way for the story to be resolved on screen – one of several changes she made to Christie’s novel.
“The two epilogues tell you everything that happened after the event and how it was all planned, giving insight into the process of doing it. But you don’t want to finish your drama and have a couple of epilogues, so you want to pull that into the structure of the drama itself,” she says.
“There are little things we changed slightly to facilitate bringing that stuff into the body of the drama. I changed one of the crimes just because I wanted the character to have a much closer connection to it; I wanted to actively make him a murder victim rather than somebody who did something and then death just happened. I wanted them to be active agents in the destruction of another life.”
Craig Viveiros was brought in to direct the series, while production designer Sophie Becher was often found trawling antique shops and junk markets to find props that were authentic to its 1939 setting.
“Sophie very much wanted to keep the style as Sarah had written, with the house on the island very white and modern,” Thrussell says. “There’s a theme of deterioration as the show goes on because you start with a slightly more optimistic lighting set-up, the characters get to the house and it’s rather nice and the food’s excellent.
“Then gradually as it descends into chaos, it gets darker and their appearance becomes dishevelled and not so neat. There’s that progression that’s been carefully tracked throughout. We also did that that with the music – it got more experimental as we went through. It was a bit of a journey.”
Having aired in three-parts on BBC1 over Christmas, ATTWN will also appear as two 90-minute instalments on Lifetime in the US in spring.
Joel Denton, MD of international content sales and partnerships at Lifetime parent A+E Networks, says joining forces with the BBC for the miniseries was a “no-brainer.”
“For Lifetime, it doesn’t get much better,” he says. “Sarah’s retelling of a book we all think we know but actually don’t quite know is extraordinary. For us, looking at a piece like this as an event and Agatha Christie as a brand, along with the great cast and two great storytellers, it was a no-brainer.
“We’re excited to be able to use the brand, which still means a lot in the States. Rob Sharenow (Lifetime’s executive VP of programming), who bought the show very early on before he’d seen anything from Sarah, knew the book well. He’d read the book as a child, loved it and they just needed some hooks – which are the cast as well as Agatha – to be able to market it to the audience in the US.”
Strong says the show was always conceived as a coproduction in order to bring together the high-profile cast they wanted from the outset.
“It was never going to be a cheap thing to do so we started talking to America very early on in the process, even before Sarah had written the script,” she explains. “Working with Joel at A+E and Lifetime was a revelation because, at the same time as we were trying to ensure the world saw a different side to Agatha Christie’s work, Lifetime was also trying to move away from its very female audience, so it was a real brand match in terms of what we were trying to do.
“This is a BBC show written by Agatha Christie – it’s very inherently British. A+E and Lifetime needed a cast that resonated with their audience so we got them an extraordinary cast. Charles Dance, Aidan Turner looking very different to Poldark, Sam Neil, Burn Gorman – it’s just a fantastic team of people and they worked so well together. They loved it.”
With the story literally coming to a dead end, there’s no chance of a second season – so why was this adapted for television and not made into a movie?
“What I love about TV is you have time to explore things,” Thrussell says. “One of the things Sarah did beautifully was to really get to know these people and I don’t think you could do that in a two-hour film. What’s brilliant about TV is that you can explore the longevity of things. I don’t know how you’d do it justice as a film. TV is great for character development, that’s what makes it interesting.”
With a big-screen remake of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, due in November 2017, ACL is continuing to find ways to bring Christie to new and younger audiences.
“We would love to make more TV in the future but we will do it very carefully and very sparingly,” Strong adds. “We don’t want to have a thousand Christies in production. But I’d love to adapt Witness for the Prosecution next.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
tagged in: And Then There Were None, Banished, BBC, Black Earth Rising, Broken, Colin Callender, Colin McKeown, Conor McPherson, David Thompson, Dickensian, Drama Republic, Ed Rubin, Fiona Seres, Greg Brenman, Howards End, Hugo Blick, Jimmy McGovern, Joe Ahearne, Kenneth Lonergan, Kris Mrksa, LA Productions, Mark Gatiss, Mike Bartlett, Origin Pictures, Paula, Playground Entertainment, Polly Hill, Press, Requiem, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, Steven Moffat, The Replacement, Tony Jordan, War and Peace, Woman in White
The international drama community gathered at the BFI on London’s South Bank for three days of screenings, panel sessions, case studies and awards. Michael Pickard looks back on C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London.
On the south bank of the River Thames, hundreds of producers, writers and broadcasters from around the world gathered in London for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit this week.
Held at the British Film Institute, the event took in three days of screenings, panel sessions and interviews covering the hottest talking points in the business – from budgets and coproductions to what commissioners are looking for to fill their schedules.
Audiences took in the first images of new Icelandic drama Trapped, written by Clive Bradley and produced by Dynamic Television. Producer Klaus Zimmermann discussed the challenges of working with nine commissioning broadcasters, among them SVT, DR1, DRK, France Télévisions and BBC4.
Bradley also spoke about his positive experience working in a US-style writers room for the first time. “It’s always going to be true that if you have four rather than one brain that you will create more,” he said. “The turnaround was always going to be very quick because you’ve got at least eight months to do 10 episodes.”
There was also a packed house for a first glimpse at ITV’s forthcoming period drama Victoria, starring former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman. “Jenna was born to be queen,” said Damien Timmer, from producer Mammoth Screen.
Writer Daisy Goodwin added: “I’ve tried to tell the story of a teenager growing up with a crown. She’s not the queen you expect. It’s drama but everything that happens is true.”
Among the drama case studies, the creative teams from shows including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The Collection, Dickensian, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Capital and Jekyll & Hyde took to the stage to reveal secrets from behind the scenes.
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong said she always envisioned And Then There Were None to be a coproduction, with the three-parter due to air on BBC1 in the UK and Lifetime in the US.
“Working with Joel [Denton, A+E Networks ] and A+E has been a real revelation. This is a BBC show, it’s inherently British, but A+E didn’t demand we put any US stars in as per the old coproduction thing. That is over. Instead, we knew it needed a cast that resonated [in the US] so there was a dialogue.”
Elsewhere, executives discussed spiralling budgets, creating an increasing need to piece together funding through multiple streams – whether via licence fees, private funding, distribution financing or pre-sales.
And while there was plenty of talk about the alleged saturation of the TV drama market, it was clear that many executives simply believe that while there might be too many shows, there aren’t enough great shows.
Morgan Wandell (pictured top), head of drama series for Amazon Studios, said as much during his keynote session when he warned producers against making run-of-the-mill, “industrial grade” procedurals.
He told delegates that Amazon Studios is aiming to make shows that are a “step above” what is already on offer, such as the SVoD platform’s recently launched The Man in the High Castle.
“If you’re making industrial-grade procedurals then good luck, but you do run the risk of being washed out,” he said, adding that some producers and writers “have built up specific muscles in TV. We’ve stripped away narrative tropes they relied on.”
Meanwhile, UK commissioners noted the changing television landscape as genre tastes and viewing habits continue to evolve.
BBC drama commissioner Polly Hill claimed TV audiences are now more open than ever to “complex, tricky” plots as she unveiled a new series from Luther creator Neil Cross set in a pre-apocalyptic London.
Hard Sun, which will air in 2017 and is produced by Euston Films, follows detectives Elaine Renko and Robert Hicks, partners and enemies, who seek to protect their loved ones and enforce the law in a world slipping closer to certain destruction.
Hill told the Drama Summit that the success of the BBC’s recent drama slate, including Sherlock and Happy Valley, was evidence that “mainstream is really moving and big audiences will watch really complex, tricky subjects.”
Sky head of drama Anne Mensah and drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach described the differences between the networks they look after. Watching Sky Atlantic was compared to buying a ticket for a blockbuster film, while Sky Arts was likened to an art house cinema – though not for niche storytelling.
The pair said story was key across the board, however, adding that the pay TV broadcaster’s development team is now commissioning year-round for all three networks, including Sky1, and that channel boundaries remain fluid depending on the project.
ITV director of drama Steve November was more specific when describing his channel’s needs for the next two years. With shows such as Victoria and Jericho coming up in 2016, the broadcaster is well placed to retain viewers following the end of long-running hit Downton Abbey, which concludes with a Christmas special later this month.
And while ITV remains keen on period dramas – with Dark Angel and Doctor Thorne also coming up next year – November said he was looking for a range of new contemporary dramas to fill the 21.00 slot.
“I have got to be honest, I watched [the BBC’s] Dr Foster with a degree of envy and I wish we had that show,” he said. “Big romantic thrillers and a family relationship drama are real priorities for us.”
Channel 4 drama team Piers Wenger and Beth Willis also talked about the challenge of building a year-round drama slate, and how they approach traditional genres such as crime, period and sci-fi in a fresh way (see No Offence, Indian Summers and Humans respectively).
Deputy head of drama Willis said: “If it could be on another channel, we shouldn’t be doing it. We’re always looking for shows with an edge.”
Wenger, C4’s head of drama, revealed there are a variety of funding models in play at the broadcaster, such as its international coproduction strategy that saw Humans produced with US cable channel AMC.
As the conference drew to a close, the challenges of the future came into view – keeping viewers tuning into linear broadcasts, judging success in ways other than overnight ratings, piecing together financing in a world where there are no longer any set models for production and finding ways to tell new stories in an increasingly competitive market.
There will never be a formula for creating a hit series, but the ambition to find the next big hit is continuing to drive the business forward in new and innovative ways, ensuring the appetite for television drama will remain undiminished for some time to come.
tagged in: A+E Networks, Agatha Christie Ltd, Amazon, And Then There Were None, Anne Mensah, BBC, Beth Willis, C21 International Drama Summit, Cameron Roach, Channel 4, Clive Bradley, Content London, Daisy Goodwin, Damien Timmer, Dynamic Television, Hard Sun, Hilary Strong, ITV, Jekyll and Hyde, Klaus Zimmermann, Mammoth Screen, Morgan Wandell, Neil Cross, Piers Wenger, Polly Hill, Sky, Steve November, The Man in the High Castle, Trapped, Victoria
Agatha Christie Ltd CEO Hilary Strong explains why adaptations of the celebrated author’s stories, which remain popular across the world, will keep on coming.
The 125th anniversary of the birth of author Agatha Christie this year is being marked with two new television adaptations.
Sleuthing couple Tommy and Tuppence appeared in a new BBC1 series called Partners in Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, in July. A six-part drama placing the characters in the 1950s, it re-imagined the events of Christie novels The Secret Adversary and N or M? across two three-part stories produced by Endor Productions.
BBC1 has also partnered with US cable network Lifetime on a new adaptation of And Then There Were None, which was named the world’s favourite Christie novel in a survey published in September.
The classic thriller, which tells of 10 individuals invited to an isolated island where they are killed one by one by an unknown murderer, has been adapted by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations) and produced by Mammoth Screen. The cast includes Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens and Aidan Turner, and is due to air on BBC1 this Christmas.
These new adaptations serve as a fitting tribute to the prolific writer, dubbed the Queen of Crime. But they also represent the efforts of Agatha Christie Ltd to introduce her to a new generation of fans by becoming more proactive when exploiting the rights to the author’s vast library.
Hilary Strong (pictured top), CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, says: “The brief from Mathew Pritchard, Christie’s only grandchild and chairman of the company, was that we would work together to exploit the brand ourselves and that’s why he brought me in with my television background,” explains Strong. “We were coming to the end of our Poirot films series on ITV that first aired in 1989. David Suchet’s work as Poirot is iconic and no one else has played a leading drama role for 25 years. It’s an extraordinary thing to have done but we knew they were finishing and we knew then that we had to do something new and fresh.
“It gave us the opportunity to sit back and decide what we wanted to do. Did we want to carry on with Christie being the traditional, much-loved work that it is? People’s perception of it is ‘cosy crime.’ But for a brand to remain alive and resonate for a modern audience, it needs to do something new and give a different message.”
With a background in television and rights management, Strong is perfectly placed for this new challenge. She was previously MD of Acorn Productions, where she had responsibility for developing drama around the works of Christie and other properties, including Foyle’s War. She has also worked for Chorion (Enid Blyton, Paddington Bear) and was group business director at Hat Trick Productions.
With Partners in Crime, the company made its first move away from ‘cosy crime,’ setting the action in a more recent period and casting Walliams and Raine to attract a younger audience. And Then There Were None, while set in 1939, has a more contemporary tone and is, Strong says, “really fucking scary.”
She explains: “Sarah Phelps has done an amazing job and has been absolutely truthful to the story while giving us this deep dark tone. For me, it embodies what we’ve been trying to do – take something and retell it so it appeals to modern audiences. If we can achieve that, then we’ve done our job. I don’t want to shake off the cosy crime image but I want people to understand that Christie can be delivered in a different way.”
The company isn’t just interested in a new way of telling Christie – it is also shaking up the way its television adaptations are built. No longer simply licensing rights away, Agatha Christie Ltd is keeping its hand in the creative process and building direct relationships with broadcasters and suggesting potential projects before selecting the production partners they want to work with to bring the idea to the screen.
“It is quite unusual,” Strong says of the strategy. “It helps that there are relationships before that process. Damien Timmer, who runs Mammoth, was an executive producer at ITV on Poirot and Miss Marple, so he has a long relationship with the family and the company. When we sat down with him, he was extremely open to the benefits of collaboration because you get a different insight when you’ve got people who really know the brand involved. The script process is very collaborative but once production starts, they get on and make the programme. It works really well.
“The thing I was most keen to do was move away from the idea that the estate is there to approve or disapprove, which does happen with estates. So if we get it right and we’ve chosen the right writer and worked on the scripts, then once you get to production, those parts are in place. It would be quite unusual to hit a fundamental problem then.
“We also do a lot of the design stuff together because that’s really important to us. We need to make sure the imagery being used when you get to promotion works cross-platform. We had new book covers for Partners in Crime, with a logo that goes across the TV programmes.”
Christie isn’t just popular in Britain, however. Strong says the novelist’s works have been translated into more languages than those of any other author, while TV adaptations have been sold into more than 180 countries. Japanese network NHK aired a two-part version of Murder on the Orient Express in January this year, produced by Fuji TV. And French broadcaster France 2 is behind Les Petits Meutres d’Agatha Christie, which plants two detectives into Christie plots. Twenty-three episodes have been produced by Escazal Films since 2009.
“What’s been really interesting is just how big Christie is in other countries,” says Strong. “In South America, Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, Christie is huge and they have their own indigenous productions in foreign languages.”
She also suggests a big deal for the German-language rights to Christie’s books is near completion, adding that the estate is very open to doing “very radical, avant garde, contemporary new things” with Christie’s stories.
“But we’re unlikely to muck about with the core plot because that’s what works,” she explains. “When people start trying to mess with it, that’s when it goes wrong. You can tell it in a new way, give it a contemporary tone or set it in a contemporary setting. And Then There Was None means there is no one left at the end. It’s not a returning series!”
Strong recognises the drama business is tougher now than at any point in her career: “The fact that budgets have come down and expectations in terms of quality are higher, together with the need to compete on the international market, means your vision and scale has had to go up.
“It’s a very good time for drama. There’s an awful lot out there but that’s because there’s an appetite for it. As people keep on watching it, people want more. And the fact there’s so much, if you’ve got a brand like Christie, you can put your head above the parapet a bit and people can find you in the schedules.
“But one of the things we don’t do is work with people just because they think the brand will help them sell more shows. We will only work with people we know have a genuine love for the stories. We have tried developing a couple of smart ideas and then down the road realised the people we were working with didn’t have the depth of understanding of the brand, and in those circumstances it rarely works. If you work with people who understand Christie, it just works much better.”
Strong would love to see Witness for the Prosecution, a short story about a woman who gives evidence for the prosecution in her husband’s murder trial, made for television and says the global appeal of Christie’s stories is in the pure and simple language she uses.
In the meantime, fans can look forward to a new big-screen version of Murder on the Orient Express, which will be directed by Kenneth Branagh for 20th Century Fox. Branagh will also star as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who must investigate a murder on board the famous train – but there are a number of passengers who could have committed the crime.
Agatha Christie Ltd has also launched its own digital drama based upon Christie’s character Mr Quin, which launched as an app in November 2015.
But what is it about Christie’s work that means it has stood the test of time? “Her plot lines are just ingenious and her characters are lovable,” Strong adds. “People adore them. And the breadth – there are 33 Poirot novels to read. You’re not going to do it in a hurry.
“I don’t see any time when people don’t want to carry on reading her books. Our job is to retell those stories in a way that makes them accessible for people. What I’d love – and would tell me I’d done my job – is if people watched And Then There Were None and then went back and read some of the original books.”
tagged in: Agatha Christie Ltd, And Then There Were None, BBC1, Endor Productions, Hilary Strong, Kenneth Branagh, Lifetime, Mammoth Screen, Murder on the Orient Express, Partners in Crime, Sarah Phelps
Sarah Phelps has been at Mipcom in Cannes this week, promoting And Then There Were None, her adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic thriller for the BBC and Lifetime.
Explaining the appeal of the project, she says: “Until I read this, I had never read any Agatha Christie before. I knew about Marple and Poirot so I thought of her work as a camp treat. When I read this book it took my breath away. It wasn’t anything like I expected. I was sideswiped by its coldness and savagery. It was surprising and shocking but also thrilling.”
For Phelps, the project seemed to both foreshadow the horrors of World War Two and, at the same time, echo a Greek Tragedy: “I kept thinking of Electra. It’s a story where there is nowhere to hide. You can make all the excuses you want, but it doesn’t make a difference. The characters have broken some pledge in their essential humanity and now they are before the ferocious eye of God. It’s a story that has a really ancient idea of judgement. There is no ambiguity, reasoning or mitigation.”
While a superb film adaptation of And Then There Were None was released in 1945, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Phelps says she has “a hard and fast rule” to not look at previous versions. “When adapting, I only look at the books – otherwise it is someone else’s interpretation. It has to be a pure response.”
In terms of making the story relevant, the writer says it wasn’t too difficult to make an emotional connection between the sombre mood on the eve of WW2 and the current air of danger and despondency that exists in Europe. “We don’t change in our lusts and enmities and pettiness and jealousies – we just get wifi. What you have to do to stay relevant is invest your story with all the passions and complexities you’d expect from your characters. If you try too hard to be relevant, you’ll fail because the world around you is shifting all the time.”
Phelps laughs when she is referred to as an adapter of novels: “A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have expected to be talking about adaptations today. I was writing EastEnders, a production for which I have a massive passion. I then got a call from the BBC asking if I would consider adapting Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I said yes because I like writing about London and have a fruitiness of language that was right for the project. And I’m quick at writing scripts, which was important because this was a late call in terms of the production schedule. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading the book and then telling the story as it was in my head. It felt like something that came naturally, and it wasn’t that dissimilar to working on a show like EastEnders.”
Part of the excitement for Phelps is working with source material that many people don’t actually know quite as well as they might think. “People think they know Oliver Twist but not many have actually read the novel. And there is a lot of surprising stuff in there. It was the same when I adapted Great Expectations. For example, it has become the norm to present Miss Haversham as an old witch – but show me the page where it says she has to be like that. The story has always been regarded as having a fusty familiarity but it’s actually a brutal tale of failure that carries with it this plot centred on a corrupt, sexualised education.”
Phelps is at her most passionate when talking about EastEnders: “I was always devoted to it. I grew up watching it and was thrilled to bits to work on it. Some people are dismissive of soaps but it’s an incredibly important show – and when it hits its note, it sings. The show doesn’t shy away from doing incredibly serious stuff but it can also be lots of fun and really entertain the audience.
“It plays an important role in the early evening when people have just come home from work and are tired. It says, ‘Stick with me and I’ll tell you a story… you won’t be alone.’ It’s the fire in the cave and you’re the storyteller. And when people are moved by it, you walk on air.”
Phelps is not a writer who has a problem introducing diversity to her projects. She’s been doing it since she wrote radio drama Westway for the BBC World Service and always tries to avoid the easy option when shaping a character.
“I think things have changed in my time because so many good people have been challenging on this issue. We don’t have to automatically assume a character is white. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement when Sophie Okonedo was cast as Nancy in my adaptation of Oliver Twist. I really liked the recent drama Danny and the Human Zoo (from Red Productions) – and I also liked the fact it had a black female director.”
Phelps is very much in demand as a writer now. She tries to get back and pen an episode of EastEnders when she can but also has new projects coming through. She is, for example, one of a number of writers working on Red Planet’s Hooten and the Lady, an adventure series with a touch of Indiana Jones about it.
“It’s going to be an extravagantly fun romance/action adventure. I like darkness and brow-furrowing but I also really like shows with lots of gags and banter and swinging through the air finding treasure. We all need stuff that makes us laugh and makes us feel like we’re in the company of good mates.”
And Then There Were None will debut on BBC1 in the UK later this year to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth.
Television executives from around the world are heading to Cannes for the annual Mipcom market – but what will be the major talking points? A+E Networks’ Joel Denton offers Michael Pickard his insight.
The debate that raged this summer concerned whether there is too much television, or just not enough great television. That conversation is likely to be amplified over the next week as TV executives from around the world head to the south of France for the annual Mipcom market and conference in Cannes.
How much business is actually done at the event, beginning on Monday, is questionable but, more importantly, it is a place for relationships to be forged, partnerships to be cemented and, in today’s global drama business, new stories and plot lines to be conceived.
Highlights from the four-day event will include the world premieres of The Last Panthers, a French/UK thriller set across three countries, and The X-Files reboot. Keynote speakers include Showtime president David Nevins, producer Mark Gordon (Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds) and Dana Walden and Gary Newman, co-chairmen and CEOs of Fox Television Group.
The drama output from Turkey will also be put into sharp focus after it was named the Country of Honour for this year’s event, with conference sessions covering subjects including the adaptation potential of Turkish scripted formats.
Moreover, while coproduction opportunities have been one of the major talking points for the market over the last few years, 2015 could herald a new wave of partnerships. As competition for the best series grows, producers, broadcasters and distributors are looking to board projects as early as possible with co-development deals. The Last Panthers is one case in point, with producers Haut et Court in France and the UK’s Warp Films building a story that not only crosses borders but also satisfies the needs of both commissioning broadcasters, Sky and Canal+.
US cable broadcaster A+E Networks heads to Cannes with a drama slate including Lifetime series UnREAL, forthcoming Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None (pictured top), which will air on Lifetime and BBC1, and the remake of 1970s slavery drama Roots, which will air across A+E’s Lifetime, History and A&E channels in 2016.
Joel Denton, A+E Networks’ MD of international content sales and partnerships, says: “The thing with drama is there’s so much great stuff. Two or three years ago we’d have been speaking about factual and formats but it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of new stuff getting done in that space, whereas in scripted there’s a huge amount.
“The question is how much the marketplace can take and how much audiences can take. The change of viewing patterns is driving that with binge-viewing. It’s changing the nature of what works. Every bus I get on now, people seem to be watching drama on their phone or iPad. They’re consuming it everywhere.”
This means broadcasters have to be smarter, Denton argues, as they look at what works for their audience, how they launch and promote shows and how they work with over-the-top providers such as Netflix and Amazon – or fight them to keep exclusivity.
“There’s a lot of experimentation going on and it will be very interesting over the next 24 months to see where it all washes out,” he continues. “There’s so much great drama being made at the moment. Is there too much? Possibly. Are we building up to a bubble? Maybe. But the quality of everything is just fantastic and coming from different countries, not just the UK, the US or Scandinavia. There’s stuff coming from all over and it’s really exciting.”
Financing these series, however, continues to be challenging as producers seek bigger and bigger budgets to meet viewers’ increasing expectations of quality. A+E Networks coproduced BBC series War and Peace, and Denton says the distributor is happy to put up deficit financing for both its own shows and those of others.
“We’re getting involved in different ways,” he says. “We’re happy to put up distribution advances, or look for pre-sales and coproductions. It’s a moveable feast these days trying to get big shows funded. We’ve got Roots coming up for History. The second season of UnREAL (due to air in 2016) will help drive sales of season one. The market is still looking for miniseries for event programmes, so you look at pre-selling or coproducing those.
“It’s a much more complicated market than it used to be and there are a lot of partners. Writers seem to travel all over the place. It’s a big, complex picture with lots of people working in different ways. There isn’t a single model that’s successful in terms of financing and people are relatively open to talking about shows they wouldn’t have been interested in a few years ago. The way classic broadcasters would acquire drama was by having output deals with the studios. The studios have fewer of those deals now, and that’s freeing up budgets to be used in different ways.”
But it’s the greater co-development of projects – a process best led by a writer’s individual vision – that Denton picks out as a trend to keep an eye on.
“People are still talking about coproduction and financing but it feels like it’s moving a little bit from there,” he says. “What’s interesting at the moment is there’s a lot more co-development going on and there’s going to be more of that. Our networks will look at that as it enables people to have ownership of ideas and work together in a way that perhaps they haven’t done before. The key to that is always the unified vision and working with a strong writer who leads that. You’ll see more of it.
“It’s obviously down to money and spreading budgets, but it’s also down to competition. Competition has gone up, there’s more good stuff being made and usually it’s expensive so people are coming together to try to compete in that space. And they’re coming together in a smarter way. They’re uniting behind writers who are an important piece in the whole jigsaw because, more than anything else, they’re the ones responsible for the sheer quality of what’s coming through.”
What transpires in Cannes over the next seven days remains to be seen, but with so much drama being produced locally and now internationally, it will be intriguing to see which direction the genre heads in next.
When Disney gets it right, it really gets it right. Currently doing great business for Disney Channel US is Descendants, a modern-day story based around the teenage offspring of Disney’s most notorious villains. Having attracted 6.6 million viewers for its premiere, the live-plus-three-day audience for the show increased to 10.5 million.
Those figures make Descendants the number-one cable TV movie of 2015, which is perhaps not so surprising when you learn that it was directed, choreographed and exec produced by High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega. HSM was a huge franchise, spawning three movies and giving the world the adorable Zac Efron.
Descendants is also performing well across other platforms. It currently holds the top spot on iTunes (Top TV seasons), while its soundtrack is at the top of the iTunes soundtrack chart and third on the iTunes album chart. It has also spawned a best-selling prequel novel, The Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz, and an animated shortform series, Descendants Wicked World.
More movie-length productions are presumably an option, although the concept and characterisation might also lend itself to a live-action series.
Hallmark Channel is also celebrating this week following a strong showing from Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, a romantic drama starring Andie MacDowell and Dylan Neal.
According to Hallmark, the latest episode of Cedar Cove became the network’s most watched and highest rated among total viewers and households in its Saturday 20.00 time period. To date, season three of the show is averaging a 2.0 household rating and two million total viewers.
“Over the last four years, Hallmark Channel’s scripted series have become appointment viewing for our audience,” said Michelle Vicary, executive VP for programming and network publicity at Hallmark owner Crown Media Family Networks. “The popularity of Cedar Cove, Good Witch and When Calls the Heart demonstrate the power of our brand and the resonance of our storytelling.”
With so much competition in scripted content, a lot of launch success these days is down to whether you can offer something that piques the audience’s interest.
Today, for example, Amazon launches Sneaky Pete, the pilot for a conman drama written and executive produced by David Shore and Bryan ‘Walter White’ Cranston.
Backed by Sony, the show was originally intended for CBS. But when the network withdrew its interest, Amazon stepped in and greenlit the pilot. The star of the pilot is Giovanni Ribisi, but Cranston will guest star, which is sure to lure in swathes of Breaking Bad fans.
That might be enough to convince Amazon it is worth going to series with Sneaky Pete – particularly if it results in new subscribers for the service.
Amazon’s approach is to show pilots for free and then base its commissioning decisions on audience data and customer feedback. Alongside Sneaky Pete, another pilot hopeful launching today is Casanova, from Jean Pierre Jeunet, Stuart Zicherman and Electus’s Ben Silverman.
In previous weeks, we’ve reported that ancient Egypt drama Tut achieved good ratings for its launch episode on cable channel Spike in the US. It has now aired as a two-part miniseries on Channel 5 in the UK.
C5, which like Spike is owned by Viacom, attracted around 880,000 viewers across two episodes. This is around 28% above the slot average. With Spike having announced its intention to invest more money in scripted shows, Channel 5 may find itself a long-term beneficiary of this.
A less successful acquisition has been thriller series Odyssey, snapped up by BBC2 at the LA Screenings this year after an initial airing on NBC in the US. In this show, British actress Anna Friel plays US army special ops member Odelle Ballard, who is the sole survivor of a drone attack in Mali but has been reported dead after her team discovers a US terrorism funding conspiracy.
On paper, Odyssey looked like it might be a combination of Homeland and The Honourable Woman, but it has received poor reviews and ratings. Already axed by NBC in the US, it has seen its audience on BBC2 slide from around 2.5 million at the start to around one million at the end of its run.
Friel’s acting was praised, but The Guardian summed up the general mood among critics: “Why beat around the bush with subtlety when each coarsely drawn character can spell out plot and motivation so clearly and deliberately? You can practically hear the clunk and ding of the typewriter whenever someone opens their mouth. Even the secret documents kept safe in a USB stick around (Ballard’s) neck are written in Fisher-Price spy language. The writers do not believe you’ll keep up any other way.”
While BBC2 has had a summer to forget regarding drama, BBC1 continues to do pretty well with its Agatha Christie adaptation Partners in Crime. The second episode of six attracted five million viewers last Sunday evening.
While this is down from episode one (6.5 million), it’s still pretty respectable. It bodes well for another upcoming Christie adaptation based on iconic novel And Then There Were None. Due to air later this year, And Then There Were None is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions programme for the BBC, coproduced with A+E Television Networks. RLJ Entertainment has taken US DVD and DTO rights, while A+E Networks will handle international sales via A+E Studios International.
tagged in: Amazon, And Then There Were None, BBC1, BBC2, Cedar Cove, Channel 5, Descendants, Disney, Hallmark Channel, Kenny Ortega, Michelle Vicary, NBC, Odyssey, Partners in Crime, Sneaky Pete, Spike, Tut