In 2009, period drama was dead – or so it appeared until Downton Abbey was commissioned by ITV and subsequently aired to acclaim the following year. Going on to run for six seasons, Downton eventually culminated in a feature film that was released last year.
The drama followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs and their servants downstairs between 1912 and 1926, with an ensemble cast including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nichol and Sophie McShera.
In this DQTV interview, creator and writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame revisit the origins of the series, revealing the faith ITV put in the series at a time when period dramas were out of fashion.
They also recall how the series was developed and discuss Fellowes’ approach to writing for his actors, their opposing thoughts on making a movie and why Downton has fascinated audiences around the world.
Downton Abbey was produced by Carnival Films for ITV and Masterpiece on PBS, and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
DQ travels back to the 19th century to the set of Belgravia, a six-part drama that sees families tested and secrets revealed, created and produced by the team behind Downton Abbey.
A stone’s throw from Dorney Lake, the home of the 2012 Olympic rowing event on the outskirts of Windsor, sits Dorney Court, one of England’s finest Tudor homes.
Dating back more than 500 years, it’s a great deal smaller than Highclere Castle, which doubled as Downton Abbey in the series of the same name. But it’s just as picturesque, which perhaps explains why it’s one of the settings used in Belgravia, the latest period drama from Downton creator Julian Fellowes.
Based on the novel by Fellowes, Belgravia is described as a story of secrets and scandals among the upper echelons of London society. It begins in 1815 with a class clash between the old money Brockenhursts and nouveau riche Trenchards. Edmund Bellasis, son of the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurst, had an affair and was possibly married to Sophia, daughter of James and Anne Trenchard. He dies in battle, before she discovers she is pregnant and then dies in childbirth.
Fast-forward to 1841 and their son, Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), begins to cause a stir as the two families discover they have a grandson – and a potential heir who not everyone is delighted to meet. Other characters, such as John Bellasis and Oliver Trenchard, are keen to stand in Charles’s way.
The ensemble cast features Tamsin Greig (Anne Trenchard), Philip Glenister (James Trenchard), Harriet Walter (Lady Brockenhurst), Tom Wilkinson (the Earl of Brockenhurst), James Fleet (Stephen Bellasis), Alice Eve (Susan Trenchard), Tara Fitzgerald (Lady Templemore), Ella Purnell (Lady Maria Grey), Richard Goulding (Oliver Trenchard), Adam James (John Bellasis), Paul Ritter (Turton) and Saskia Reeves (Ellis).
On set, extras dressed in bonnets and top hats are preparing to film scenes from episode four outside the 12th century Church of St James the Less, its tower looming over Dorney Court. Proceedings are led by the uninterested and uninspiring Reverend Bellasis (Fleet), the younger brother of the Earl of Brockenhurst who spends most of his time gambling and losing the family’s money.
“He’s a very poor vicar; he’s a snob and he’s lazy,” Fleet jokes. “I feel so sorry for his poor wife [played by Diana Hardcastle], who is one of the tragic stories of the whole series. He’s not very nice at all. He gets worse, if anything. He abandons morality completely by episode six.”
Best known for comedic roles in 1994 film Four Weddings & a Funeral and TV sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, Fleet says the Belgravia script was a “page-turner,” comparing the story to something from Charles Dickens. “It’s like all the great stories – it’s the lost child, the two lovers denied. It’s got romance. Stephen has a difficult relationship with his brother – I’m very jealous of him and I can’t get my hands on the money. Because he’s the elder brother, he gets everything and I get nothing,” the actor says of his character.
Walter admits she wasn’t “yearning” to get back into a corset, having previously starred in period dramas The Spanish Princess, Downton Abbey and films such as The Young Victoria. But the chance to reunite with Fellowes, and the strength of the characters that populate Belgravia, meant she was drawn towards the series.
As Lady Caroline Brockenhurst, she plays a character suffering terrible grief that has brought her closer to her husband. But the discovery that she has a grandson also brings her together with Anne Trenchard, and their rivalry epitomises many of the themes of the series, including wealth, class and inequality.
“To a modern audience, it’s going to be very hard to perceive any difference between Tamsin’s character and mine,” Walter says, referring to their differing statuses. “The indications have got to come from the way we behave to one another, rather than in an obvious thing like she’s got a garish colour dress. Because Tamsin and I are getting along very well, I keep having to kick myself and remember to be snooty towards her, because we have an obvious companionship in many ways in the story.”
Walter says the story will be very recognisable to modern audiences. “They’re essentially in love, in hate, in desperation. They’re all human emotions busting out of all these restrictions.”
Meanwhile, if there is a villain of the piece, it might just be John Bellasis, a man who is out to protect his inheritance from a stranger who could be the true heir to the Brockenhurst estate. But things aren’t quite that simple, according to James, who plays the character.
“I’m often attracted to these characters because they’re sort of conflicted,” he says. “From his point of view, I understand fully his instinctive self-preservation. The life that he imagines he’s going to live is suddenly jeopardised quite dramatically, and he goes to all the lengths available to try to maintain his trajectory to his entitled future.
“Throughout the series, he begins to piece the the jigsaw together and work out exactly who this Charles Pope is. It’s a huge inheritance he’s set to lose.”
Love also confuses matters for John, as he is arranged to be married to Lady Maria Grey (Purnell) but has an affair with Susan Trenchard (Eve). “I don’t want to say that he’s ruthless and callous; he’s just a gentleman of a certain entitlement and was behaving in the way men of his class and education and upbringing would,” says James. “People also love a baddie, don’t they? He’s certainly the cad of the piece.”
While Belgravia will inevitably draw comparisons to Downton, producer Colin Wratten (Killing Eve) is keen to put clear water between the two series, which are set some 100 years apart.
“Julian writes about class, but here, for the first time, we have aristocracy and industrialists living side by side,” he says. “Unlike Downton, which has a precinct of the house and the family, we have different families. It’s a big ensemble of 65 cast members. As the story ebbs and flows, we go to all those different places, from Manchester and the cotton mills to London’s East End docks.”
Belgravia sees Fellowes reunite with Downton executive producer Gareth Neame, the executive chairman of production company Carnival Films (Jamestown, The Last Kingdom), which is producing the series for both ITV in the UK and US cable channel Epix, with NBCUniversal Global Distribution shopping the series overseas.
“He writes quite traditional romantic stories that have really not been fashionable for a long time,” Neame says of Oscar-winning screenwriter Fellowes. “I don’t think many other people are doing those, and what we found with Downton is that people around the world absolutely love those quite simple ‘will they/won’t they?’ stories. The more quintessentially English something is – British class, snobbism or the comedy of manners that he writes about – it really does travel and people understand it.
“Wherever human beings are, they have always organised themselves in hierarchical structures. So going into this, the Downtown movie and then doing [Fellowes and Neame’s forthcoming HBO show] The Gilded Age, we realised that a lot of the things that really interest him as a writer are much more commercial and more clearly understood by people than perhaps we would have imagined.
“The other thing about it is this is an adaptation but it’s an adaptation of a modern novel [set in the past]. A lot of adaptations are still made of novels of period, which are perhaps constricted by a plot that was laid down 250 years ago. But we have free rein to tell quite contemporary stories within a period setting.”
Fellowes had written all six scripts by the time pre-production started, giving the crew a generous head start before filming began last April. In addition to its huge cast, Belgravia features 107 different sets and was filmed across 75 shooting days over 15 weeks. Locations include the Bath Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Hampton Court, Chatham Royal Naval Docks and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, as well as Somerset House in central London.
Production designer Donal Woods, whose credits include Cranford, Downton and Jamestown, immediately found he was not allowed to film in the real Belgravia, an area of London that is home to a dozen embassies and borders Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park. As such, the production team decided to recreate Belgravia through a mixture of set builds and other locations.
“We’ve recreated a lot of rooms – 107 location sets in 15 weeks [of prep], which is longer than they normally give you for a TV series,” he says. “We’ve got some sets at Twickenham Studios, but the search was really finding those locations, making it work within the schedule and still fitting the story, the characters and the period. We are moving around the country.
“This Georgian and early Victorian period was much sparer [than Downton]. There was less clutter and fewer ornaments. Rooms were simpler but still had a very stylish kind of interior decoration. We’re very lucky in this country that we still have beautiful country houses and rooms that are protected and still look the part.”
Similarly, costume designer James Keast (The House of Elliot, Mr Selfridge) had his work cut out, with the unenviable task of dressing 65 main cast members and more than 2,000 extras, who shared and reused around 900 outfits to ensure as much money as possible was available to spend on the principals.
“There’s at least 1,000 costumes across everybody. For the top 25 [characters], I’ve made as much as possible because, when you read the script, if it’s a specific scene, they need a specific costume that will fit in with what the set looks like. One of the interesting things is if it is a period production, you know we will be using a lot of houses like Dorney Court. So from the colours of those houses, you’ll know the tones and fabrics to use.
“The biggest challenge is that in real life, a lot of these characters wouldn’t have had a huge wardrobe. But in terms of TV and film, you have to see passage of time, you have to see it’s a different day, so you have to change people and find enough costumes for everybody.”
Another challenge is differentiating the locations enough so viewers can recognise what they are watching, instead of moving from one room with gilt frames to another. Director John Alexander and cinematographer Dale Elena McCready chose to shoot locations with varying styles to help that process.
“In the Brockenhurst house, we shoot that much wider and get more scale from that as opposed to the Trenchards,” Wratten says. “When you’re telling the story, you don’t want to get lost in where you are, or the costumes either. James and Donal are constantly making sure we don’t have someone going into a room or getting into a carriage with a costume that’s either going to clash terribly with the fabrics or the upholstery.”
Unlike the long-running Downton, Belgravia was conceived as a “finely plotted” limited series, with Neame echoing Wratten’s belief that it stands apart from his previous hits. “There are elements of Downton in it because it’s period and it’s Fellowes writing and the themes that interest him, but it’s very different,” he adds. “I don’t see why Downton fans wouldn’t like this, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a claim that it’s another Downton. It isn’t, it is quite different.”
With two new shows in the works, Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame look back on the period drama’s success and discuss their partnership.
Remember a little show called Downton Abbey? It’s hard to shake off the memory of a series that captured the hearts of audiences across 250 countries, picked up 12 Emmys and somehow got the average viewer interested in 20th century British social hierarchy.
Over the six years and six seasons that viewers followed the Crawleys’ lives, the series was a ratings smash hit and a gold mine for the broadcasters that brought it to our screens. In the UK, Downton reached an average of 11 million viewers over the duration of the series, while on PBS’s Masterpiece in the US it became most viewed drama of the past 45 years and reached an average of 13.3 million viewers per week at its peak.
However, for the brains behind the project – creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame – there was an element of luck in getting the show off the ground.
“We were very fortunate that [former ITV director of television] Peter Fincham really believed in it despite everyone telling him he was mad, that the audience for period drama was dead and there was no one there to watch it,” states Fellowes, speaking at Content London at the end of last year. “There was something in it that just spoke to him. I love that because it’s nice when people are brave and go out on a limb and get rewarded.”
Neame, the executive chairman of Downton producer Carnival Films, is grateful to ITV for taking a chance on the show despite the broadcaster being in the midst of a difficult period when it was first commissioned. “Fortunately for us, they embraced it as soon as they saw the idea,” he says. “It was the middle of the advertising recession following the global crash and they had almost no money to buy new drama, but they committed to doing this, fortunately for us, and it all happened quickly.”
The exec producer admits he and Fellowes were caught slightly off guard by the show’s immediate success as they saw it spread across the globe, amassing devoted viewers along the way. A greater surprise came when the first season won four Emmys, including the Outstanding Limited Series prize.
“We were there at the Emmys the first year and there’s no denying that, of the 3,000 to 4,000 people in that theatre, very few had actually heard of the show until it started to win all these awards,” Neame reveals.
“We were sort of warned that we wouldn’t win that year – ‘You mustn’t be disappointed, it’s marvellous to be nominated’ – and then we won practically everything!” Fellowes adds.
Critical acclaim continued and the series went from strength to strength each season. And as the show evolved, so too did Fellowes’ writing, with the Downton creator finding himself adapting the scripts according to the cast.
“The actors do change the writing – not what they ask for or suggest, but simply you write [according] to their performances because you start to see their strengths and begin to understand what they will do best,” he explains. “Obviously, you try to make opportunities in which they will shine their brightest.”
The writing was also influenced by the fans, as Neame explains: “We started to have very similar opinions to the fans. There were never any original plans to have Mr Carson [Jim Carter] marry Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan] – that was Julian responding to the chemistry those two actors had.
“So we were thinking the same thing the fans were thinking, that there was a great chemistry and it had to happen. There were many examples like that, and that’s what makes it all so fun – the inventions coming from all sorts of different places.”
As is often the case when a hit drama series comes to an end, viewers started asking about a possible feature-length adaptation of Downton, eager to see the Crawleys and co on the silver screen following the TV finale in 2015. Fellowes initially dismissed the idea, as he felt they had been able to tie all loose ends together and give the series a worthy send-off.
“I felt when I’d written the end, I’d made everyone as happy as I could,” he says. “We said goodbye and I thought it was goodbye. We all went to the Ivy Club and we cried and drank champagne and, as far as I was concerned, we’d come to the end of the road. But no, and gradually over the next year or two, the idea of a film took root and I finally came to see that it was going to happen.”
The plans finally came to fruition last year when the long-awaited Downton Abbey film hit cinemas across the globe, four years after the series’ conclusion.
“We didn’t want the show to go stale and wanted to quit while we were ahead. Having the possibility of the film sweetened the pill for the millions of fans around the world who didn’t want it to end and who really loved those characters. The idea that they weren’t lost forever was definitely positive,” says Neame.
The exec producer adds that while “it wasn’t a massive leap to take it to the big screen,” there were still obstacles to be overcome, particularly in ensuring the show’s stars were fully on board with the project.
“There were a lot of challenges in getting all of the cast back. Everyone had a sense they wanted to do it, but that’s not quite the same as saying you are going to commit,” he says. “Getting everyone to make that commitment did take an awful lot of work, but I was pretty determined to do it.”
That desire to get the film off the ground paid dividends, with the Downton movie grossing more than US$190m globally, making it Focus Features’ second highest-earning film ever. Does this now mean Downton devotees can expect a second feature-length instalment?
“We said at the time we launched the film that we would like to keep going with it if it works, and fortunately, it has worked. The actors enjoyed doing it. So hopefully we’ll find a way to come back for more,” Neame teases.
“We’ve done it once, so I suppose we can do it again,” adds Fellowes, although nothing concrete is in the works at present.
Since the show’s conclusion, Fellowes and Neame have busied themselves with a number of different projects, including working together on two new period dramas: ITV and Epix copro Belgravia and HBO’s The Gilded Age.
Premiering this month, the former is based on Fellowes’ novel of the same name and follows the lives of the nouveau riche Trenchard family and the aristocratic Brockenhurst dynasty. For Neame, the decision to adapt the work to the screen was a no-brainer.
“When I read it, I thought it was fairly obvious that we should turn it into television. If I didn’t, there was going to be a queue of people who would want it,” he says.
Fellowes says the new projects have benefited from the fact the creative duo have honed their working relationship over the years, enabling them to work more swiftly.
“I’m pleased with the way Belgravia turned out. Obviously Gareth and I have now made quite a lot of television, so in certain areas we have developed a kind of shorthand. It doesn’t mean we always agree, by any means, but we don’t waste time trying to find out what the other one thinks, because it’s pretty clear what they think. It makes it quicker and easier.”
The Gilded Age, meanwhile, is set in the boom years of 1880s New York as the city experiences an influx of wealth and the establishment of a new bourgeois class. At first glance, it looks to be in a similar vein to Downton, but Fellowes is quick to point out the differences between the projects.
“Downton was quite deliberately the dramatisation of what was bound to be the decline in power of the British upper classes,” he explains, “whereas in Gilded Age, they’re going full steam ahead, they’re right in the middle of it. In fact, they haven’t yet reached their golden years, it’s still pouring in, and that seems a different dynamic and rather fun to approach.”
The new shows represent further additions to the period drama genre with which Fellowes has become synonymous, but being chiefly associated with historical series doesn’t bother the writer. “I seem to have become someone who does period drama,” he admits. “I don’t feel particularly committed to doing period drama but, on the other hand, when doors open for you, you’ve got to go through them. Usually you have to get known for doing something to then try to build on that and do slightly different things.”
Like many other major players in the industry, both Neame and Fellowes have found themselves getting into bed with Netflix. Neame, who is working with the streamer on ongoing historical drama The Last Kingdom, says: “It’s really been an excellent experience. Every creative wants to be completely supported and feel that encouragement when you deliver the episodes, and that’s exactly what they’ve been.”
Fellowes’ project, meanwhile, is another period drama, but this time focusing on a somewhat surprising topic. Dramatising the origins of the modern version of football (soccer) in the late 1800s, The English Game will launch on Netflix later this month.
Described by Fellowes as “charming,” Netflix will surely be hoping Downton’s army of fans will be there for the show’s kick-off.
Michelle Dockery sheds her Downton Abbey image in TNT thriller Good Behavior, which is returning for its second season this month. She tells DQ about leaving Lady Mary behind for a life of crime in the US drama – and previews her upcoming Netflix series Godless.
As Downton Abbey transformed from a quintessential British period drama into an international hit series, its young cast became overnight superstars. Subsequently, Lady Sybil Crawley and Matthew Crawley were both killed off as the actors who played them – Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens – went in search of new projects after two and three seasons respectively.
One star stayed put, however, alongside more established actors such as Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville. Michelle Dockery played Lady Mary Crawley in the ITV drama for its full six-season run (and several Christmas specials), perhaps running the risk of becoming singularly known for her part in the Julian Fellowes-penned series.
But while some viewers will always remember her as Lady Mary, the actor opted for a complete change of pace for her next role and put some distance between her and Downton. Quite literally, in fact, as she travelled to the US to star in cablenet TNT’s Good Behavior.
Following a successful pilot, a full 10-part first season debuted in November 2016, with season two set to launch in the US on October 15. The show is now also airing in the UK on Virgin Media, which launched season one on September 11, with the first six episodes immediately available on demand before subsequent episodes were rolled out ahead of the start of season two.
Pitched as a seductive thriller created by Chad Hodge and Blake Crouch, based on the books by Crouch, it tells the story of Letty Raines (Dockery), a thief and con artist whose life is always one step away from implosion. Fresh out of prison, she hopes to stay out of trouble while reuniting with her 10-year-old son, who is being raised by her mother Estelle (Lusia Strus), and fulfilling mandatory meetings with parole officer Christian (Terry Kinney).
But chaos ensues when she overhears a hitman (Juan Diego Botto) being hired to kill a man’s wife and sets out to derail the job, entangling both of them in a dangerously captivating relationship.
“I was still on Downton when this one came along,” recalls Dockery, who was nominated for Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her role as Lady Mary. “We were towards the end of the last season and my agent in America said, ‘You must read this pilot.’ She loved it and I read it and fell in love with the part.
“From the get-go, my heart was with Letty all the way. There’s something about the writing; it’s so character-driven and you instantly know this person and empathise with her. I just loved how flawed she was and with such complexity. Then they offered me the part. I was really surprised at the ease at which everything went after that. After Downton, I thought I’d have a big rest after six years, and suddenly I was on a flight to the States to do this pilot. So it wasn’t something I was actively seeking, nor was I seeking something so vastly different. It just came my way. She’s just a riot. She’s really fun to play.”
Despite a radical move between genres, from a period drama to a thriller, the differences between working in the UK and the US are less drastic – apart from longer hours, Dockery says. “In American television, it’s not unusual to do a 15-hour day, so you’re really on this hamster wheel and if you step off, you’ll end up in bed for a week with a cold so you have to keep going. But the filming process was very similar. For me, it was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my career.”
The actor reveals she was constantly learning lines – and perfecting her American accent – to keep on top of the nine-day shoots for each episode, with filming taking place in Wilmington, North Carolina. She found support in fellow actor JD Banks, who would run lines with her as well as helping Spanish actor Botto with his pronunciation.
The biggest difference, however, was moving from an ensemble player in Downton, albeit one of the main stars, to being the lead of a major US television drama.
“On Downton, Mary was a prominent role but I had time off when I wasn’t in it, and you are supported by everyone there. But here, if I have a day off, everyone has a day off,” Dockery says. “Letty’s in every scene so it was certainly a lot more pressure. I have to look after myself on a show like that, eating well and just sleeping as much as I can. But it’s a wonderful part to play. I really enjoy playing her.”
After Good Behavior, Dockery will next be seen in Netflix western Godless, which debuts worldwide on November 22. The six-part series centres around Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a menacing outlaw who is terrorising the west as he hunts down Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), his son-like partner turned mortal enemy. While Roy hides at Alice Fletcher (Dockery)’s ranch, Frank’s chase leads him to the quiet town of La Belle, New Mexico – which is mysteriously home only to women.
“It’s just this seven-part epic Western,” Dockery says. “But the thing that’s unusual about it, and wonderful and brilliant, is it’s very female-driven.
“Aside from that, being in a western is every actor’s dream. We had cowboy camp where we had gun training and horse-riding, which was very different from any riding I did on Downton. New Mexico [where Godless is set and filmed] is breathtaking and just being part of such a massive ensemble on that was amazing.”
After leaving Lady Mary behind – save for the finally confirmed Downton Abbey film – Dockery says she now intends to “keep mixing it up” in the search for more varied and challenging roles. “I’m always drawn to these women who are flawed, like real women, and that’s what we’re seeing more of in television,” she adds. “I feel part of this change now that’s happened in the last 10 years of television, where women are being portrayed in a much truer way. These last few characters I’ve played I’ve really been lucky with.”
Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?
The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.
A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.
The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).
So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.
So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.
Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.
At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.
Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.
The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.
After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).
Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).
The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.
The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.
This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.
The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.
As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.
With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.
Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.
Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.
Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.
Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.
The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.
Steve November, drama director at ITV, promises a bigger drama slate over the next two years and wants to make the channel the ‘place of choice’ for established producers and fresh talent alike.
Now that juggernaut period drama Downton Abbey has come to an end – the final sixth season bowed out with just under nine million viewers, while a one-off Christmas Day special drew almost seven million – the Sunday 21.00 slot has opened up opportunities for ITV to cast its net wider for new dramas.
Steve November, director of drama, is not actively seeking to replace the Edwardian drama with more period pieces. Instead, he has identified a growing viewer appetite for contemporary stories. “We’ve approached it saying we’ve no idea what the new Downton is going to be,” he says. “It’s going to be a show that captures the public’s imagination… that viewers fall in love with over several series. But whether that’s a contemporary show or a period show, or even a Sunday night show, we don’t know.”
The commercial broadcaster, which turned 60 last September, has to make its broad, mainstream content mission appeal to rapidly shifting viewer patterns, yet “it’s always, always popular mainstream,” says November. “That’s unashamedly what we are and want to be, but of the highest quality. There’s absolutely no disconnect between popular and the highest quality, so it’s aiming to be as broad in our appeal as we can be, accessible to everybody, but delivering something unexpected, something fresh, and real truths so that when you come to ITV you get what you want but you also get something more.”
ITV also relies on big returning shows to collectively build its drama brand. These programmes represent the majority of its drama output, “but we can’t have a schedule that’s only familiar,” says November. “We need to be constantly offering new things that are moving the ITV experience forward, evolving it, developing it. So it is a constant mix.”
In fact, post-Downton, this year ITV will swing much more in favour of new dramas, says November. “It’s going to look like quite a new and fresh schedule and we hope a portion of those dramas will be returners, but there’s always room for the new.”
November says ITV’s drama strategy is built around a “collective vision” for the channel. Alongside his five-strong commissioning team, “viewers can dictate as much as we do where the market is going, what they’d like to see, and we’re trying to predict and supply that,” he says. “So it’s about responding to many things around us, to what viewers seem to be wanting, to what other channels are doing, to our brand and identity and how we can evolve that. This is 60 years of history to work with so it’s a very purposeful redefining and evolving of the brand that’s so well established.”
But with global multiplatform players now providing increasingly credible alternatives outlets to producers and viewers, ITV needs to open up its range. “We’re in a very, very competitive market for ideas nowadays,” says November. “Obviously the opportunities for UK writers and producers to be taking their ideas abroad or to new competitors in the market, to be working with players like Amazon and Netflix, mean that in order to get those fresh new takes, we have to be very proactive and make sure that we are, as far as possible, the best place and the place of choice for writers and producers to work.”
The bigger challenge for all broadcasters, he notes, “is keeping people watching scheduled live TV, keeping our viewers, making drama and programming generally that demands attention from viewers.”
A development at ITV last autumn was the return of drama to early peak on Sundays with the launch of Jekyll and Hyde at 18.30 in late October. The 10-part period drama from in-house production arm ITV Studios caused a stir among some viewers for content deemed unsuitable for younger children. But November insists the show was right for the slot and that “most importantly” it was “doing something quite different to other shows at that time, particularly those on the BBC.”
It might have been different, but Jekyll and Hyde ultimately failed to achieve what ITV wanted, with creator Charlie Higson announcing on Twitter in early January that it would not be back for a second season. “It was a grand adventure while it lasted,” he wrote.
ITV plans to increase its drama output in each of the next two years, says November. The channel has already lined up a varied slate of new series, including Victoria (8×60’, pictured top) from Mammoth Screen (Poldark, Endeavour), focusing on the early life of the British monarch. It also marks the screenwriting debut of novelist and producer Daisy Goodwin.
November says his drama commissioning team is committed to fostering new writing talent. “We’re all feeling pressure in that you can’t wait for the traditionally successful names. But it’s exciting for us and it’s incumbent on the business to create opportunities for talent,” he says, citing Chris Lunt, whose first 21.00 drama commission was crime miniseries Prey, which returned for a second season before Christmas; and Daisy Coulam, who got her first authored show on ITV with Grantchester. “Good writing is good writing and we pride ourselves as a team on judging writing solely on its quality, not on who wrote it. We’d love to hear from new talent across the board, it’s exciting.”
However, ITV continues to mine its back-catalogue for returnables. After 12 years off air, Cold Feet is being revived as a new eight-part series, while Tennison is a prequel to Lynda La Plante’s iconic crime drama Prime Suspect, which starred Helen Mirren and ran to seven series. The six-part latter, written by La Plante and coproduced by Noho Film and Television and La Plante Global, is being lined up to coincide with this year’s 25th anniversary of the launch of Prime Suspect.
“Of course, we’ve got to balance that with the absolutely new and the fresh. We can’t load our schedule with old brands and old IP,” comments November. “It’ll be very selected shows that we think have got a real chance of a genuine new life.”
Dramas on this year’s slate appear to fulfil that mission. Adding to Cold Feet and Tennison are several from ITV Studios, including the 12-part warrior drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands and eight-part historical drama Jericho (both now on air) and four-parter Tutankhamun. The latter follows the discovery of the tomb of the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh and stars Max Irons and Sam Neill.
External commissions include crime drama Marcella from Buccaneer Media, written by Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) and starring Anna Friel; three-part drama Doctor Thorne, Julian Fellowes’ next project for ITV after Downton, adapted from Anthony Trollope’s book series and made by Hat Trick Productions; and The Halcyon (8×60’) from Left Bank Pictures, a drama set in a five-star London hotel in wartime 1940.
Hillbilly Television will also produce six-parter The Level, about a police officer leading a double life, while CPL Productions is behind 80s-set Brief Encounters.
The slate also includes several new single dramas, like Churchill’s Secret, produced by Tinopolis-owned Daybreak Pictures and starring Michael Gambon as Sir Winston Churchill and Lindsay Duncan as Clementine Churchill.
While ITV’s peaktime drama commissions are not slot-driven, November says the common denominator is “21.00 primetime, post-watershed drama. Even if you’re talking about a two-hour piece drama like Endeavour that might start at 20.00, we still want it to have a 21.00 emotional and narrative sensibility. It’s got to fit that taste and tone.”
In particular, November highlights “a real desire and hunger for contemporary at the moment.” ITV has commissioned several new period pieces and the exec says he is looking for a “light, bright, exciting contemporary hit” to balance with these, pointing enviously at BBC1’s Doctor Foster. “I wish we had that show. Big, romantic thrillers and family relationship dramas are real priorities for us at the moment.”
ITV remains entirely focused on commissioning for British viewers. “The international aspect can bring funding, talent and all the other parts of the equation. But first and foremost I only want to look at shows that are going to work for our audience in the UK on their UK broadcast,” November adds.
The drama director says ITV’s licence fees are very competitive and realistic against the backdrop of rising budgets, typically ranging between £500,000 (US$745,700) and £800,000-plus per hour, depending on the show.
“Excitingly for me and hopefully for producers, our commitment to drama remains absolutely solid and is, in fact, growing,” November says. “We have more hours in 2016 than we had in 2015, and it will be the same again in 2017. In 2017 we’re looking at a schedule with plenty of opportunity and a real commitment to drama, knowing that’s what we need to drive our brand and viewers.”
The talking point in TV circles continues to be whether we are at the point of ‘peak drama’ and, if so, how long it can last – but shouldn’t we just enjoy this golden age?
It seems unlikely that anyone working in television five years ago would have predicted the incredible rise of dramatic storytelling and audiences’ apparently unquenchable thirst for new series.
Factor in the growth of online platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, their impact on the business and the subsequent changes to how people now watch television and the leap since 2010 is even more remarkable.
With 400 scripted series in the US alone in 2015, viewers have never had it so good. But behind the scenes, broadcasters, producers and other executives are debating if and when the industry might hit the ‘wall’ – both financially and creatively – and what the drama business might look like over the next five years.
Rebecca Eaton has overseen the Masterpiece brand on US network PBS for the past 30 years, bringing some of the best British drama to US audiences. Yet she openly questions the state of the drama business and who her audience might be in the years ahead.
“It’s very scary,” she admits. “I wish I had been born a writer because it’s a really tricky time to be a broadcaster or distributor. There’s a huge amount of drama, but who’s going to be watching it a year or two from now? How much is too much? When are we going to hit the wall? What is the wall?
“As a regular human being who happens to be in the business, my eyeballs are spinning freely in my head trying to watch regular TV, not to mention the stuff I have to do for work. Something has got to give, but I’m not sure where it’s going to give.”
In particular, Eaton points to the effect on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have had since becoming major players in the original programming business with shows such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle on their slates.
“It’s beginning to look limitless,” Eaton says. “There are no primetime schedules that Amazon or Netflix have to fill. If broadcasters can’t take more, it’s going to migrate over to our competitors.”
One show Eaton is losing this year is Downton Abbey, which is coming to an end after six seasons. The period drama has become a smash hit in the US, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards and nominations.
Downton producer Carnival Films has used its success to build a business model based on making drama that works in both the UK and US markets, with MD Gareth Neame identifying historical series as the “connective tissue” between the two. Another Carnival drama, The Last Kingdom, aired on BBC2 and BBC America in October 2015 and was recently awarded a second season.
Neame says: “There’s a danger you can end up with a lot of historical projects. The challenge for us is to make sure we’re making contemporary shows as well and to see whether domestic-looking broadcasters in the UK and the US can find something that connects in contemporary drama.
“There’s an opportunity in the US now for all British content – there certainly wasn’t at the time when we embarked on Downton Abbey. There was no thought that the show could become as mainstream as it has. I agree there’s a glut of drama, but that’s much better than in around 2000 when I thought I would have to become a reality producer because it seemed like scripted was over and everything was about Survivor. I’d rather have it this way.”
The downside, says Neame, is that TV is now a hits business, with only a handful of shows cutting through the sheer volume of content being produced. He also believes there is a lack of talent coming into the industry, with writers over-booked and not enough actors being trained on either side of the Atlantic.
“It’s a good problem because it’s a problem that can be solved,” Neame adds. “But we need to catch up and get more people into the industry – more crews, more writers, more actors.”
Neame’s concerns over talent are not shared by Chris Rice, an agent for WME’s global television team, who describes this period as an “incredible time” for talent – whether that’s writers or producers. Rice was part of the team that completed the deal to bring BBC1 and AMC together to adapt John le Carré’s espionage story The Night Manager, which stars Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston and is produced by The Ink Factory. The series debuts later this month.
“What I’m most excited about is the relationship between the American and British markets, which were quite separate five years ago,” he says. “Occasionally a show would cross over but particularly over the last two years, those markets have come together. Something like The Night Manager, which was an incredibly expensive show, would never have been supported out of the UK alone.
“My prediction is that, in two years’ time, there will be 20 shows like that a year. That’s going to be an amazing opportunity to tell bigger better stories and a great chance for British television to play at the same level as premium US shows. It will be fabulous for producers, and those shows will be profitable and sustainable.”
Meanwhile, if there’s one company responsible for the technological advances being made in television production, it’s The Imaginarium Studios, which describes itself as Europe’s leading performance-capture studio and production company. Founded by actor-director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, Planet of the Apes) and producer Jonathan Cavendish, it uses the latest technology to create new stories and characters for TV, film, video games and digital platforms.
The Imaginarium was involved in bringing to life the eponymous lead character of Fungus the Bogeyman, a three-part drama for Sky1 that aired at Christmas. And in a business where it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd, Cavendish says the company’s mission is to unite technology and storytelling in a bid not only to create remarkable stories but also to help drive costs down.
“We have 40 genius technologists who create methodologies, platforms and technologies for us to make our stories better, more remarkable and more cheaply,” he says. “If somebody said two years ago that virtual environments and performance-capture characters would be in television, everybody would have said it was ridiculous, but now they are and they’re at the centre of what we do. We’re making a lot of shows for television, even for online that involve the sort of technology that hadn’t been dreamt of even two years ago.”
Writers, directors and animators who visit The Imaginarium, based at the historic Ealing Studios in London, can bring a story to life immediately. “In that studio, you can very quickly create virtual environments and avatars that are operable in real time by pressing a button,” Cavendish explains. “You have your writers room in there along with your director and an animator and you are creating, changing, testing and trying out dialogue you’ve written because it’s done in real time.
“We’ve trained a whole new generation of actors to work with our technology. We’re beginning to take all sorts of writers and directors into this environment and it’s achievable and doable on the day. Nowadays, because of the real-time technology we’re on the very edge of, you can make an hour of drama in a day.”
Ultimately, “it’s all about creating new intellectual property, new stories, new ideas and new characters, which can be spectacular,” Cavendish adds. “You have to stand out.”
For Greg Brenman, joint MD of Drama Republic, writers are put at the heart of everything his firm does. The production company was behind Hugo Blick’s critically acclaimed The Honourable Woman (and is backing his follow-up series Black Earth Rising for BBC2) and most recently brought to air BBC1 hit Doctor Foster (pictured top), which was written by Mike Bartlett and has been renewed for a second season.
“We go after writers,” Brenman admits. “Mike Bartlett was someone myself and Roanna (Benn, joint MD) had identified five years ago who we were desperate to work with. He was in theatre at the time. We work with theatre writers a lot and because serial TV seems to be so in demand, it’s about character rather than story, so you often find great character writers in theatre.”
Former Tiger Aspect executive Brenman also believes making good television is about connecting with your audience in any way possible: “That connectivity can happen when it’s huge bells and whistles or people thrashing through fields harvesting, or it can be that emotional connectivity. Doctor Foster has that epic scale to it. It’s all about making an emotional connection however you can.”
On the subject of whether there is too much TV, he adds: “We should enjoy the ‘right now.’ Everyone’s ‘woe the future.’ Well, let’s enjoy the present. Things are evolving in ways we don’t always realise.”
Neame is equally positive. “Platforms are playing to the strengths of serial television,” he says. “We’re on the beginning of a great journey.
“Another reason it’s a great time is partly that technology is going to open up so many things to us and partly that the selling model is so liberating. Seven years ago I was told by a distribution executive that nobody would ever be interested in Downton Abbey. That just shows you how it’s changed beyond recognition.”
With The Imaginarium involved in producing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Cavendish says it was suggested to him that, were Star Wars being produced now for the first time, it would not be made as a movie.
Instead, “you would probably make a huge television series to be watched on a smaller screen and you would create a huge world that you could explore,” he says. “That’s what younger audiences want and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that younger viewers are deserting much of traditional television.
“Also, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer a completely new world in which people can play. There is an opportunity now for younger people to be told the traditional stories that we know people want but, at the same time, to add in their own bits and to be in those stories themselves. That is the way, whether we like it or not, the world is going. Stories are stories, and nothing is changing in that sense. It’s a massive opportunity for us – I don’t think it’s a threat.”
Rice agrees that VR and AR will be mainstream within five years. In the meantime, he predicts there will be major changes relating to how series air across SVoD platforms and linear networks.
“If you look at Amazon and Netflix, they’re starting to experiment with releasing episodes weekly and are starting to think about the idea of dropping several episodes simultaneously at multiple times throughout the year, instead of dumping an annual 13-episode season in one go,” he says.
“Look at what HBO’s done with HBO Go and HBO Now. Every US network is launching its own platform and every European premium cable network is starting to offer online boxsets, taking themselves out of the linear environment. To me, that’s what the next two or three years are going to be about – a complete shuffling, rather than a reliance on hour-long programming in a weekly slot, and being able to experiment with 20 different ways of releasing content.
“It’s really about serving the story. Everyone will experiment with how their content is released. Nobody knows the answer, but hopefully the answer will be whatever serves the story.”
Hotels are great places to set dramas. Not only do you get to see the behind-the-scenes activities of the staff, from lowly bellboy to entrepreneurial owner, you also have guests coming in and out every week.
As with hospitals and shops, this means a constant turnover of stories and characters as the series progresses.
Hotel dramas are nothing new – think back to the UK’s iconic soap Crossroads, for example – but in the last few years they have certainly been in vogue.
There was, for example, the BBC’s Hotel Babylon, set in the world of a luxury five-star hotel. And then came ZDF period drama Hotel Adlon. In the US, we have seen American Horror Story’s most recent season set in a hotel, while Spain has given us the best example of them all with Grand Hotel.
An opulent series set in the early 20th century, the show has proved a big hit at home and in the international distribution market. Not to be overlooked either is Stephen Poliakoff’s new spy drama Close to the Enemy, set in a run-down hotel after the Second World War.
And so to the point of this preamble, which is that ITV in the UK has commissioned The Halcyon, a series set in a London-based five-star hotel during the Second World War. Produced by Left Bank Pictures and written by Charlotte Jones, it will focus on the guests and staff of the hotel in 1940. As such, it adds the unsettling backdrop of conflict to the transitory nature of hotel life – bombs overhead, staff going to war, soldiers passing through and perhaps even spies.
The eight-hour drama will be produced by Chris Croucher, who also produced the last two seasons of ITV’s period hit Downton Abbey. So there is clearly a hope that The Halcyon can go some way towards replacing that show.
ITV director of drama Steve November said: “A hotel is the perfect place to show ambition in telling the story of the Second World War. It was an extraordinary time in our country’s history, and London was a transforming city. The Halcyon takes us right to the heart of this as the hotel is busy, energetic and vibrant, which reflects how people carried on with their lives with defiance in the air.”
Left Bank CEO Andy Harries added: “1940 was one of the most dramatic years in our island’s history. Who could have imagined London would survive the blitz and Luftwaffe’s attempted destruction of the city? What was it like to be in a five-star hotel in the West End through this extraordinary period? It’s such a compelling idea for a drama. The world of The Halcyon has to carry on through thick and thin and against all odds. The bedrooms have to be made safe, the bars have to stay open and the band has to play on. People have to sleep, eat and survive.”
Left Bank is owned by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), so the likelihood is that SPT will hold the international distribution rights to the show. If so, this will echo the business model of Downton Abbey, which was commissioned by ITV but produced by NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films. The series will begin filming in London and surrounding areas from April 2016.
It’s been a good week for Left Bank, which has also been commissioned by ITV to make a fifth season of crime drama DCI Banks. The series, which premiered in 2010, is based on the novels by Peter Robinson and stars Stephen Tompkinson. It is set and filmed in the county of Yorkshire.
Harries said: “I’m delighted we are producing a fifth season of DCI Banks, one of ITV’s best-loved dramas. The stunning backdrop of the Yorkshire countryside is contrasted with the uncompromising storylines the team is dealing with.”
Left Bank isn’t the only indie to have benefited from ITV’s voracious appetite for new drama this week. Indie producer CPL Productions has been given the greenlight to make Brief Encounters, a six-parter looking at a group of four women who get into the lingerie and sex-shop business in the 1980s.
The series is inspired by chapters telling the story of the early days of the Ann Summers party plan business found in Good Vibrations, the memoir by Ann Summers boss Jacqueline Gold. “Brief Encounters is a refreshingly different domestic drama taking us back to the wonderful world of the 1980s,” said November. “We’re really excited by this commission – it’s full of heart, story and great new characters.”
Executive producer Arabella McGuigan added: “Brief Encounters is gutsy, emotional, warm and surprising. Like the real Ann Summers saleswomen, through their camaraderie our women discover hidden strengths and an ability to come out fighting no matter what life throws at you. As wives, mothers and businesswomen, they unleash talent – and they blossom.”
CPL belongs to Red Arrow Entertainment, which presumably means distribution will be handled within the Red Arrow family.
Still in the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has commissioned a new detective series from Euston Films called Hard Sun. The six-parter is being written by Neil Cross, creator of Luther and a writer on Doctor Who. FremantleMedia International is handling sales.
It’s described as a pre-apocalyptic drama, meaning it is set against the backdrop of a dying world. “Imagine the world you see when you look out your window… except it’s been given a death sentence,” Cross said. “There’s no hero to come save us; no contingency plan. What’s it like, trying to keep order, trying to enforce the law in a city that, day by day, slips closer to certain destruction? How do you get up in the morning? How do you get out of bed and leave your family and go out there, putting your own life at risk? And what about the predators? What about the murderers, the rapists, the thieves? What about the psychopaths, the religious nuts, the cult leaders, the serial killers? Who would fear a prison sentence?”
Meanwhile, comic books continue to be a fruitful source of TV ideas, with US cable channel Syfy developing a new series based on the Dark Horse comic Harrow County. The story focuses on a teenage girl who finds ghosts, goblins, and the restless dead in a nearby forest. She subsequently learns she is the reincarnation of a powerful witch.
The series is being written by Becky Kirsch, who has previously worked on Syfy’s Dominion and 12 Monkeys.
Discovery is also reported to be working on an anthology drama series. According to Deadline, the broadcaster is developing a show called Manifesto, which will explore how the FBI caught infamous criminal masterminds, with each closed-ended season following a different case. The show sounds similar in structure to Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story on FX.
Finally, in Canada, OMNI Television has announced that it has renewed crime drama Blood and Water, just a month after the first season’s debut. The show, which is set in Vancouver, is unusual because it delves into the lives of Chinese immigrants and is produced in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
US cable channel FX has renewed its stylish anthology thriller Fargo for a third season. Based on the Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo’s second run will finish stateside on December 14 and is currently receiving rave reviews. The first season was nominated for a total of 18 Primetime Emmys, winning three.
The show was written by the multi-talented Noah Hawley, who was a singer-songwriter and a published novelist before he turned to TV screenwriting. He wrote for Fox drama Bones for three seasons before being handed the Fargo gig, as well as a couple of projects for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation).
Some writers might have been intimidated by the Coen brothers’ shadow lurking in the background of the Fargo project, but Hawley managed to stay true to the original concept while taking the show’s mythology in an exciting new direction.
For this, he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries – and it would be a surprise if he weren’t on the list again for Fargo season two.
Commenting on the renewal, Eric Schrier, president of original programming for FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Year two of Fargo is an extraordinary achievement and, given Noah Hawley’s masterful storytelling, we can’t wait to see where the third version of Fargo takes us. Our thanks to Noah, Warren Littlefield, Joel and Ethan Coen, John Cameron and our partners at MGM TV for making Fargo a memorable and rewarding journey.”
Despite getting his break in network TV, Hawley did an interview with Hollywood Reporter in 2014 in which he made it clear that he was more comfortable in cable drama: “The leap from network to cable was huge for me because at the networks there’s a real desire for original content but also a fear of original content. To arrive at FX and have them say, ‘Can you make it darker and more morally ambiguous?’ is incredible. (FX Networks CEO) John Landgraf would rather make something great for some people than something good for everybody.”
FX seems equally enthusiastic about Hawley. Aside from greenlighting Fargo season three, it has gone into partnership with him on Cat’s Cradle, a series based on Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel.
Another writer in the news this week is Billy Ray, who will be adapting F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon for Amazon. Ray is primarily known as a movie writer, having written around a dozen titles including The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips.
The Last Tycoon, which was made into a film in the 1970s with a Harold Pinter script, looks at Hollywood in the 1930s and is being produced by Sony Pictures Television. There were rumours in 2013 that the project was heading for HBO – but there has clearly been a rethink since then.
The project comes after the recent movie version of The Great Gatsby and another Amazon project about Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. So keep you eyes peeled for TV adaptations of This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night.
Congratulations are also due this week to the team behind French series Spiral, season five of which has won the International Emmy for Best Drama Series. A Canal+ show, Spiral (Engrenages in French) follows the lives and work of Paris police officers and lawyers working in the Palais de Justice.
Created by Son et Lumiere, it debuted in 2005 and has been produced at the rate of one season every two years. The first two runs comprised eight episodes each, rising to 12 after that. With season five having aired in late 2014, a sixth season is due towards the end of next year. In the meantime, it has proved popular abroad, selling to 70 countries including the UK, Australia, Japan, Mexico and the US (via Netflix).
In terms of story and script duties, the show was created Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, with the latter writing the first season. Season two was overseen by Virginie Brac, while season three was handled by Anne Landois, Eric de Barahir and Simon Jablonka. Landois and de Barahir also led season four, while Landois and Jablonka oversaw the Emmy-winning fifth outing.
For anyone wanting to learn more about the structure and intention of the show, Spiral showrunner Landois did an interesting video interview with Vivendi. She also spoke to her UK fans via a BBC blog platform.
This year’s International Emmys provided another strong indication of French drama’s increasing impact on the global scripted market. Alongside recognition for Spiral, TV movie White Soldier (Soldat Blanc) won the award for best TV movie/miniseries. Set in Saigon in 1945, the production looks at France’s conflict with Vietnam’s Viet Minh through the eyes of a pair of friends. The idea for White Soldier was from Georges Campana and the screenplay was by Olivier Lorelle. Director Erick Zonca was also credited as a writer.
Winner of the telenovela category was Imperio (Empire), which first aired on Rede Globo in Brazil. Created by Aguinaldo Silva, Imperio aired from July 2014 to March 2015 and was a substantial hit for the network. Seventy-two-year-old Silva himself is one of the most feted telenovela writers in Brazil, having been at the forefront of the industry since the 1980s. His numerous credits include a 1989 adaptation of Jorge Amado’s classic novel Tieta, which scored huge ratings, and 2004’s Senhora de Destino, another huge hit.
The International Emmys also gave a deserved nod to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, in the shape of the 2015 Founders Award.
As more original dramas are produced than ever before, DQ finds there’s still a place for classic series to find new audiences.
In the ever-changing world of TV, there are few things that can be termed a constant – but one enduring trend is the appeal of ‘classic’ drama, especially the detective genre.
Back in 2004, the executives of ITV’s digital channels were charged with creating a new channel to help stem the network’s ratings decline, particularly among upmarket ABC1 viewers.
Looking at the wealth of ITV-owned library drama available, the answer came quickly enough, although there were some doubts over the appeal of repeating hits from the network’s past.
Confounding these qualms, ITV3 launched to instant success – and 11 years later regularly ranks as the sixth most watched channel in the UK, behind only the five former terrestrial channels. That’s all with a schedule that differs very little from its opening year and, one suspects, a similarly meagre budget. So why does it work?
ITV3 succeeded through the choice of quality detective shows such as Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (pictured top) and Midsomer Murders that benefited from self-contained storylines within each episode and a certain timeless aspect. The series were also aided by being shot on film, avoiding the tired look of many re-runs.
Despite viewers knowing the denouement of most episodes, they stayed for repeat viewings because of the characters, scenery and the programmes’ ability to function as ‘comfort TV’ – easy for viewers to unwind in front of at the end of a long day’s work.
From the beginning, these series and others of their ilk have dominated the ITV3 top 10, often scoring audiences of more than one million. In terms of its on-screen look, ITV3 went for a cleaner, more contemporary style, which helped differentiate it from other repeats channels in the UK such as Gold, Granada Plus and UKTV’s Drama. ITV3 also tried to provide bonus material with behind-the-scenes documentaries and special seasons.
Last year, ITV attempted to build on the success of ITV3 with the Sky pay TV channel ITV Encore. But even accounting for the smaller available pay audience, ITV Encore has proved a severe disappointment to the network – “a learning curve,” in the words of CEO Adam Crozier. Audience levels have rarely surpassed the 100,000 mark. But why?
At its launch, those behind ITV Encore believed there was an appetite for recent ITV drama in peak – often short-run events and miniseries. Unfortunately for the channel, series such as Broadchurch are not particularly well suited to repeat viewing – and, being episodic, demand the commitment of viewing over a number of evenings and weeks.
Unlike the relatively gentle sleuthing of Morse, Broadchurch was an emotional experience for viewers and lost impact on repetition. Gracepoint (Fox), the lacklustre US remake of Broadchurch, sunk without trace on Encore, furthering the belief that these kinds of event dramas can’t command the same kind of viewership as the more self-contained series.
One bright spot for the channel has been the relative success of the Nordic Noir series Jordskott, which confirms the popularity of the genre in the UK – and a possible way for the ailing Encore to successfully evolve. Jordskott has headed the ITV Encore weekly top 10 since its launch on June 10, with consolidated audiences tracking an average of approximately 145,000.
It can’t be too long before the ITV acquisitions team scouts similar Nordic Noir titles for the Encore schedule as the channel gradually morphs into a very different animal. Further evidence of this is that Encore has acquired Twentieth Century Fox’s The Americans seasons one to four (flagship channel ITV canned the show due to low ratings after season two).
And belying the channel’s name, Encore is also moving into original commissions, the foremost being Sean Bean-starring The Frankenstein Chronicles, which launched this month. The supernatural element of this series is continued with another original drama announced, Houdini & Doyle.
Both in the UK and internationally, the relatively low audiences commanded by repeats of event/high-concept dramas such as Lost, Rome (playing on TCM in the UK to audiences of less than 15,000), The Pacific, Battlestar Galactica, Life on Mars and Band of Brothers reflect the problems faced by Encore, where viewers appear to be tempted more by the umpteenth showings of self-contained episodes of Columbo, House, Law & Order, Magnum PI and Marple, which power channels such as Top Crime in Italy and Universal’s 13th Street in various territories.
With procedural investigation series NCIS being the most watched drama in the world, the genre continues to play extremely well internationally and is a staple of many broadcasters’ schedules. Channel-surfing around the globe, it’s extremely rare not to find a US or UK detective series playing at any time of the day.
But with UK drama spend dropping by 44% since 2008, distributors are now having to sweat their drama back catalogues more than ever, demonstrated by the widely predicted push from FremantleMedia International, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, BBC Worldwide, Endemol Shine International and others.
As evidenced by Cozi TV and TV Land in the US, there is a nostalgic appeal to older titles such as Fremantle’s Baywatch (which launched on Cozi TV in August). But this can sometimes wear thin after initial viewings and broadcasters then become stuck with dozens of episodes of series that are eventually shuffled off into late-night slots. However, the news that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Zac Efron are planning a 21 Jump Street-style comedy take on Baywatch should help revive interest in the original show.
FremantleMedia International launched its Classic Catalogue at Mipcom this year, highlighting a vast library of comedy and drama and for the first time curating in one place the output of its constituent companies (including Euston Films, Grundy and Alomo). The firm is focusing on spotlighting key titles over the coming months, including both reversioned classics and formats/remake opportunities for shows such as Love Hurts, Pie in the Sky and Rumple of the Bailey.
Fremantle’s ambitious Kate Harwood-led revival of Euston Films will see not only original productions but also the possibility of new versions of such hits as The Sweeney and Widows, as well as lesser-known titles including family drama Fox (1980, starring Peter Vaughan and Ray Winstone) and intense thriller Out (1978, Tom Bell and Brian Cox).
After the success of Channel 4’s Indian Summers and the general appeal of period drama, there may be interest in another take on the 1910s Kenyan coffee plantation saga The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
The success of ITV’s resurrection of comedy Birds of a Feather has seen a higher profile for the writing team of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who are now heading the Fremantle-backed LocomoTV and, like Euston, are looking at producing both new shows and possible re-boots of golden oldies such as Goodnight Sweetheart, this time for the US market.
Fremantle’s Sarah Doole, director of global drama, says: “We’re extremely excited about our heritage catalogue of classic comedy and drama. Having looked at the titles from our back catalogue, we realised we have some real crown jewels in there.
“It’s a distinguished collection bursting with iconic hits penned by legendary writers, not to mention the raft of classic characters who have gone on to become household names. We can’t wait to showcase the titles to buyers from across the globe.”
Returning to the appeal of older drama, the audience for repeated soaps tends to be very niche, as they tend to travel badly from the originating countries with production values that can vary from mediocre to poor.
US soaps have never really worked in the UK (and vice versa) – the most recent attempt being ITV2’s transmission of the campy Sunset Beach in the early 2000s.
UK state broadcaster BBC2 has used long-running US series such as Cagney & Lacey and The Rockford Files to plug the gaps left by budget cuts in the daytime schedule. Murder, She Wrote and Columbo perform much the same function for ITV at the weekend.
Distributors such as Stephanie Hartog (formerly of Fremantle and All3Media) agree that “the success of Downton Abbey has opened the doors to some who previously might have doubted the appeal of classic drama in their markets.”
Hartog also notes that “the growth of specific genres from areas such as the Nordics, Turkey, Israel and France have contributed to a growing trade in drama and has prompted a look at older fare.”
As Hartog says, Downton’s massive worldwide success has created an appetite for similar shows and boosted the sales of lesser-known titles, such as BBC1’s Upstairs Downstairs reboot, Downton scribe Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries and Spanish drama Grand Hotel. Similarly, upcoming French English-language period romp Versailles may promote interest in older series set in roughly the same era, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003), City of Vice (2008), Clarissa (1991) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1999-2000).
In the UK, as per the rest of the world, older cult series tend to be the preserve of smaller channels; currently, 1960s series The Avengers (on Cozi in the US) and The Wild, Wild West reside on True Entertainment and The Horror Channel respectively.
Sony’s True Entertainment channel in the UK is the home for many middle-of-the-road series of the past, including Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, The Practice, Touched by an Angel, Due South and Providence.
And, of course, the Star Trek and Stargate franchises continue to form part of many channels’ daytime schedules in territories across the world. Star Trek will also get a fresh outing in the form of a new series to launch in 2017 on US network CBS’s All Access on-demand platform.
Keshet International sales director Cynthia Kennedy says: “The launch of new services (both linear and OTT) across the globe means old shows can find a new lease of life, with both fans of nostalgia and new audiences. BBC dramas tend to have a long shelf-life, while older titles can usually find a home on new VoD platforms in places like Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, not to mention the majors being able to bundle their new shows with back catalogue content that gets airtime on smaller channels.”
Online, RLJ’s Acorn TV has carved out a niche for itself with a variety of past and present UK titles, ranging from such classics as I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited to contemporary fare including New Worlds and Secret State. Karin Marelle, a former acquisitions and commercial director at Acorn, says: “The increasing presence and popularity of British acting talent in the US has led to interest in checking out their shows before they crossed the pond.”
Netflix and Amazon, of course, are a destination point for distributors, although older drama titles are among their less promoted shows, with many already available through YouTube.
One genre that consistently delivers viewers – in an older male demographic – is Westerns. Despite the introduction of new titles and series, TCM Europe’s highest numbers tend to be attracted by Westerns – including vintage series such as Gunsmoke as well as current or recent series like Longmire and Hell on Wheels.
AMC in the US has also enjoyed strong ratings with Westerns, with ‘Cowboy Saturday’ schedules boasting a line-up of classic movies and golden oldies such as Rawhide and The Rifleman.
The success of Marvel and DC superhero movies and series has prompted some online free-to-air VoD platforms to investigate the availability of older series and one-offs to tie in with future cinema releases such as Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (DC) and Dr Strange (Marvel).
This August’s release of Guy Ritchie’s movie version of 1960s spy caper series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may also see interest in the show renew across various international territories. Edited TV movie versions of the series recently aired on TCM in the run-up to the film opening in the UK.
Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation could also prompt re-running of the classic 1960s television series in countries where it has been off air over recent years.
These and other developments should help distributors with older drama libraries get a foot in the door with broadcasters.
With new channels regularly launching across the globe (sych as AMC in European territories including the UK, Serbia and Hungary), the demand for quality library series to populate the schedules will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever.
US cable channel AMC is in phenomenally good shape. Its flagship scripted series, The Walking Dead (TWD), continues to deliver massive ratings and has spawned a successful spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead. And now TWD has provided the launchpad for another strong performer – the martial arts fantasy series Into the Badlands.
Into the Badlands debuted on Sunday at 22.00, after the latest episode of TWD. Despite some reviews suggesting the opening episode spent too long on its setup, the show attracted a massive 6.4 million viewers and a 3.15 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds. That makes it one of the biggest new series of the autumn so far across both cable and broadcast TV, comparable to shows like Supergirl and Blindspot. Once time-shifted viewing is factored in, the series can expect to see another surge in its numbers.
Even if Into the Badlands experiences a drop-off in episode two, its premiere performance suggests it will still even out as one of the top-performing cable shows of the year. And the good news doesn’t end there for AMC. Still to look forward to is season two of Better Call Saul, which is due in February. The Breaking Bad prequel was a strong performer for the channel last year and there is no reason to suppose this will change as the show starts to tie in to the mythology of its critically acclaimed parent.
Having four massive hits in its schedule gives AMC the freedom to support other programmes that don’t rate so highly, which bodes well for the likes of Humans and Halt & Catch Fire.
Returning to TWD for a moment, it’s interesting that the latest episode saw a 5% jump in 18-49s week on week. That rise can probably be explained by the fact that the episode focused heavily on Daryl Dixon (played by Norman Reedus). If the character is ever killed off, expect to see a huge spike in time-shifted viewing followed by a decline in the youth audience.
In today’s fragmented TV landscape, the numbers achieved by Into the Badlands are genuinely impressive – but pay TV channels don’t need to be getting ratings of this magnitude to be classified as a success. Just as important is what a show says about a channel’s brand. If it sends out the right message, it can help with the pickup or retention of subscribers. If you look at European pay TV platform Sky, for example, a lot of money has been spent on demonstrating that it is the home of quality content. Its relationship with HBO, recently extended, is a classic example of that – as is the company’s heavy investment in original drama.
Having said all this, drama is an expensive genre. So Sky has been looking for ways to deliver quality without breaking the bank in terms of its scripted content investments. One way it is doing this is by acquiring or making dramas that can play across all 21 million homes in its five core European markets: the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. At the same time, it is seeking to coproduce with PayTV providers in other markets – so the commercial risk is spread even more broadly.
Let’s say, for example, that Canal+ in France comes on board a drama – then suddenly your production is hitting an addressable market of around 28 million. If Sky’s distribution arm Sky Vision is then able to sell the show into other markets, the cost is further defrayed. Fortitude was a high-profile example of this. Although it only attracted around 700,000 viewers in the UK, the fact it was played out in numerous other markets made it a relatively easy decision for Sky to back a second series.
Slightly less certain is Sky’s new series The Last Panthers, a coproduction with Canal+ and US network SundanceTV. The show debuted in the UK last week and attracted just 228,000 viewers, 38% of which were 35- to 44-year-olds. That figure is ahead of the slot average – but it’s still quite low for an original. Sky will be hoping it picks up some momentum in the coming weeks.
There are probably a couple of explanations for The Last Panthers’ debut falling so short compared with Fortitude. The first is that it didn’t have the same kind of cast clout as Fortitude, which made it less promotable. True, it features Samantha Morton and there was a fleeting glimpse of John Hurt. But this is nothing compared with Fortitude, which boasted Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, Sofie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston (briefly). Second, the opening episode was not easy to get to grips with, switching language and location frequently and not making it obvious who the audience should root for. While UK audiences are more comfortable these days with subtitles, The Last Panthers probably makes them work a bit too hard.
The UK critics are split on the show. For The Guardian, The Last Panthers is “bold, smart and seductive,” but for the Telegraph it’s “turgid” and “lacks tension.” The Independent gets it about right when it says: “If you can cope with the violence, the underlit filming, the dialogue in French with subtitles and the unremittingly depressing scenes then The Last Panthers is a fine thriller, with a touch of The French Connection about it.” SBS Australia seems happy enough, acquiring the show this week.
While an important element of the current ‘golden age’ of drama is the freedom to pursue interesting creative ideas like Badlands and Panthers, it’s also worth noting that NBC’s big success at the moment is a trilogy of procedurals that are all based in Chicago. If you look at the channel’s top five dramas at the moment, three of them are Chicago PD, Chicago Fire and Chicago Med, which launched this week with a same day audience of 8.6 million.
Fire was the first to appear and has recently been renewed for season five. PD came next and has just been renewed for a fourth run. Med is only one episode old but already looks like it will get a renewal. Apart from the procedural formula, the common denominator among the three is that they come from the stable of Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise. Aged 68, Wolf continues to be one of the masters of mainstream drama and has an awards cabinet to prove it.
Finally, we can’t sign off without observing that Downton Abbey is over, except for the upcoming Christmas Special. The final episode of the final season scored a consolidated audience of 11 million viewers for ITV. There’s no question that Carnival Films’ drama, superbly scripted by Julian Fellowes, has been one of the most memorable British TV dramas ever made. While the show was perhaps starting to become a little repetitive, it continued to make hugely entertaining Sunday night viewing.
The fact Downton Abbey is now ending is a clear loss for ITV, particularly when the show has so many unresolved storylines. In fact, the broadcaster would be mad to let all of that stored up audience affection just fizzle out. No US network would allow the show to die at this stage in its life cycle. And in any other business you’d be castigated for giving up on such a strong brand.
While it’s possible that Julian Fellowes and some of the cast are keen to move on, ITV should at the very least explore whether there is spin-off potential – maybe a series focusing on the London lives of some of the younger cast. Lady Edith, Thomas the footman and a handful of others could provide the spine of a new show.
In the meantime, take a look at this video if you want to see the cast of Downton behaving badly.
Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.
As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.
The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.
Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).
There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.
Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.
From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.
The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.
So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.
CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.
The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.
After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).
Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.
Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.
As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.
Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.
The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”
Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.
The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”
As Downton Abbey enters its sixth and final season, those to have played their part in the wildly successful period drama, both behind and in front of the camera, bid an emotional farewell. Michael Pickard reports.
As the emotion-tinged trailers playing on ITV declare, it’s time to say goodbye to one of the biggest successes of recent television history.
When Downton Abbey returns for its sixth season, it starts the countdown to the period drama’s last ever episode, which will air in the UK on Christmas Day.
Viewers will return to the country estate of Downton Abbey in 1925, when secrets and rifts threaten the unity of its primary inhabitants – the aristocratic Crawley family – while their servants below stairs navigate social changes that put their futures in jeopardy.
After six years on air and with a possible movie in the works, it’s fair to say the show is a worldwide phenomenon. Airing in more than 250 countries, Downton is the highest rating UK drama of the past decade across any channel, according to ITV, with an average of 11 million viewers over the course of the last five seasons (including Christmas specials).
In the US, where Downton airs on Masterpiece on PBS, season five had a weekly average audience of 12.9 million viewers and was watched by 25.5 million people.
ITV director of television Peter Fincham says that while commissioners can never tell if a show will be a success, he loved Downton from the beginning.
“We loved the script. We heard filming was going very well. We thought it was wonderfully cast,” he says. “If I were in the business of teaching television drama and I wanted to choose the best first episode in terms of exposition and introduction of characters, it would be the very first episode of Downton Abbey.
“Of course, Downton Abbey has an image as a posh series about posh people but one of its great achievements is its even-handedness between upstairs and downstairs. The lives of the characters downstairs are as richly drawn as those upstairs. We are now getting to the end and we absolutely respect Julian (Fellowes, creator and writer) and Gareth (Neame, executive producer)’s feeling that this is the right time to bring it to an end – to leave the audience wanting more. We’re very grateful for Downton Abbey. It’s been a wonderful series on ITV.”
Neame, MD of Downton producer Carnival Films, recalls taking the project to ITV with Fellowes, and says they never once approached the BBC: “It was always destined for ITV. We always saw it on Sunday nights at 21.00 in a very broad entertainment channel because it was about telling a new story and rebooting this much-loved genre.
“It’s been part of a real golden age of drama at ITV and we’re also thrilled that this has been a truly British representative in this golden age of drama around the world, where a British show can really punch above its weight alongside those shows we all revere from the US.”
Fellowes admits he toyed with ending Downton Abbey after season five but felt he needed one more season (eight episodes, plus the Christmas special) to resolve the numerous storylines.
Not everything will be wrapped up, however. “You always leave slightly open-ended stories because life is an open-ended story until you die and you can’t kill the entire cast,” he says. “We haven’t plugged everything but we’ve shown what the next chunk of everyone’s life would be. I think it’s satisfactory; I hope it is.
“There’s always a concern that with any show, you don’t want it to go on, fall away and start to dwindle. We can all name favourite shows we adored for the first three or four seasons and then gradually lost interest in. We wanted to go out when people were still sorry. It seems the right time to go when we’re still firing.”
While Fellowes created the series, he says the writing process has often been a collaborative process between himself and the cast. In particular, he says Mrs Patmore – the cook portrayed by Lesley Nicol – wasn’t supposed to be funny to begin with. But when he realised how funny Nicol was, he started writing humour into her lines.
He adds: “You do feel sorry to say goodbye to these people because I’ve enjoyed their creation. The actors, what they bring to them, is a huge part of why these people are interesting and I’m sorry to see them go. I’m very unlikely to be involved in anything as successful again, so I say goodbye to these golden years with a slight pang.”
Many among the cast admit working on a show as successful as Downton is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess, says: “I’m just surprised I got to the end because, just before Downton, I’d done 10 years with Harry Potter, so I felt very old indeed by the time I got to the Dowager. I’m just surprised I got through it.”
Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) admits that none of the cast thought they’d remain on the show for six years: “I never imagined Anna would go through so much, so as an actor I’ve been extremely fortunate to have such fantastic scenes to play and have Brendan (Coyle, who plays Anna’s husband John Bates) to play with. We’re all proud we’ve got Downton on our CV.”
Echoing a sentiment shared by many of the cast, Froggatt adds: “We are a true ensemble. Downton is a show in which, as characters, we’re either supporting a scene or leading a scene. We all have our share in both roles. That’s what makes it so nice. I had the most amazing support when I was leading scenes and you do it for your fellow actors.”
Filming on Downton finished in mid-August, with weeks of goodbyes as cast and crew said farewell to locations and each other until the final scenes were filmed.
“When we wrapped up filming at Highclere Castle (which stands in for Downton Abbey), that’s when it started,” says Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley. “It felt like we were giving the house back to the owners. It’s an emotional time but it’s also exciting because we’re just celebrating all the time. It’s changed all our lives and opened up opportunities. We never imagined it would have become this much of a success, so I feel very fortunate to have been part of the Downton family.”
Dockery praises Fellowes’ writing as a key reason for the show’s success and says that while other cast members left mid-series and moved on to other projects, she couldn’t have made the same decision.
“After season three, when we were all in negotiations to do four and five, there was certainly a moment where I thought, ‘This may be my time to go.’ But I couldn’t bear the idea of watching the show and not being a part of it. In the end, the decision was made for me because I wouldn’t have liked that.”
For Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham), the final days of filming Downton were a time for reflection. “I didn’t have grey hair in season one,” he says, “so you look back on six years and realise we’ve been on quite a rollercoaster together. I’ve never had an experience like this before and I probably won’t again. I doubt any of us will – to have something where every department on set has worked to the top of its game and to have been embraced by an audience to this extent.
“We’re in the middle of the hurricane, so we don’t really realise the impact it’s had and it will take a few years to realise what it’s meant for all of us. It has been a uniquely happy experience. The fact we’re all still pals after six years is surprising and a testament to something. It is a genuine ensemble – the only lynchpin is the house. None of us is indispensable and it’s been a great lesson for all of us.”
The final group scene to be filmed featured the servants in the downstairs quarters. Once wrapped, it fell to Jim Carter, who plays Carson the butler, to say a few words. However, as he recalls, it all became very emotional.
“We filmed the last scene of the series in a candle-lit servants’ hall with all the servants,” he says. “The producers came in and said thank you, and I thought I’d say a few words about the crew, and then I just filled up completely. I turned round and a big rigger was in floods of tears. Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) was a dreadful mess on the floor.”
But after six years in the same role, Carter is relishing the chance to play different characters.
“In reality, it’s job done and you move on,” he explains. “I’m not being cynical when I say that, that’s just what we do. But it has been a lovely job and an unprecedented success – something none of us have experienced before or probably will again.
“For some of the youngsters, this is the first job they’ve done. Well, kids, life isn’t going to be like that forever – you’re not always going to be turning left on the plane! I want to do new things and different things, but I’m incredibly grateful to Downton. We’re not creatures of routine, generally speaking.”
Carter, who believes TV commissioners should be braver in backing writing talent, also speaks fondly of his character’s endearing relationship with Mrs Hughes, who at the start of season six are setting a date for their wedding: “We’ve moved together with all the haste of a glacier, but I think the will is there for the people who watch it for us to get together. It’s realistic that people with that close working relationship become friends and become fond of each other.”
The last word, however, falls to Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), who filmed her last lines several days after that final servants’ scene that caused so many emotions to bubble to the surface.
“It’s been such a joy, all of the goodbyes, as much as it’s been sad,” she says. “It’s an alchemy of everything coming together perfectly. All departments are so strong; the look of the show is so mega and it coincides with this incredible script. You can’t underestimate how each department is responsible for the success. People are so kind about the show. It sits in a really nice place for families of all generations. People love to love it, it’s an infectious feeling and I feel so proud to be a part of it.”
Downton could receive more accolades after winning nominations for this month’s Emmy Awards, while there is promise of further prizes next year after the series’ conclusion. For cast and crew, the close of the show represents the end of a unique chapter of their careers, while ITV will hope its recently announced eight-part drama Victoria, starring Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman as the young Queen Victoria, can recreate in some part the global success of this iconic British drama.
Julian Fellowes is one of the hottest writing properties in global drama thanks to the success of Downton Abbey. So when it was announced that Downton’s next series will be its last, there was inevitable speculation about what he would do next.
The answer, revealed this week, is that Fellowes is working on a three-part adaptation of Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope’s novel about a doctor and his talented but penniless niece. Produced by Hat Trick Productions for ITV, filming starts later this year.
Trollope’s works don’t get as much attention as other 19th century authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But there have been high-profile adaptations of The Pallisers, The Barchester Chronicles, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right. Explaining his choice of project, Fellowes says: “As a lifetime devotee of Trollope – my own favourite among the great 19th century English novelists and certainly the strongest influence over my work that I am conscious of – it is exciting to know that my adaptation of one of his best-loved novels is coming to ITV.”
While many of Fellowes’ screen credits, including Downton Abbey, are original works, Fellowes is no stranger to novel adaptations. In fact, he wrote the screenplay for Vanity Fair, a 2004 film version of the classic 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.
As a three-parter, Dr Thorne won’t occupy Fellowes for too long. So it will be interesting to see if he continues his partnership with ITV into 2016. In 2012, there were reports that he was planning a Downton Abbey prequel, focusing on the youthful romance between central characters Lord and Lady Grantham.
Other writer-based developments in the UK include news that in-demand Hugo Blick has been signed up to write a series for BBC2. In a vague statement, the BBC says the show is about “a compelling set of characters caught up in a very human moral dilemma and plays out in a setting drama rarely takes us to, contemporary Africa.”
Although details are currently under wraps, audiences can expect the complex conspiratorial storytelling that Blick gave us in The Honourable Woman, a political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Guardian, “Viewing a Blick series is like someone coming to you with a ball of horribly knotted and twisted wool and promising to knit you a sweater.”
In the US, the civil rights and abolitionist movements continue to provide rich sources of material for writers. Kirk Ellis, writer of HBO miniseries John Adams (2008), has joined forces with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV, to pen a biopic for HBO about famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Based on Kate Clifford Larson’s book Bound for the Promised Land, the production will highlight Tubman’s involvement in leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad and later fighting during the Civil War.
The John Adams miniseries was a multiple Golden Globe and Emmy winner, which explains why Ellis was a shoe-in for this new project. He was also credited as a co-writer with Stephen David and David C. White on Sons of Liberty, History US’s three-part miniseries about the early years of the American Revolution.
Fellowes, Blick and Ellis are all A-list writers these days. In terms of rising stars, this week saw James Wood (Rev, Ambassadors) named as writer on Game Changer (working title), a BBC factual drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Bill Paxton. Aimed at an adult audience, this 90-minute drama tells the story of the controversy surrounding video game franchise Grand Theft Auto.
Stateside, Bravo Media is boosting its scripted output (like every other cable broadcaster). A new slate of shows includes White Collar Wives, which looks at the ripple effect of an FBI investigation into insider trading, as the women married to the financial elite go to extreme lengths to save themselves. The project is from BBC Worldwide-owned Adjacent Productions and is being written by Vanessa Reisen (Weeds, Californication).
Bravo’s new orders also reflect the way in which writing talent is crossing from movie to TV. One of its new shows, My So Called Wife, is co-written by Adam Brooks – whose movie credits include French Kiss, Wimbledon and Definitely Maybe. Brooks and writing partner Paul Adelstein previously scripted Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for Bravo and are reuniting for My So Called Wife.
In terms of projects that need writers, the big story is that Fox 21 Television Studios and Kevin Spacey are linking up to produce a TV drama adaptation – The Residence, by Kate Andersen Brower, a best-selling non-fiction book about life at the White House. At the time this story was published, no writer had been attached to the show.
Some good news for British writers, meanwhile, is this week’s decision by commercial broadcaster ITV to raise wages for drama writers. They will get a 5% pay increase following negotiations between ITV and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. The rate for a one-hour drama will rise to £13,283, up from £12,650. Rates for writing series increase to £10,395 per episode, up from £9,900. Presumably this is a minimum, with the likes of Mr Fellowes able to command a much higher pay packet for Dr Thorne.