Tag Archives: Jack Lothian

Lucky Strike

It survived one cancellation, but now the end really is nigh for Strike Back as the action thriller returns for its final mission. Showrunner Jack Lothian tells DQ how he hopes to keep viewers’ pulses racing up until its conclusion.

When it was first commissioned in 2009, Strike Back was hailed as a “truly uncompromising, compelling action drama.”

At that time, commissioning broadcaster Sky was best known as a home for US drama in the UK, airing shows such as 24 and Lost. But Strike Back marked the start of an ambitious new emphasis on homegrown scripted series that was fuelled by other shows including Mad Dogs, The Take and Thorne.

Originally based on Chris Ryan’s novel of the same name, it follows the missions of Section 20, an elite, multinational, covert special ops team that travels around the globe fighting a vast web of interconnected criminal and terrorist activity.

Now, over a decade later, Strike Back is returning for an eighth and final season – a run that, barring its short-lived cancellation in 2015 after season five’s Strike Back: Legacy and its swift resurrection the following year, has seen the explosive series become a mainstay in the Sky1 schedule.

The series has also aired in the US on HBO-owned Cinemax, which came on board as a coproducer for its first original series in the second season, Strike Back: Project Dawn, and later aired the first season as a prequel called Strike Back: Origins.

Strike Back showrunner Jack Lothian on set with actor Alin Sumarwata

While a cancellation doesn’t always mean a show is dead and buried in today’s television landscape, with plenty of canned shows finding their way back to the schedules, this eighth season, subtitled Vendetta, will see Section 20 reunite for one final mission – which promises to be their most dangerous yet.

The kidnapping of a British scientist leads Section 20 into a conspiracy involving the development of a biochemical weapon, taking them to the world of the Albanian mafia in the Balkans, the colourful parades of Venice and on to Tel Aviv. They battle street gangs and corrupt property developers and also face enemies past and present. And when a terror attack rocks a European city, the team realise there are even darker forces at work.

Novin (Alin Sumarwata), Wyatt (Daniel MacPherson), Mac (Warren Brown) and Chetri (Varada Sethu) all return alongside commanding officer Colonel Alexander Coltrane (Jamie Bamber), while guest stars include Ivana Miličević (Banshee) and Alec Secăreanu (Baptiste).

Showrunner Jack Lothian could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu, having been a writer on Legacy when Strike Back was first cancelled. Now, with a second chance to conclude the series, he says he was able to take some gambles with the plot and the characters that might not have happened if it were set to return.

“I suppose the gold standard for TV is Blake’s 7, when they killed them all off in the final scene,” he jokes. “That’s always on the table.”

Finding the story for any season of Strike Back is led by its filming location, with Vendetta filmed entirely in Croatia.

Disused warehouses have been key filming locations for Strike Back down the years

“When we work out where we’re going to film, we start to dig into the area and see what sort of places it can double for, what’s the military activity there and what’s the criminal activity,” Lothian explains. “In the same way we filmed in Malaysia last season [Strike Back: Revolution], that informed who the enemy was and what the mission was. We also look ahead to the sort of threats that are just around the corner, in terms of something that would require a black ops unit to go in, rather than just normal military or police.”

Experts are a big part of the development process, advising on the kinds of contemporary topics and global dangers the show wants to address, though Strike Back is never weighed down by characters putting the world to rights.

“We’re not a show that sits around and discusses some of the weighty issues. The plot pretty much happens on the move,” Lothian says of the fast-paced series, which jumps from one action set piece to the next without giving the characters, or the audience, much time to catch their breath.

“There are certain things that are always kept off the table because I feel like we couldn’t do them justice in the way that we’d want to. It often comes down to some sort of rising threat, and as a starting point, the idea of bioterrorism or an unknown out there is quite exciting.”

Character development is explored through the prism of the often-unique circumstances in which the members of Section 20 find themselves. But just as Jack Bauer experiences in US thriller 24, the clock is always ticking.

L-R: The show’s stars include Daniel MacPherson, Warren Brown and Alin Sumarwata

Coming up with enough story to fill 10 hours of airtime is “definitely the hardest thing, because it chews through story like nothing else,” Lothian admits. “On a different show, the entire first episode [of this season] could have been three or four episodes. When the show came back [after Legacy, with season six’s Retribution], I really wanted to have this compression of action where you just try not to stop. Hopefully, by the end of it, the audience is exhausted in the best way possible.

“Because we are an action show – and it’s a unique thing to be able to do on TV, to be able to go full speed and try to keep it going – that’s very much the philosophy of the show, just to see how much we can we can squeeze into each episode.”

That approach to storytelling means Strike Back stands apart from anything else on television, with Lothian inspired by his love of 1980s action movies. “There are some military and action shows out there but, certainly with our budget and the timescale we have to shoot, we make things hard for ourselves in terms of all the things we try to do,” he says.

“But it does make the show unique. Before I even joined the show, the thing I loved about it was it felt like nothing else. It’s unashamedly in love with action and everything that comes with that.”

The scripts are written with the locations in mind, before stunt and military advisors suggest how particular scenes might be filmed, or offer alternatives if they’re a leap too far even for Strike Back. One idea featuring a van loaded with chemical weapons was vetoed because “it just isn’t feasible,” Lothian recalls, highlighting the show’s attempts to always keep one foot in reality.

Jamie Bamber (left) plays Colonel Alexander Coltrane

“We certainly try to keep some sort of basis that what happens is mostly plausible, in the same way something like what Bad Boys does is plausible. Whether it would happen is another thing,” Lothian says.

“These soldiers are meant to be the best of the best, but drama happens when something goes wrong so it’s always tricky to put them in situations where something goes wrong and it’s not because they’re being bad soldiers. That’s always an obstacle you have to face. How do things go wrong without then seeming incompetent?”

As the showrunner, Lothian writes for all the episodes based on storylines he has created with other writers and producers from Left Bank Pictures. He also works with costumes – “I had a thing against hats for a while but the costume designer convinced me to loosen up” – locations and the art department. “We’re lucky to have a great crew and everyone’s really top-notch in what they do, so it’s just about making sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” he adds.

Shooting each season takes up to six months, with five weeks allocated for each two-episode block. A second unit is often in operation, meaning the crew will be filming two things at once in the same location in an attempt to get through all the material.

Croatia offered a variety of locations to the crew, from urban and rural areas to the coast, as well as the prerequisite number of disused factories and warehouses for backdrops to the numerous firefights that take place in each episode.

This season was filmed in Croatia

“What I’m always surprised about is, wherever we go, there are so many disused factories and warehouses that we can blow up,” Lothian says. “I must have seen hundreds now. It was a running joke that, in the final episode, they’re finally going to meet the person whose warehouses they’ve been blowing up. All he wants is for them to stop blowing up his warehouses.”

Another challenge in writing the series is plot escalation – if you start with the search for a bio weapon, where will the story be by episode 10? But this final season takes a different tack, finding time for some quieter moments between the stunts and explosions. “The mid-season episodes are quite interesting and quite unlike anything Strike Back has done before, where we do take our foot off the pedal and go off in different directions. That was a lot of fun to do,” Lothian says.

The writer, whose other credits include Doc Martin and Shameless, says one thing he has learned on Strike Back is that your heroes are always defined by your villains. “We’ve been lucky over the years, with [actors] Michelle Yeoh and last year with Alec Newman, and we have been lucky to have some really good, strong villains,” he says. “Something I’m proud of is that we have three-dimensional villains who you can almost root for. One of the joys of the show is being able to do that.”

Having started working on the show with Strike Back: Legacy, how does Lothian see the drama’s own legacy as it comes to an end? “Before I joined the show, I didn’t realise how smart and funny it was. I had this preconceived notion of it, and I think a lot of people still do. Last season, we did a continuous one-take sequence in a shanty town where the team were under attack so technically and, story-wise, it was a real challenge and something we were all really proud of. It’s a hidden gem.

“One thing people always say when they tune in for the first time is, ‘I didn’t realise the show was like that.’ It is a fun action show, but it’s got a bit of heart and it’s got some drama.”

As for its future, “as Sean Connery might say, never say never again,” Lothian concludes. “Whether I’ll be involved or not, I don’t know. But the idea of the British and Americans working together, it’s a solid buddy-movie franchise so I like to think it’ll come back someday.”

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Halcyon days

The party’s just getting started inside London’s most glamorous bomb shelter – but, as DQ discovers, all might not be as it seems behind the doors of The Halcyon.

It’s somewhat jarring to see groups of people checking their smartphones while standing around in 1940s period costume. But that’s the scene between takes when DQ spends a day at the West London Film Studios.

It’s here that two stages have been transformed into The Halcyon, a glamorous five-star hotel at the centre of London society and a world at war that forms the setting of an ITV drama of the same name.

The eight-part show follows the staff and guests of the hotel in 1940 and, in particular, pits hotel manager Richard Garland (played by Steven Mackintosh) against owner Lady Priscilla Hamilton (Olivia Williams). The Halcyon’s cast also includes Kara Tointon (Mr Selfridge), Alex Jennings (The Queen), Matt Ryan (Constantine), Hermione Corfield (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Mark Benton (Eddie the Eagle). Produced by Left Bank Pictures (The Crown) and distributed by Sony Pictures Television, it was created by Charlotte Jones along with lead writer Jack Lothian. Sharon Hughff (Strike Back, Waterloo Road) exec produces and Chris Croucher (Downton Abbey) is the producer.

Early in the show’s four-year development process, its creators were clear they didn’t want to create an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ drama akin to Downton Abbey. Instead, they wanted to tell a story about the hotel’s owners and its employees, with the central focus naturally falling on Lady Hamilton, who gives up her country estate to move to London and run the hotel, creating a “total nightmare” for Garland.

“It took a good seven or eight months to find that point of conflict and really get it working,” explains Hughff. “We thought the show was about so many other things and, with so many characters, it takes a long time to develop because you have so many relationships, but that central relationship was the crux of the drama.”

Another key storyline involves a Romeo and Juliet-inspired romance between Lady Hamilton’s son and Garland’s daughter, whose budding romance causes more trouble for their warring parents. “Around them, there are layers and layers of other characters who all have their own intrigue and interest, and you get drawn into those aspects of the story,” Hughff continues.

The Halcyon’s set model

“We always wanted there to be a mystery running through the middle of the series, so Richard Garland has a great big secret, which we learn halfway through the season. And by the end of the season, he gels with Lady Hamilton because she does something bad and he covers it up for her.”

The production crew constructed the hotel’s grand foyer with a sweeping staircase, a bar area and dance floor, a backstage space, a kitchen and several bedrooms. The front, rear and restaurant exteriors, meanwhile, were all filmed on location. Eagle-eyed viewers might recognise the front of the hotel as The Land Registry Offices in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, central London, while the same city’s Liberal Club serves as the restaurant.

Construction of the set took 12 weeks, with around 100 people working on the build at one point. Add in those buying props, dressing the sets and working in the art department and Croucher estimates upwards of 150 people were working on the production at its peak.

Former EastEnders star Kara Tointon plays a singer

“The Second World War is such a rich tapestry of story,” he says. “From our costume team [led by Downton Abbey’s Anna Mary Scott Robbins] to our make-up and design teams, everyone was just so enthused when we started it, because it’s such an amazing period.

“We talked a lot about The West Wing when we were designing the set and, because everything’s connected, you can do these great walk-and-talks where you go from the foyer to the bar to backstage.”

Croucher describes the latter area as The Halcyon’s “crowning glory,” where the tiles, corridors and staircases all match Blythe House, an archive building for the Victoria & Albert, Science and British Museums that doubles as the exterior of the rear of the hotel.

“There are these amazing corridors and staircases so we can constantly make the world feel bigger,” he says. “We designed it so you can have characters in the bar and then they move backstage and then come into the front of house, so there’s constant movement.

The hotel foyer

“We’re lucky because the studio is quite long. You know when you’re in a hotel and the corridors just go on forever? That’s what we wanted to replicate. I also love that all the corridors are designed to enable us to show different floors.”

Meanwhile, a fully functional kitchen allows the camera to capture close-ups of the chefs at work, with real steam filling the air around them. And though it would have been laborious, not to mention expensive, to build 150 bedrooms akin to a real hotel, four bedrooms were constructed and regularly redressed to give the appearance of dozens of different rooms.

“Every room has several doors in and out and we can repaint them and put different furniture in,” Croucher reveals, adding that it took two days to repaint and redress each room. “All of the spaces are constantly changing. It’s a schedule nightmare because we have to be in and out of different rooms. But you really feel like you’ve got this grand hotel.

“In our minds, the hotel was built in 1890, which is why all the back-of-house stuff is quite Victorian. But it had an Art Deco revamp in 1920 and we now meet it in 1940.”

The set’s fully functional kitchen

As expansive as the hotel set is, a quarter of shooting was done on location. One example is a visit to an RAF base where Lady Hamilton’s son Freddie is a pilot.

“As great as it is to all be in the hotel, ultimately you also need to see a bit of the war,” Croucher says, “which is why we show the East End Blitz and the RAF, because otherwise the world becomes too insular.”

Croucher and his production team met the challenge of recreating the Blitz by taking over some period streets in Greenwich to film the nighttime bombing campaign, which begins in episode five. “It was amazing to be able to shoot in those East End streets,” he enthuses. “Those are the challenges I love the most. Filming the blackout was particularly challenging because if you stand in central London now at night, there is a light as far as you can see. There’s always ambient light. We managed to control 50% of the lights in our area but cranes and the like have to be painted out in post-production.”

The production also made use of an RAF base, one of a handful of locations depicted outside the hotel

The West Wing wasn’t the only influence in play, with Hughff revealing that the look and feel of 2007 movie Atonement, plus music from HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Imitation Game (2014), also provided inspiration.

Indeed, music is a central element of the series, with original songs created for the show in the style of the 1940s. When DQ visits the set, the stage is ready for the Sonny Sullivan Band as the hotel prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Actor Tointon sings in the series, while award-winning singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum has written two songs for its soundtrack and fellow musician Beverly Knight also performs in scenes set at the Café De Paris.

“Music is really the heartbeat of the show,” Croucher says. “What was great about that period was everyone genuinely thought each day could be their last so the parties were even bigger and wilder and more extravagant, and we tried to show that.”

Behind the camera, director Stephen Woolfenden (Harry Potter) took charge of the first filming block, establishing the show’s visual style and a sense of how the hotel works.

“We wanted it to look sumptuous, elegant and sexy,” notes Hughff. “We have a bar and music and we wanted to make sure the parties were ones we’d all want to go to. We also didn’t want it to look flat and set-like. It’s hard when you build a set; you’ve got to do a lot of work to make it look like it has many dimensions, and the crew has done such an incredible job.”

Despite the creators’ aforementioned reluctance to compare The Halcyon to fellow ITV period drama Downton Abbey, it is hoped the new series could have similar longevity to Downton, which finished last year after six seasons. Launching in the UK on January 2, there is scope for The Halycon to run for five seasons from 1940 until the end of the war in 1945.

But Left Bank Pictures MD Marigo Kehoe says the similarities end there: “A lot of people say this is the next Downton Abbey but we didn’t set out for it to be. Andy [Harries, Left Bank CEO] and I have never done things that are just in a box. We’ve done Strike Back, an action-adventure series, and Wallander. It’s a huge breadth of stuff.

“We’d had this in development for a long time, actually, and what was going on in the hotels during the build-up to the war and the war itself is a fascinating topic.”

Croucher concludes: “‘London’s most glamorous air-raid shelter’ is a line we use a lot. Everyone knows the Second World War but hopefully the hotel will allow us to put a great spin on that. It’s a side of the war you haven’t seen before – the side where the party still carries on.”

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