Tag Archives: Julian Fellowes

Fever pitch

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes turns his hand to the origins of football in his latest period drama, Netflix series The English Game. DQ discovers why it will appeal to fanatics and non-fans alike.

With the sporting calendar on hold around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic – seeing some teams resort to ‘playing’ each other via games of noughts and crosses on their Twitter accounts – football fans, at least, will soon be able to turn to the most unlikely of sources to get their fix: the man behind Downton Abbey.

Arriving on Netflix this Friday is six-part drama The English Game, written by Downton’s Oscar-winning creator Julian Fellowes. The miniseries promises to reveal the true story behind the origins of the world’s most popular sport, taking viewers back to the 1880s and the much rougher game that would eventually evolve into what the Americans call soccer.

This being penned by Fellowes – who so expertly explored class via Downton’s ‘upstairs/downstairs’ dynamic and treads in similar territory with newly launched ITV drama Belgravia – issues of class are integral to the storyline.

The story is one that Fellowes and co believe will be unfamiliar to the majority of those interested in football. It delves into how a game that was originally the preserve of the upper classes came to be dominated by the working man, with mill owners forming teams consisting of their employees.

The drama centres on two real-life football pioneers from opposite sides of the divide. Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) is the captain of the Old Etonians football team, versed in the established, rough-and-tumble style of the game, while Scotsman Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), brought south of the border by a mill owner, brings with him a fresh, passing-focused approach.

Kevin Guthrie plays working-class Scottish footballer Fergus Suter

For the former, football is a gentleman’s pastime, while Suter is among the first people to be paid solely for playing the game.

As you might have guessed, Kinnaird and Suter find themselves on a collision course as they prepare for an all-important match between their two very different teams that means so much more than just the result.

“I don’t think I could really be described as a big football fan,” Fellowes admits with a knowing smile, revealing that it was the class conflict behind the story that drew him to the project.

“I didn’t know that there was this class war at the beginning of the game. The fact that the working class essentially won it changed the shape of the game and gave it to the world. It appealed to me because it was a drama-in-miniature of what was happening in the whole of Western civilisation towards the end of the 19th century.”

It’s not just on the pitch that class is tackled in The English Game, with Fellowes detailing how he regularly uses group dining scenes to explore the issue. “There’s usually a dinner or a lunch or something in most of the things I do, because then you can tell so many stories simultaneously,” he explains.

Edward Holcroft is Arthur Kinnaird, captain of the upper-class Old Etonians team

During one such dinner in the show, some of the upper-class characters lament the fact that workers are being paid to play football. “They’re saying it’s not fair, but Kinnaird points out that none of the workers have ever eaten a dinner like the one they’ve just eaten; none of them have the time to practice that they have; none of them have two or three days a week off – or even the whole week – to do what they like, so is that a fair balance? And the answer is, of course, no.

“You can say that visually very easily in a very lavish dining room full of flowers and silver gilt. You don’t even have to put the whole thing into words.

“It’s two sides against each other, but on each side you have a guy who comes to see the other’s point of view. That’s really the arc of the show.”

Unlike Fellowes, executive producer Rory Aitken is very much a fan of the sport, but he was equally unaware of the tale behind its origins. “I didn’t know the story either. And I hadn’t seen anything like it on television, so I was as excited as anyone to delve into the history and discover it,” says the producer from 42, the UK-based prodco behind the show.

The project had initially been conceived as a feature film, but the creative team eventually decided that the many layers to the story made it more suited to the longer format of a miniseries.

Julian Fellowes (left) on location with Rory Aitken

“It’s notoriously hard to make any drama films about sports, because you can see amazing dramatic sports on television every weekend, pretty much every weekday now,” Aitken notes, speaking before the coronavirus-enforced sporting lockdown.

“So really to see how it plays out in a dramatic context, other than on the pitch, is something that we realised could work as a TV drama. And Julian is as much of a historian as a drama writer, and really understood that period and how to dramatise it.”

One of the main challenges of featuring sports in drama is realistically recreating the action on screen. To that end, the production faced the unusual task of finding cast members whose acting chops were matched by their footballing ability.

“Actually, a very surprising proportion of actors are very good at football. I don’t know what the reasons are, but there’s a very high proportion of actors who say they’re good at football,” Aitken jokes, “so it was part of the audition process.”

Thankfully, in Holcroft and Guthrie, The English Game found leads who could back up their words. “The audition process was mainly about the scene work, but I’m fortunate in that I was quietly confident in my ability,” says Guthrie, who reveals he was a youth player for Glasgow club Celtic.

Actors playing footballers had to go through a long period of training to shoot the match scenes

“So for sure there’s a background there, and I play football a lot, as a lot of actors do. We’re in and out of work, so that’s probably the reason why.

“The most challenging thing was actually dumbing the skills down a bit, as arrogant as that sounds – being able to make just passing the ball look difficult.”

Holcroft faced different physical requirements as the captain of the Old Etonians, whose version of football he describes as “more like a relaxed version of rugby.”

“There wasn’t a great deal of skill. When we did the audition process, I remember that it got down to about two or three of us for the role, and that’s the worst time for an actor, because it can either go so well or it can be crushing. And then I kept getting calls [from the casting team] in the next few days going, ‘Can we just find out – how good are you at football?’

“It really freaked me out, because I was thinking, ‘What if they want someone who’s professional?’ But actually, when we started, it was like, ‘Forget everything you know – forget all the football you’ve learned.’”

The English Game debuts on Netflix this Friday

With the cast in place, an intense and prolonged period of training was needed before the production could shoot the tightly choreographed match scenes. Football experts and historians were brought in, and the production team were allowed access to Manchester United’s Carrington training facility to fine-tune their preparations.

“They all had to train all of the moves that we had in the show. In some ways, that was the most challenging part of the shoot, because shooting footballers is slow and technical. It was months of training,” Aitken explains.

“Also, they weren’t only training all the moves, they were training to play in the style they would have played in the 1880s, which was incredibly different to how it is now. The equipment was different, the boots that they wore… In fact, only the Old Etonians had actual football boots – the workers played in their work boots.”

Describing training at Manchester United’s facilities as “exciting,” Aitken adds: “One of the trainers there is a football historian himself, so he immediately knew who everyone was [playing].”

The meticulous preparation apparently paid off. “When it came to filming, they were incredibly well drilled,” Aitken says. “There weren’t too many takes, and you’ve got to be precise because otherwise you’re filming everything 15 times.”

All this helps to realistically bring to life a story that Fellowes believes will appeal to both football fans and those with no real interest in the sport.

“You know, it’s true. I always say, when the stories are true, they have a kind of resonance,” the writer says.

Having clearly enjoyed delving into a different subject, who knows – maybe more sports-origin series will come from the Downton scribe. Bog snorkelling, anyone?

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Class war

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.

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.”

James Fleet as Stephen Bellasis in Belgravia

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.”

Harriet Walter plays Lady Brockenhurst

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.

Tamsin Greig as Anne Trenchard alongside Philip Glenister (right) as James Trenchard

“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.

Gareth Neame

“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.

Parts of the series were filmed on location at settings including London’s Somerset House

“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.”

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Abbey days

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.

Julian Fellowes (left) and Gareth Neame at C21’s Content London event

“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.”

Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan in Downton Abbey

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.”

The Downton Abbey cast, including Maggie Smith, reunited for last year’s movie

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 and Neame’s next ITV period drama Belgravia

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.”

The English Game focuses on the origins of football

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.

 

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Mercurio’s Duty calls for viewers

Line of Duty has added viewers each season
Line of Duty has added viewers each season

BBC2 in the UK is having a great year in terms of its drama output. The first part of 2016 saw a solid performance for US acquisition American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, while tomorrow sees the much-anticipated return of Peaky Blinders for season three.

Sandwiched between the two was the third season of Line of Duty, which has proven to be a huge hit for the channel. So successful, in fact, there are reports that season four, which is scheduled to air in 2017, will move to flagship channel BBC1.

As the dust settles on Line of Duty’s ratings, various claims are being made, but probably the most eye-catching is that the series is BBC2’s most successful drama in 15 years. With an average audience of just under five million per episode (live+7 day ratings), it even managed to outperform Wolf Hall, which was a strong performer in 2015 with an average audience of 4.4 million.

Line of Duty focuses on the activities of an anti-corruption unit led by superintendent Ted Hastings (played by Adrian Dunbar). It is the latest masterpiece from Jed Mercurio, widely acknowledged as one of the top talents working in British TV.

Mercurio actually started out as a doctor before breaking into the business with acclaimed medical drama Cardiac Arrest in the mid-1990s. Since then he has had pretty consistent success as a TV writer while also carving out a decent career as a novelist. Indeed, his second TV series was an adaptation of his first novel, Bodies.

He has proven particularly adept at creating procedurals with a twist. Aside from Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty, for example, he also created Critical, a medical drama for Sky1 set in a fictional trauma centre.

Critical
Mercurio created Critical for Sky1

He has also tried his hand at a number of other sub-genres of the scripted TV business. The Grimleys (1999-2001), for example, was a comedy drama, while Frankenstein (2007) was a modern-day re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel. He also set up Left Bank’s long-running action-adventure series Strike Back (2010) and adapted DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC1 last year.

Within the UK system, Mercurio is unusual in that he is more akin to a US showrunner than a European writer/auteur. Typically, he will write and produce his shows – sometimes directing as well. As a consequence of this level of control, Mercurio is well placed to ensure his creative vision hits the screen.

Mercurio recently gave a very insightful interview to Den of Geek in which he distinguished his work from procedurals that delve into the private lives of their protagonists. “Part of me isn’t that interested as a person and a viewer in people’s personal lives. I’m more interested in what people do in the workplace and what goals they set themselves. I guess that’s why I write a lot of precinct drama. (There’s often) an expectation, or pressure sometimes even, to feel that the way to succeed with drama is to see all sides of a character by going into their personal lives, even if you’ve got nothing to say.”

It’s interesting to note that Line of Duty’s ratings have been building across the first three seasons, giving it the feel of a show that slipped under the radar but is now attracting new swathes of fans. All of which augurs well for season four, regardless of the channel it airs on.

Liam Neeson starred in the Taken movie franchise
Liam Neeson starred in the Taken movie franchise

In the US, this is a critical time of year for the scripted business as the major networks decide which pilots to take forward to series. Most announcements will trickle through in the next few weeks, though a few new shows have already been given the go-ahead.

One of these is ABC’s Designated Survivor, which will star Kiefer Sutherland (24) and is being written by David Guggenheim (Safe House, Bad Boys 3). Another is Taken, a spin-off from the hit movie franchise. The TV version, for NBC, will be penned by Alex Cary (credits include Homeland, Lie To Me).

Not yet greenlit but looking good is Fox’s Lethal Weapon, another reboot of a movie franchise. This one is being scripted by Matt Miller, whose writing credits include ABC’s short-lived Forever.

Also, this week, DQ’s sister site C21 Media reports that long-running CBS drama The Good Wife is being adapted for the South Korean market by broadcaster TVN. The show, created by Robert and Michelle King, comes to the end of its seventh and final season in the US this week. All told, that means TVN will have 155 episodes to work with.

The Korean version of the show will be produced by Jung-Hyo Lee (I Need Romance, Heartless City) and written by Han Sang-Woon. Like the CBS original, it will centre on the complicated relationships of people in the legal system working against a backdrop of scandal and corruption.

The Good Wife is coming to an end in the US
The Good Wife is coming to an end in the US

Interestingly, this is not the first adaptation Han Sang-Woon has worked on. Last year, he wrote Spy for KBS2, based on Israeli drama The Gordin Cell. Previously, he wrote the movie My Ordinary Love Story. Commenting on the production, TVN parent company CJ E&M told C21: “For the Korean version of The Good Wife, we focused on the casting and were successful in casting Korea’s biggest actress, Jeon Do-Yeon – who has won many awards in her career, including best actress at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival – in the lead role, marking her return to television after 11 years.”

Finally, continuing the writers-as-brands theme we discussed in last week’s column, Amazon is about to air ITV period drama Doctor Thorne in the US (May 20). When it does, it will call the series Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne, another indicator of the marketing leverage that leading writers increasingly possess.

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Hat Trick’s Mark Redhead reveals his Secret for ITV

Hat Trick Productions is adding to the current trend for true crime with forthcoming ITV drama The Secret. Head of drama Mark Redhead tells Michael Pickard why this real-life story will make compelling television.

While crime remains a staple genre of television, true crime is currently flavour of the month.

Following the success of podcast Serial and factual series such as HBO’s The Jinx and Making a Murderer on Netflix, scripted dramas such as American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson are satisfying audiences’ appetite for fact-based shows.

In the UK, ITV has a long history with true-crime dramas, with series such as Mrs Biggs, Appropriate Adult and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries, to name but a few recent titles.

Next up is The Secret, which stars James Nesbitt (pictured top) and Genevieve O’Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan, who met at their local Baptist Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and embarked on a passionate and destructive affair that climaxed in a plot to kill their partners.

Mark Redhead
Mark Redhead

Produced by Hat Trick Productions, it is distributed by Hat Trick International and is one of 12 dramas being presented to international buyers at the Mip Drama Screenings in Cannes this Sunday.

The project was first championed by Nesbitt himself, who was familiar with both the case and journalist Deric Henderson, who wrote the book on which the drama is based. The story was eventually picked up by screenwriter Stuart Urban, who brought it to Hat Trick head of drama Mark Redhead.

“As soon as I saw the story, I knew it was extraordinary and took it to ITV and they greenlit it really quickly,” explains Redhead, who executive produces the three-part series.

“It’s a fantastic story but what is extraordinary about it was these people committed these terrible crimes and they got away with it – but did they? You commit a crime and the police don’t get you but you can’t escape from it because it’s inside your head. So partly it’s about the crimes but it’s also about the relationship of the two protagonists and what happens if you commit a crime together and the effect that has on your relationship.

“That’s incredibly interesting and original. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done. It’s a bit like Macbeth or Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. But this is a contemporary true story and we have an extraordinary amount of detail about their relationship.”

The series is currently in post-production, though Redhead – whose credits include other factual dramas Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday – already says he is “enormously proud” of the drama.

“Jimmy (Nesbitt) says it’s his best work ever. He’s just breathtaking in it,” he continues. “He comes from the area and connects very much with the world. He’s such a brilliantly versatile actor that he delivers all the different moods and stages of this relationship and this extraordinary man in an incredibly convincing way. We partnered him with Genevieve – she gave the best audition I have ever seen. She’s just brilliant and they’re incredibly well matched so they go toe to toe. And 99.9% of the scenes feature one of them.”

Redhead says The Secret will chime with the current trend for true-crime stories, though this time viewers will see the effect murder has not only on the families of the victims but also the killers themselves.

The Secret stars and James Nesbitt
The Secret stars and James Nesbitt Genevieve O’Reilly as Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan

“They pay a price and I think that’s really interesting and important,” he says, adding that director Nick Murphy (Occupation) has brought a naturalistic style to the drama. “We really wanted to make it feel very truthful so there’s minimal lighting, it’s handheld – it feels incredibly real.”

Part of filming a true story is a responsibility to ensure it is retold with as much accuracy as possible, and Redhead says creatives should resist an urge to tidy up real life if the facts don’t present a rounded story or fit in a traditional structure.

“It is a story that if it weren’t true, you wouldn’t believe,” he says of the plot at the heart of The Secret. “You can only tell this story because it’s true. If you presented it to the world as a piece of fiction, people wouldn’t accept it. It’s that extraordinary. And I believe that with true stories, you embrace the mess. You stay as faithful to the facts as possible, even if it causes you headaches in terms of scripting. Audiences accept there won’t be a neatness to a true story.

“Real life isn’t tidy and things happen that are slightly incomprehensible or there are loose ends that don’t get tied up. Our approach with Stephen Lawrence and subsequently Bloody Sunday was to accept it would be messy and trust an audience would understand that and buy that.”

The Secret marks the second time Hat Trick International has distributed one of its sister production company’s dramas. The first was Doctor Thorne, the Julian Fellowes adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel.

Rebecca Front and Tom Hollander in Doctor Thorne
Rebecca Front and Tom Hollander in Doctor Thorne

Another three-parter, which aired on ITV this month, it starred Tom Hollander (Rev, The Night Manager) as the eponymous medic who lives with his penniless young niece Mary. When Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front) discovers her son Frank has fallen in love with Mary, she conspires to find him a rich bride in order to save her own family from its own financial ruin. Her target is wealthy American heiress Martha Dunstable, played by Alison Brie.

The series was executive produced with US producer-distributor The Weinstein Company, which helped to finance the project and was also responsible for casting US star Brie, whose credits include Mad Men and Community.

Explaining the origins of the coproduction, Redhead says: “We had a deficit. You always have a deficit. But the options and places to go in the US are many and various. There are 57 or so places to sell drama in the US and, thanks to the Downton Abbey effect, there’s a much greater willingness on the part of US broadcasters and producers to get involved with the UK, even on a show like this.

“Five years ago, nobody would have touched a period drama of this sort but, thanks to the success of Downton breaking through, there’s now an acceptance that English period drama is something valuable. (The Weinstein Company) came in and it was a decent sum, and they took the rights for American and Canada. Of course, Julian himself is a factor – people want to be in business with him because he’s so brilliant and successful.”

Doctor Thorne is a project that had been in development for many years courtesy of producers Ted Childs (Inspector Morse) and Chris Kelly (Kavanagh QC). Fellowes had also written the script on spec, and Childs and Kelly brought it to Redhead. Downton broadcaster ITV jumped at the chance to pick up Fellowes’ next project.

When deciding who to cast in the lead role, the producers sought someone in the mould of James Stewart or Tom Hanks – a great actor with star appeal. They found their man in Hollander.

“It was great to get Tom,” Redhead says. “When we were talking about casting, Julian wanted what we described as charasmatic decency – the combination of being both good but having some star appeal – which is a very rare commodity and Tom’s definitely got it. I can’t think of many actors who have it.

The Weinstein Company's involvement in Doctor Thorne led to the casting of US star Alison Brie
The Weinstein Company’s involvement in Doctor Thorne led to the casting of US star Alison Brie

“He was keen to have the opportunity to play a straight lead role. There is some comedy in it but he’s the straight guy, the hero, and I think he really appreciated that chance and he carries it really well.”

Though Doctor Thorne could return for a second season, that decision has been put on hold while Fellowes continues work on his long-awaited period drama The Gilded Age, which is expected to begin production later this year for a 2017 debut on US network NBC.

That doesn’t mean Hat Trick, best known for its entertainment and comedy shows, isn’t continuing to build its drama slate, with Redhead confident he will be in production with two or three more series during 2016.

“Drama’s an important part of the mix and (Hat Trick MD) Jimmy Mulville’s very interested in drama,” Redhead reveals. “And the border between comedy and drama is quite moveable. It’s an important element of the company. Drama is going through a boom period so our energies as a company are focused on that.

“It’s cyclical – comedy is having a relatively quiet patch, whereas a few years ago it was the new rock ’n’ roll. Maybe in an era of international coproduction, comedy, which tends to be a local thing, is possibly slightly eclipsed because it’s hard to sell. People in different countries have difference senses of humour, so in a world dominated by international coproduction, humour is not going to be the prime selling point.”

But does Redhead think the drama boom is set to continue? “There’s a tremendous hunger for stories,” he says. “I’m sure there will be consolidation in terms of the number of hours – I can’t imagine the 57 US outlets will continue as they do. There will probably be shrinkage within that market, but the demand for drama will remain. And the UK is actually pretty good at selling itself internationally. Downton Abbey has made a huge difference to the credibility of UK drama internationally.”

But with The Secret and two BBC series – The Fall and Line of Duty (seasons two and three) – set and produced in Northern Ireland with support from Northern Ireland Screen, Redhead jokes that the industry might have swap Nordic noir for the next new drama trend – Ulster noir.

“There are some really talented people there,” he says. “It’s fantastic place to work and it would be great to do stuff set there. This is a place that’s had years of suffering and yet you couldn’t find a more welcoming and amiable part of Europe. It’s always a real pleasure to go there.”

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Fargo keeps going as French shows impress

Fargo’s numbers were down for its second season on FX despite universal critical acclaim

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.

Fargo writer Noah Hawley is also working on Cat's Cradle with FX
Fargo writer Noah Hawley is also working on Cat’s Cradle with FX

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.

Billy Ray is adapting The Last Tycoon
Billy Ray is adapting The Last Tycoon

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.

spiral
International Emmy winner Spiral

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.

whitesoldier
Soldat Blanc (White Soldier)

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.

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Goodbye Downton: DQ studies the period drama’s legacy

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.

Julian Fellowes walks away from the Downton Abbey set
Julian Fellowes walks away from the Downton Abbey set

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.”

Hugh Bonneville: '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'
Hugh Bonneville: ‘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’

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.

Jim Carter (right): 'After we filmed the last scene, 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'
Jim Carter (right): ‘After we filmed the last scene, 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’

“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.

Laura Carmichael (right): ' I feel so proud to be a part of it'
Laura Carmichael (right): ‘People love to love it, it’s an infectious feeling and I feel so proud to be a part of it’

“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.

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Good Fellowes

Fellowes 001
Julian Fellowes leaves Downton behind

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.

EPSON MFP imageAs 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.

Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney
HBO’s John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti (left) and Laura Linney

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.

house of cards
Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

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.

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