Tag Archives: Sky

Gangland shooting

The creative team behind Sky and Cinemax’s explosive original drama Gangs of London discuss how they brought The Raid director Gareth Evan’s action-packed storytelling to television.

Through his film franchise The Raid, Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans has become synonymous with a balletic brand of action and cinematic fight sequences.

For his first television series, Gangs of London, Evans is aiming to bring those same techniques to the small screen by taking viewers on an immersive journey into the hidden heart of the English capital.

The show depicts a city being torn apart by the turbulent power struggles of the international gangs that control it, with a power vacuum being created when the head of London’s most powerful crime family is assassinated.

For two decades, Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney, Hell on Wheels) was the most powerful criminal in London. Billions of pounds flowed through his organisation each year. But now he’s dead – and nobody knows who ordered the hit. With rivals everywhere, it’s up to the impulsive Sean Wallace (Joe Cole, Peaky Blinders), with the help of the Dumani family, headed by Ed (Lucian Msamati, His Dark Materials), to take his father’s place.

Gangs of London centres on the power struggle sparked by the death of Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney)

Sean’s assumption of power causes ripples in the world of international crime, leading lowlife chancer Elliot Finch (Sope Dirsu, Humans) to find himself transported to the inner workings of the largest criminal organisation in London.

Co-created by Evans with creative partner Matt Flannery, the nine-part series also stars Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Paapa Essiedu (Press) and Pippa Bennett-Warner (MatherFatherSon).

Gangs of London also marks the first television drama from Pulse Films (Mogul Mowgli, Lost Transmissions), which produces the series in association with Sister (Chernobyl). It is directed by Evans, Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens.

Speaking at Content London late last year, the creative team behind the series offered a glimpse into how it was brought to the screen and the rigorous training process behind its spectacular action scenes.

Pulse had a long-held ambition to work with Evans after meeting him at the Sundance Film Festival where they both had films being screened…

Lucas Ochoa, Pulse Films’ chief creative officer of scripted film and television: What he’d done with The Raid 1 and 2, if you were interested in action cinema, changed the game. It was very eye-catching. We just started a conversation and what Gareth came back with, after talking about the title, was a wall of family trees. He wrote on the wall the names of these families, the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and then the relationships between them and how they’re going to conflict over time.
Because it was such a vast matrix of these different characters with different agendas, television felt like the perfect medium to tell that story. The next step became how that could sit inside a city essentially going to war with itself.

Joe Cole stars as Finn’s son Sean, who must attempt to take his father’s place

Thomas Benski, Pulse Film’s CEO and co-founder: We all really wanted to do a sophisticated piece of storytelling. The visual style and the action are signature pieces. But Gareth and all of us gravitated to the idea of telling really compelling stories, with fascinating, unusual, diverse characters. He’s not a one-tone filmmaker; he has ambitions to do that, and that’s what we all got behind.

Sky snapped up the project after it was first pitched, with Sister coming on board to back the production…

Jane Featherstone, co-founder and head of Sister London: I’d seen Gareth’s work and he’s an extraordinary talent with an incredible authorial voice. I love television. I love watching movies, but I love making TV. So the idea of him bringing to television that incredible vision he has for thrills and violence, but also the moral complexity that he brings to all of his stories, was really interesting to me.
This is my city. I love London. I really loved getting under the skin of what you don’t see in London. It’s an extraordinarily complicated city but we don’t see it all. This show opened the door to that and I thought that was really interesting. Plus, it’s just really fucking exciting. It’s quite ‘blokey’ – I don’t mean women won’t like it, but I probably don’t gravitate to develop material like that, so I thought it would be a really interesting thing to explore.

Sky commissioned the series because it stood out as a “completely unique” proposition from anything already at the broadcaster or elsewhere on television…

Gabriel Silver, Sky commissioning editor: In a sense, it’s typical of what we aspire to do, which is something completely unique. We’re not only competing against all the other platforms and broadcasters, we also want to make sure every one of our shows is a stand-out against other Sky originals. This one absolutely is; it doesn’t take anyone seeing much more than the trailer to know we’re not making anything else like this.
You can talk about being quite niche in terms of the signature action that Gareth and Corin [Hardy, director] bring to it, even in terms of it possibly being quite a male-skewed show, and therefore it fits into a certain action-thriller genre. But it also has deep and broad themes and very strong storytelling. It’s actually quite a universal story.
We worked with [US cable channel] Cinemax on it and I felt like we had very similar ambitions for the show, so there wasn’t much in the way of translation needed. It’s set in London with a mostly British cast, but the themes are universal. It’s also a slightly heightened London – there’s a kind of ‘Gothamisation,’ which American viewers will totally understand.

Humans’ Sope Dirsu (right) plays Elliot Finch

Although this might be deemed a ‘male world,’ there is no shortage of female characters planning their own power grab…

Claire Wilson, writer: It is a male world and that means the female characters can’t be wallflowers, which was an exciting thing to write. Marian Wallace, played by Michelle Fairley, is the wife of the leader who gets killed in the first episode. We imagine she has taken a back step in her life over the last few years and become more of a silent partner. Then when he dies, she has to reinvent herself and we see this very badass, quite cruel woman appear.
It’s about all the characters finding their identity. One of the brilliant characters is Lale, who’s Kurdish and she runs gangs in London. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character like her – a female who is driven by revenge and by her wanting to defend her homeland, so she’s very complex and she just won’t give up on anything.
Then we have Shannon Dumani [Pippa Bennett-Warner]. She’s a single mother and you feel there’s something going on behind her. She’s sweet and she’s presented as a nice woman and but, as the story goes on, we start to work out you can’t be the daughter of someone like Ed Dumani without having something behind you. There are really interesting women in this definitely male world, but they’re pushing themselves forward and finding their feet in it.

Like Evans, Corin Hardy is making his first foray into TV with Gangs of London. He dived into the project, which he says is full of emotion, large scale action sequences, surprises and excitement…

Corin Hardy, who directs four episodes: It was a real joy to have such an incredible cast come together with the likes of Joe Cole [Pure]. The biggest discovery to me was Sope Dirisu, who is not only an incredible actor who’s come from a theatre background, but he also had to train rigorously under Gareth’s regime with his stunt team to pull off the action in this, which a lot of the cast did but particularly Sope.
It’s all in camera and it’s done for real, which is really something to behold. Then with Michelle Fairley, Lucien Msamati and Nargis Rashidi, it was important to balance the tone and know could make a show that was grounded and based in a real version of London, but heightened in such a way to bring an epic cinema to it.

The project comes from Gareth Evans, the filmmaker behind The Raid

Ochoa: Because the show is so vast, directors could bring their own sensibilities to bear on different aspects of the series. We wanted it to be a very free environment for people to be able to do that. They all brought something individual to it.

For Evans, action is character. But the set pieces in Gangs of London also had to be unlike anything ever seen on British television…

Gareth Evans, co-creator, writer and director: Having come from a film background, particularly the action genre, one of the biggest challenges was to seamlessly translate things I’ve learned in action filmmaking and then fit them into what is ostensibly a much tighter, leaner British television schedule.
From the moment myself and co-creator Matt Flannery first met with the guys at Pulse Films and then later with Sky and HBO, we were encouraged to take bold decisions and not restrict ourselves in terms of scale and ambition. When it came to designing the action sequences alongside stunt coordinator Jude Poyer, the remit was clear: it had to be unlike anything else seen or attempted before in British television.
We spent months designing and shooting the large-scale action set pieces that make up this inaugural season of the show. Not only was I fortunate enough to have the benefit of a remarkably gifted action team, but we landed on our feet with the casting of Sope and Joe. Sope is not just a remarkably gifted actor, he also happens to be an incredibly gifted screen fighter. We had absolutely no right to give him the complex choreography that we did.

Featherstone: In terms of those action sequences, that process is something I had never ever seen or experienced or heard of before. They were planned for months, every single movement. Everything was filmed shot by shot, exactly what you see, and it was replicated on the day with the actors.
That process, in television, has never been allowed to happen before in my experience, and we’re very good in TV at saying, ‘We don’t do it like that.’ This show really opened up a different way of looking at how you can create these things. And given TV is so big now and we are competing with films, and succeeding a lot of the time, we need to be able to embrace new methods and approaches.
It’s a really groundbreaking approach in the show. It will be undersold, because you’ll watch it and not really understand quite how much extraordinarily new thinking has gone into making it.

The show’s creators are confident Gangs of London is like nothing seen on TV before

The production was underpinned by a sense of rebelliousness and experimentation, with the creatives confident this has resulted in a series that will keep viewers engaged both with the action and the characters…

Hardy: There was a rebellious feeling that we’re three genre film directors doing a TV show with very respectable companies, but there was also a really nice sense of experimentation and freedom. It’s my first TV show and I’ve had an insanely focused, hardworking time, but everyone’s been supportive to try to achieve this level of scale. It’s also important to me that the story and emotions are there.

Ochoa: Gareth said really early on, ‘I want to make a TV show where no one in the audience feels safe at any moment in time.’ In a great way, we managed to deliver that, whether it’s a drama scene or an action sequence, because of the way it’s built.
You never know what might happen or who might die or why, how or when, or who’s going to betray whom or fall in love with someone. There’s a really good love story, by the way. If you get to the end of it all, there’s quite a romantic denouement.

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All guns blazing

On the set of Sky1 original drama Bulletproof, stars and co-creators Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters discuss the relationship at the heart of the series and explain how its action-packed stories make it stand out in the crowded crime genre.

On a quiet weekday lunchtime in central London, the world-famous Fabric nightclub is undergoing something of a transformation. Outside, new signs have been installed to rebrand the underground venue as Prometheus, while crew members are carrying equipment and cables between the numerous levels and twisting staircases.

It’s in the basement, beneath the ambient glow of blue and pink neon lights, that scenes from the second season of UK crime drama Bulletproof are being filmed. Series co-creators and stars Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters are in character as detectives Aaron Bishop and Ronnie Pike respectively, sitting on one side of a table and drinking glasses of what appears to be champagne.

Launching in May 2018, the series became Sky1’s biggest drama of that year, with childhood friends Bishop and Pike – the former grew up in foster homes and on the streets, while the latter comes from a high-achieving middle-class family – working together inside the National Crime Agency where they deal with serious organised crime while putting their family and friendships to the test.

Produced by Vertigo Films and distributed by NBCUniversal International Distribution, Bulletproof was quickly recommissioned following the conclusion of its first run, and filming on season two began in February last year. When DQ visits the set, it’s day 69, with the shoot having already taken in scenes on location in Amsterdam and Malta, which doubles for Cyprus. Today, two cameras are in play, one focusing on Clarke and the other side on to Walters.

Ashley Walters (let) and Noel Clarke filming in London nightclub Fabric

Season two, expanded from six to eight episodes, aims to have more of an international feel, with the drama also moving away from its episodic format to focus more on one serialised story. Stunts and locations have all been scaled up from season one, and while Bulletproof has never shied away from a bit of action, that greater ambition is particularly evident in car chases filmed through the streets of Amsterdam.

Back in London, as the sounds of a train passing overhead rumble through the foundations, the cameras are re-set on Mikey (Ben Tavassoli). Sitting opposite Bishop and Pike, the character is the nephew of a Cypriot crime family the undercover detectives are attempting to infiltrate.

Throughout its first season, Bulletproof stood out for its buddy-cop humour, high-octane action sequences and the chemistry between its two leads – factors that saw the series picked up by US network The CW.

“What makes the show different is you have a level of action a lot of shows don’t have,” Clarke explains during a break from filming. “That’s one of the things that makes it stand out, as well as the humour and the chemistry we bring to it as the two main characters. For me, whether it’s a day where both of us are having banter with each other or it’s an action-packed day, every day is enjoyable.”

“There isn’t another show like this on UK TV,” says Walters. “From the beginning, we’ve always said this cannot be your standard UK cop drama. We want it on the same scale as Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys. That’s what we’ve always been reaching for. We’re not doing Miss Marple! This is some real stuff. So it’s always been this way for us, it’s what we’ve always wanted. We’re always mindful, when we’re going through scripts or concepts and ideas, that we always keep that element in there. It’s one of the things that sets us aside from everything else.”

Clarke and Walters promise an action-packed season two

Also differentiating the show from its genre peers are Clarke and Walters themselves, with former Doctor Who star Clarke noting: “Once you put both of us in it, immediately there’s a show with two black male leads. You then sit down and think, ‘Should we be proud we did it, or should everyone else be ashamed it hadn’t been done before?’

“Then once we are doing it, there’s things we can say. We can be in the woods together and one of us can say, ‘You know, we always get killed in the woods first.’ It’s funny because, in a lot of films over the years, when there’s a group of friends including a black guy, it became a running joke within the ether that the black man would die first. So when there’s two of us in the woods, we can say stuff like that. If it was a pair of people of different colours, you probably couldn’t say that. You can’t always make those in-jokes, and that’s what sets us apart.”

Having created Bulletproof with Nick Love (The Football Factory), the actors are extensively involved in the development and plotting of the series. While Clarke is a regular writer and director, with films like Kidulthood to his name, Walters also stepped in to co-write an episode this season.

They joke that a lot of their lines are improvised. “We don’t really pay attention to the script, unless we’ve written the episode ourselves,” Clarke says. “We’re in the story room, we storyline and we’re there all the time, so we know the story from A to B. Our script supervisor has a nightmare. She says, ‘Are you going to say this here?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say, to be honest.’”

The duo’s confidence in ad-libbing stems from the fact they helped create the characters themselves. “It’s easy for us because we know the characters inside and out,” says Walters, who also stars in Top Boy, the UK crime drama series recently revived by Netflix via a helping hand from hip-hop star Drake. “We created them. Working together as long as we have, we get the timing. We know when the other person is going to speak and when they’re not; we know each other’s facial expressions. So, for us, it’s simple. For the other actors, they’ve been learning their lines and we just throw the pages out of the window.”

The leading duo improvise much of their dialogue

Clarke, himself an avid film and TV viewer, says he was confident Bulletproof would find an audience because it’s the kind of show that was missing from the schedules, yet one no one wanted to make. “It was one of those things where [even though UK viewers] eat up Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, Miami Vice and all those titles, we flick on [detective series] Inspector Morse. Why are we not doing that sort of stuff?

“Years ago, we almost did it in our very British way – The Professionals, The Sweeney. Those shows had a different edge because they were very ‘geezerish.’ But it was always the case I felt people, especially working-class people, needed to see a show that represented them. They come home after a hard day’s work and [want to find something they relate to]. Part of the success of the show and the reason people talk about it is they feel it is theirs, they have ownership of it and can relate to us. We’re tangible. That’s an important thing.”

Discussing his move into writing, Walters says it’s something he had always wanted to do, with the process leading him to start his own production company. “But I’ve always understood how much of your time it takes and how disciplined you have to be, and in season one I didn’t think I was ready to do it,” he adds. “This time around, I took on the responsibility of co-writing one of the episodes, which was fun. I’m enjoying that – I hope I can do it a bit more.”

It was Love’s idea to pursue the undercover storyline in season two, with around 12 people gathering together for an initial two-week writing room that broke down the story. After a fortnight’s break, they reconvened for a further week to finish the outlines. “It’s a process. Some of them are very young, diverse writers coming through who would probably never have got a look-in. But because it’s our show, we’re involved in making sure they’re in the room,” Clarke explains. “You need all the people in the room just to question things, just to interrogate things. That’s how we do it.”

Set a year after season one, Bulletproof returns with a new action-packed story that promises to push Bishop and Pike’s friendship to the extreme. “Bishop really wants to focus on bringing people down and being a real lonesome person. He relies heavily on Pike, probably more than he knows, but of course Pike’s got a family,” Clarke says.

“He has a wife and kids, so he’s being pulled from pillar to post, especially after last season. His daughter was kidnapped at one stage, so his wife is still reeling from all of that stuff. That stress is there. Bishop doesn’t really understand that. So that’s how they’re tested a little bit. Bishop pulls them further and further undercover and Pike’s a little reticent at first.”

It’s the relationship between the two leading characters that Clarke and Walters believe viewers have responded to the most, with both actors saying they are now recognised more for Bulletproof than any of their previous roles.

“You know you’ve created something when people stop mentioning Kidulthood or Doctor Who,” says Clarke. “I really believe in the way people have invested in the characters – and not just us two but the extended team. You could just have an episode where we’re just staking a place out and have that banter and people would buy into it because of the relationship with the two guys. That was the prime thing we wanted [in season two], and we wanted to make sure the action levels stayed up, which they have. Everyone will be really happy with season two.”

“We were quietly confident [about the show’s success], but there’s always a part of you that thinks, ‘Are people going to love it?’” Walters adds. “We both come from huge shows like Doctor Who and Top Boy – stuff people will never forget, it never dies. The first inkling I had that this show was good was that people stopped talking about Top Boy. For five or six years, I’ve just had Top Boy. I have been working on other stuff, but now it’s fully Bulletproof. People just love it and we’re very happy.”

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Risky Devils

In financial thriller Devils, Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy) plays Dominic Morgan, the American CEO of an international investment bank, while Alessandro Borghi (Suburra) is ambitious head of trading Massimo Ruggero.

The drama is set in 2011 on London’s financial trading floors. Charismatic and fearless Massimo has enjoyed a wealth of success and promotion to vice-CEO is near certain. However, when Massimo is involved in a scandal involving his drug-addicted wife, Dominic withdraws his support. Then when he is suspected of murdering a colleague, Massimo sets about clearing his name and finding out who set him up.

In this DQTV video, Dempsey and Borghi reveal more about the story, their characters’ father-son relationship and why the 10-part series offers a fresh perspective on the global financial crisis of the last decade.

Directors Jan Michelini and Nick Hurran also offer their thoughts on how they brought energy to the project, which is based on the novel by Guido Maria Brera, and sought to create a grand stage for the international story.

Devils is produced by Sky Italia and Lux Vide, in association with Orange Studio, for Sky across Europe and Orange in France, and distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution.

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Capturing Catherine

Having won multiple awards for playing royalty on screen, Helen Mirren reigns once again in four-part miniseries Catherine the Great.

Providing a glimpse into the world of one of the most powerful female monarchs in history, the drama focuses on Catherine’s passionate affair with general Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), overcoming their adversaries to build Russia’s reputation as one of the great European powers of the 18th century.

In this DQTV video, writer Nigel Williams talks about how he first discovered the story of Catherine the Great and reuniting with Mirren after their 2005 Emmy-winning historical drama Elizabeth I.

He also discusses his adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, writing period dramas and his tips for aspiring writers.

Catherine the Great is produced by Origin Pictures and New Pictures for Sky Atlantic and HBO and distributed by NBCUniversal International Television Distribution.

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Acting royalty

Dame Helen Mirren is no stranger to portraying royalty on screen. But as she reveals, it was after an off-the-cuff remark that she found herself playing the title role in Sky and HBO miniseries Catherine the Great.

It takes a special actor to play one of the greatest and longest-reigning monarchs in history, and a vast, experienced cast and crew to support her.

Dame Helen Mirren is at her imperious best as the titular Russian empress in four-parter Catherine the Great. A combination of heavyweight co-stars and lavish production values and locations help to tell the story to startling effect.

The miniseries – the third in HBO and Sky Atlantic’s global partnership after The Young Pope and Chernobyl – is produced by Origin Pictures and New Pictures and was filmed largely in Lithuania and Latvia, where existing buildings were taken over to recreate 18th century Russian palaces and offices as well as Catherine’s apartment.

The production also gained access to several real palaces, including the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, which – combined with a big-budget costume department – helped Mirren get into character.

“We shot mostly in Lithuania but we also had the incredible privilege and advantage of shooting in Catherine’s palace in Russia,” she says. “And really, it did make such a difference. Of course, one can get into character in a studio, but to stand in those rooms that Catherine stood in, wearing those dresses, was an amazing experience. I do love a big dress, I must say! I’ve never got over my six-year-old self’s love of dressing up.

Dame Helen Mirren as Catherine the Greart

“Every now and again, in between takes, I would go wandering off so that I could just be alone in a room and think and feel. Oh my God, to look out of a window I knew she’d looked out of – that’s unbeatable.

“The palaces were actually destroyed in the Second World War, but the Russians did an amazing job of restoring them, and that is one of the great privileges of this job – to spend time really investing in a role.”

Catherine the Great’s story focuses on the later years of Catherine’s life, in which she ruled Russia alone after a coup in 1762 that led to the death of her bullying and drunken husband, Emperor Peter III. German by birth, Catherine became one of Russia’s longest-reigning monarchs, ruling as empress until 1796 and never remarrying.

“It would have been wonderful to have played the whole arc of her life but, of course, you can’t because you’d have to do it with two different actresses,” Mirren says. “At my end of life, we had to explore the latter end of her life.

“But that was the period in her life when she truly became ‘the Great’ when it came to extending the Russian empire, and the way she managed her power, so actually that worked out well.”

The series came about after Mirren was asked in an interview whom she would like to play next and – partly because of a lack of anything else to say, and partly because she had genuinely read up a lot on her life – found herself naming Catherine the Great.

Producer David Johnson saw the quote and immediately set about creating the project with scripts from Nigel Williams, who previously worked with Mirren on two-part miniseries Elizabeth I in 2005.

Mirren was surprised but thrilled to find herself being offered the role after such a flippant comment. She says: “I’m half Russian so I have always been curious about Catherine and, of course, any women in history who have had extraordinary lives, who have experienced enormous success, who have been powerful, obviously they are going to be interesting roles to play. So there was always a fascination for me.

“I very rarely have an answer when people ask me what role I’d like to play, because often the best roles are the ones that take you by surprise. But I did foolishly say Catherine the Great, and my dear producer rushed off to get the deal done, which completely took me by surprise. You have to be careful what you wish for. Next time I will answer, ‘I don’t know!’”

Gina McKee (Bodyguard) plays Countess Bruce, while Jason Clarke (right) is Grigory Potemkin

Catherine had many detractors, including her own son, Paul, who tried to denigrate her with false rumours about a voracious sexual appetite for not just men but also horses. Yet most historians believe Catherine had only a few partners, with whom she was entirely monogamous, and the series focuses particularly on her long relationship with Grigory Potemkin (played by Australian actor Jason Clarke), her right-hand military man.

As Potemkin was very often on the battlefield, their relationship was carried out through many love letters, which still exist today.

“I did do research,” says Mirren. “You can’t go into a role like this without reading up on the history. I read her books, they’re all on my mantlepiece – six very thick tomes.

“But the most valuable was just a sense of her life and her personality through reading her letters, though not all of them, as she was an incredibly prolific letter writer. They are very readable. The language is not dense.

“What was great to see was that Catherine had good wit and liked to have a laugh, which we tried to show at moments in the series. She wasn’t an uptight person and you can feel this through her letters, where there is a wonderful immediacy.

“They’re funny and full of observations about life that means in some ways you can almost read them as if they were written by a contemporary woman. Catherine was certainly a figure who was ahead of her time, so I think it was important to bring this to the role.”

Mirren landed the part off the back of a flippant comment in an interview

Indeed, many of the scenes in the series, distributed by Sky Vision, show Catherine being flirty, cheeky or simply frivolous, especially during the dinner parties and balls she was so fond of throwing. Going by the tone of the letters, Williams managed to recreate a stye of talking that was not too fussy despite the period nature of the piece.

“I loved Nigel’s work on Elizabeth I and I think he’s a brilliant writer of period dialogue,” says Mirren. “He makes the language formal but very speakable.”

But beyond the light-hearted nature of her social life, Catherine is also seen as a fierce leader, and a liberal one: she wanted to reform the country and was a a patron of the arts, literature and education. Her art collection now forms the basis of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Having played two British monarchs previously (as the title character in miniseries Elizabeth I and winning an Oscar for portraying Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen), how does this one compare? “They don’t compare!” the actor insists. “I felt there was a similarity between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II in that they both felt pre-ordained for this role. The present Queen feels in her heart, I think, that God put her there and therefore she has a responsibility to God to fulfil this role. I think she and Elizabeth I had a great deal in common in that they both had that same attitude and feeling.

“I don’t think Catherine felt like that. Like Elizabeth I, she lived a very long life in an unbelievably precarious situation always. She managed always to negotiate and manoeuvre, when at any moment she could have been deposed and executed.

“But she took the throne, she wasn’t given it. And I think she took it because she knew that she, above all the people she saw around her, had the capabilities and the energy and the politics.

“In a sense, she was more like Winston Churchill, before the Second World War, knowing he was the only one who had the heart to do this thing. She was a masterful politician. I hope her legacy is that she was an extraordinary leader.”

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Knockout locations

Kenton Oxley, CEO of Knockout Production Services, reveals how locations were sought for the seventh season of Sky and Cinemax action drama Strike Back, which was filmed in Malaysia.

Kenton Oxley

The process of finding the perfect locations for any drama production is a fantastic experience, but when producer Left Bank Pictures approached us with a view to filming Strike Back season seven in Malaysia, we found the sheer number of locations needed for the script exploded, just like the drama itself.

With approximately 100 unique locations used – within an intense schedule – we ensured the cast and crew filmed in the most beautiful, grimy, secluded and dense locations in Malaysia.

Filming revolved around Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor and the surrounding jungle. With the intense heat (40°C in the shade) and 90% humidity, filming was a challenge, but worth it when you watch the series. Malaysia delivered in spades.

We provided a detailed analysis of Strike Back’s infrastructure needs, based on the powerful and action-packed script. We have a great team on the ground in Malaysia, alongside 17 other global locations, so we were spoiled for location choice. Along with the rustic street locations, various dark and secluded warehouses where shootouts would take place and jungle territory, there were many settings that had to stand out and make a particular impact.

One of these was for the entrance of Colonel Coltrane, played by Jamie Bamber. The scene was shot on the rooftop of Menara KH’s Heli Bar, with the beautifully imposing Petronas Towers in the background. The location became the backdrop for the official Strike Back 7 press photography (pictured top) and Colonel Coltrane enjoyed an introduction like no other – from a venue on top of the world.

Filming locations included the jungle, where the crew encountered an enormous snake

Another location with gravitas is the missile warehouse, packed with technology and power. The location chosen was in Port Klang, approximately 350 kilometres from Johor. The humid and varied jungle scenes were shot in Hulu Langat and the street scenes were set in Armenian Street, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Penang.

The variety of locations needed proved intense, but our Malaysian location manager, Shan Iman, and our local line producer, Zurina Ramli, have extensive experience and knowledge as well as a database of locations. To add to this, we worked with the film commission in Johor and engaged local scouts, providing thousands of pictures of potential sites.

Working from the script, we sent back a potential locations document and awaited the director and producers’ choices. It was then over to us to secure permission from the location, government and local authorities to get releases and, finally, contract the location.

Sometimes this is straightforward. In developing markets, people embrace the idea, but dealing with individuals, big and small corporations, government bodies, local councils and associations while also educating proprietors and owners about the process and contractual commitment for filming is time-consuming.

The production also involved shooting in urban environments

With locations secured, we looked to logistics. For example, when we shot in a densely populated block of flats, we obtained permission from the flat owner, their neighbours and their neighbourhood association. Following this, we informed the local council about road closures. And because Strike Back involved firearms, chase scenes and explosions, we needed to inform the Royal Malaysia Police too.

As well as getting through all this red tape, we hired security to help with road diversions, while health and safety support was required in extremely remote locations in addition to basic amenities like power, water and waste management. We had to ensure complete independence and self-sufficiency. It was hugely satisfying to achieve.

Accomplishing this is challenging when local wildlife can be lethal. Ensuring medical kits include anti-venom for all local snake species, among other life-saving medication, is crucial. Every eventuality is covered, from medical emergencies through to evacuation procedures. Other than coming face-to-face with a huge boa constrictor on location in the jungle (humanely caught by our on-set snake handler), I’m pleased to say the drama was left to the script.

Our most challenging location was a recently closed shopping mall. Simply powering up the air conditioning was a massive task. Complexities of property ownership added complications, but the location was needed and it was just another day at the office for us.

The Strike Back cast ready to take to the skies in a helicopter

In contrast, a favourite filming location loved by all was Penang. It is a stunning city; a very welcoming environment that delivers as an amazing shooting location.

Left Bank Pictures executive producer Sharon Hughff agrees that the locations delivered: “When Left Bank Pictures embarked upon filming Strike Back in Malaysia, the creative challenges were immense. Not only were we looking to stage ambitious, complicated action set pieces, but Malaysia had to double for Goa, Indonesia and Hong Kong

“The beauty of the landscape, from the jungles around Johor Bahru to the neon futuristic cityscape of Kuala Lumpur all made for an incredible backdrop that exceeded our expectations and made for an epic on-screen production value.”

One of our aims at Knockout is for the locations to stay in the viewer’s mind after they watch the series. Certainly, one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I enjoyed seeing develop was at Sg Pendas, Johor, featuring a seaplane take fire as it flies over the immense lake. It is a stunning sequence with a stunning backdrop. For me, that’s what pre-production is all about – ensuring the great script and cast is supported by the best crew, infrastructure and locations in the world.

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Going nuclear

The cast and crew of Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries from HBO and Sky, reveal how they told the story of the infamous Ukrainian nuclear disaster that continues to affect thousands of lives more than three decades on.

Thirty-three years ago to this day, a routine safety test at a power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine sparked the deadliest nuclear accident in history.

Beginning with an explosion in a nuclear reactor in the early hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster officially claimed 28 lives directly and led to a further 15 indirect deaths – although other estimates put the actual death toll from the accident and its ongoing impact in the tens of thousands.

Whichever end of the scale is more accurate, one thing is beyond doubt: as bad as Chernobyl was, had the spread of radiation not been contained, things could have become much, much worse. That they did not was down to the bravery and brilliance of a number of people in the days and weeks following that first explosion – and it’s these individuals who take centre stage in Sky Atlantic and HBO’s miniseries about the tragedy.

The five-part drama, simply titled Chernobyl, debuts in the US on May 6 and then in the UK on May 7. Made by Sister Pictures and Mighty Mint Production, the HBO and Sky copro is directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and distributed by HBO International. It covers the dramatic events of the disaster itself and the repercussions on both a global level and for the people of the nearby town of Pripyat, combining disaster movie elements with political intrigue and personal trauma.

Chernobyl stars Jared Harris as real-life nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, who died in 1988

It has been created by Craig Mazin, a writer best known for his work on comedy movies such as Identity Thief and the latter two instalments of The Hangover trilogy. So what drew someone with a track record in humour to such a serious and historically significant project?

Mazin, who also wrote and exec produced the show, explains that the lure came more from what he didn’t know about Chernobyl than what he did. “I kind of knew something about Chernobyl but I didn’t know much. I knew that it exploded. I often say to people, if you ask someone what happened to the Titanic, they will tell you it sank; and if you ask how it sank, they will tell you it hit an iceberg. That only works halfway for Chernobyl – if you ask someone what happened at Chernobyl, they’ll say it blew up. But ask them how it blew up…”

Reading up on the subject to fill this “surprising gap” in his knowledge, Mazin found himself increasingly fascinated by the full extent of the disaster, becoming “obsessed” with Chernobyl. “The more I read, the more shocked I was that the explosion is not at all the story,” he says. “The story is, in fact, about how it came to happen and the remarkable acts of courage, bravery and sacrifice that were required because of it. It’s about a system that’s corrupt; it’s about the worst that humans can do but it’s also about the best that humans can do individually.”

Mazin acknowledges he had to consider the massively varying estimates of the tragedy’s true human cost, scoffing at the improbably low death toll arrived at by the Soviet government. “The best estimates put the numbers somewhere in the many tens of thousands. There are estimates of up to a million,” he says. “But if I have a choice between going for something that sounds more dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less. Because what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need anything extra.

“Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened there, because there are some accounts where it gets even worse. But there’s no question it took an enormous number of lives, and it also shortened an enormous number of lives – particularly children.”

Stellan Skarsgård plays soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina

The individuals highlighted in the drama are a mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters created as an amalgamation of multiple real people. Among those playing historical figures are Jared Harris (The Terror, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leading nuclear physicist who was tasked with steering the immediate response to the disaster. Prolific movie actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), meanwhile, is Soviet deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina, who leads the government commission investigating the accident.

Paul Ritter, best known for his comedic work in series including Friday Night Dinner and No Offence, portrays Anatoly Dyatlov, the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the man who would ultimately take the blame for the disaster.

Among the great many other actors in the accomplished cast – Chernobyl features a whopping 102 speaking roles, according to Mazin – are Harris’s The Terror co-star Adam Nagaitis and Oscar nominee Emily Watson. Nagaitis plays a fireman who is one of the first responders to the explosion, while Watson is a nuclear physicist battling to impress the gravity of the situation upon a range of politicians with their heads firmly in the sand.

Harris’s Legasov finds himself in a similar position, with the actor describing his character as the “Cassandra of the story,” referring to the Ancient Greek mythological figure who was cursed to deliver prophecies that were true but were believed by no one. “He understands what the dangers are and how bad it can go if they don’t get on top of it quickly,” he says. “He’s also responsible for trying to figure out how you contain this event where it’s known that it could happen but no one’s planned for what to do if it does happen.”

While the miniseries’ Legasov “suffers the same fate” as the real scientist – taking his own life on the second anniversary of the disaster while suffering from the effects of radiation exposure – Harris says the drama’s version is “more structured towards our narrative and our story.”

Emily Watson’s character is an amalgamation of scientists who worked to mitigate the disaster

He continues: “He sort of plays off Stellan’s character. They have this frosty, antagonistic relationship in the beginning but they learn to rely on one another and trust one another, and their friendship becomes one of the spines of the whole story.”

The visible impact of Legasov’s radiation poisoning was achieved by the make-up department, led by Daniel Parker. In this respect, however, Harris got off lightly, with other actors displaying the full extent of radiation’s horrific effect on the human body throughout the drama.

“Adam Nagaitis had it worst of all,” Harris asserts. “The process they put his character through was really, really gruelling.”

“Daniel had to become almost a physician,” says Mazin, “because it wasn’t enough to say, ‘Well, someone is experiencing the effect of radiation.’ There are levels to it. He came up with these stages and sub-stages, and then stages inside of stages.”

The make-up team’s efforts extended to the creation of a spreadsheet to keep track of the different levels of radiation poisoning even before Parker’s “artistry was put into place.”

This attention to detail was replicated across every element of the production, with Mazin saying he and the rest of the team shared an “obsession with historical accuracy” that went down to “the chandeliers and the tyres on the cars.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the show’s costuming, overseen by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose enthusiasm for accuracy sometimes went further than the drama could follow. From the lead cast to the most minor of background roles, everyone on screen is dressed in authentic garb from the era.

Adam Nagaitis as a fireman who suffers the terrible effects of radiation poisoning

“We had to occasionally negotiate with her because she was so ferocious about accuracy,” Mazin notes. “She and her staff gathered up actual period clothing from all over Eastern Europe. She clothed thousands of people – it was mind-blowing.”

But how do you ensure accuracy when recreating the particularities and scale of a nuclear power plant? It turns out nothing beats the real thing, with the production gaining access to Chernobyl’s ‘twin’ station, the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.

“It was difficult,” Mazin says of filming in the station. “For Lithuania to gain entry into the EU, they had to agree to decommission that plant. So they are currently in the process of decommissioning it. They mentioned at some point they had already decommissioned it, yet we couldn’t shoot one day because they were removing stuff out of it.

“It’s not a normal shoot day when you show up at work and hand your passport over, and they keep it. It was pretty intense and very eerie.”

Renck, whose direction has given the series a distinctly cinematic feel, echoes the writer’s view: “The building is massive, it’s eerie, it’s windowless. Every time we went back, I felt the same. Everything is preserved. It’s the sister plant to Chernobyl and everything was built around the same time, so everything in there puts you quite close to what would have been [in Chernobyl].”

“The size of it is astonishing,” adds Mazin, who also visited the real Chernobyl site as part of his research. “These buildings were enormous. The thought that something inside could turn on you just seems beyond the pale.”

Chernobyl launches on HBO and Sky Atlantic next month

One area in which the show does abandon its pursuit of total accuracy, however, is language. The actors speak entirely in English and without accents, wisely avoiding evoking audience memories of any number of dodgy attempts at Russian accents by Hollywood actors down the years.

Of the decision to film in English, Mazin says: “It’s a little tricky when you’re thinking about making a show in a language that isn’t local to you, in part because you then have to ask about performance. If we are to make it in another language, we are narrowing ourselves to people who speak that language, and we don’t. So right off the bat there’s a disconnect. Not only did we feel we wanted to get performances and performers we could connect with, we didn’t want to mess around with accents either.”

Actors were told to “speak in a way that felt natural to you, because in the end the language should disappear.”

This miniseries is not the first time Chernobyl has been examined on screen, with numerous documentaries being made on the subject. There was even 2012’s risible horror film Chernobyl Diaries, in which American tourists visiting the exclusion zone around the plant find themselves pursued by mutants. However, it is the first time the true story has been dramatised on this scale, with a significant budget evident from the off.

“I’m shocked that we were able to do it at all,” Mazin says of bringing the financing together. “Given what we had to face, it was remarkable. We started with HBO, but then it became clear that this was bigger than any one network. So we reached out to Sky and they rescued us, they really did.”

Chernobyl is “so much a European production,” the American writer continues. “We’re based here in London and we did all of our post-production in London; we did all of our prep in Lithuania; and we shot in Lithuania and Latvia and a little bit in Ukraine. It’s a story about Europe that takes place in Europe.

“As the foreigner, I must say that I’m in love with the way television is made in the UK. I’m in love with the actors. I just love the way they are trained and the skills they bring to things.”

With the debate around the environment and climate change reaching fever pitch in London this week with mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion activists, Chernobyl feels particularly timely, highlighting one of the worst cases of the man-made destruction of our surroundings.

But for Mazin, the most important thing about the show is that it tells the stories of those who sacrificed themselves to save others. “I hope that people will understand how just a handful of human beings, and then hundreds of thousands of human beings, gave up themselves for all of us,” he says. “Telling their stories is one of the great joys of this.”

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Start your engines

Billy Zane and Sean Bean lead an ensemble cast in Curfew, which follows the story of ordinary people and extraordinary characters competing in the world’s fastest, most furious illegal nighttime street race.

In this DQTV interview, the stars introduce the series, which is described as a mix of Death Race, 28 Days Later and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, with some added Wacky Races and a hint of The Fast & The Furious.

Bean talks about how Curfew combines the danger and excitement of the race with the stories of the very ordinary people taking part, and introduces his “charming, dangerous” character.

Zane describes how his character provides some comic relief to proceedings, with stunts and antics designed to build his social media following.

Executive producers Will Gould and Frith Tiplady also discuss how action feature films from the 1980s inspired the series, which Tiplady says is “unashamedly fun.” In addition, they detail the challenges of producing Curfew, including near-constant night shoots, maintaining dozens of vehicles, and numerous stunts.

The eight-part show is produced by Tiger Aspect Productions in association with Moonage Pictures for Sky1 in the UK. Sky Vision is handling international distribution.

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Back from the dead

Tim Roth, Genevieve O’Reilly and Abigail Lawrie talk about returning for a second season of Tin Star, the Sky original drama packed full of twists and turns as a tortured police chief faces new threats in his battle to save his family and find forgiveness for his sins.

The return of Sky original drama Tin Star isn’t so much a second season as a continuation of the fall-out from the events of season one – and from the way it finished, that’s no bad thing.

The first season closed in classic ‘cut to black’ style, echoing the hotly debated finale of iconic gangster drama The Sopranos, with the audience left in the dark as to the fate of the series’ lead character. But while viewers will never know whether Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) escaped the HBO drama’s final instalment alive, the survival of Jim Devlin (Tim Roth) is more assured.

With Jim last seen lying in the snow-covered wilderness of the Rockies with a gunshot wound in his chest courtesy of his daughter, Anna (Abigail Lawrie), season two begins at that exact moment. His family, torn apart by the chaos that followed Jim and his alter-ego Jack in season one, is now more divided than ever.

Tim Roth as Jim Worth in Tin Star

Seeking refuge from her own parents, Anna is taken in by the God-fearing Nickel family, headed up by Pastor Johan (John Lynch), his wife Sarah (Anamaria Marinca) and daughter Rosa (Jenessa Grant) and hidden with the Ammonites – a religious community close to the central fictional town of Little Big Bear.

However, the peaceful prairie family are harbouring secrets of their own, and it’s not long before Anna is forced to seek her father’s help as an altogether more hellish threat emerges during the 10-episode season. If Jim is to find a way to save his family and atone for his sins, he must form an uneasy alliance.

The first season averaged 1.7 million viewers per episode for Sky Atlantic, making it one of the channel’s best performing originals. More than 16 million downloads and views virtually guaranteed a second run would be commissioned, with the new episodes filmed last year in Calgary, Canada. The series comes from producer Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch) and is distributed by Endemol Shine International and Sky Vision.

“I was really excited to see what they were going to do,” says Genevieve O’Reilly, who plays Jim’s wife and Anna’s mother, Angela Worth. “It ended so explosively; it was really exciting to see if Tim was going to live.”

Turning to Lawrie, Roth jokes: “I think your aim was off. I thought you would have been a better shot.”

Abigail Laurie plays Jim’s daughter Anna

Lawrie responds: “It was a bit low. Well, you didn’t die so it must have been quite off.”

Off screen at least, the Worth family have been reunited ahead of the launch of the second season in the UK tomorrow, and it’s easy to see their ease in each other’s company, having now completed 20 episodes of this slow-burning, often brutal and emotionally demanding drama from creator Rowan Joffe (Before I Go To Sleep, The American).

The show, which launched in 2017, introduced Reservoir Dogs star Roth as former London copper Jim Worth, who has upped sticks along with his family to escape a troubled past by beginning a new life in the Rocky Mountains.

Initially, everything was well, with the new police chief – a former alcoholic – enjoying more time catching fish than criminals in Little Big Bear. But the arrival of a shady oil company, led by Mad Men star Christina Hendricks as Elizabeth Bradshaw, coincides with a past that refuses to fade away, and an attack on his family turns Jim into a one-man wrecking ball on a quest for revenge.

With the chaos that erupted as a result of Jim’s pursuit of justice, events don’t look like toning down this season. Lawrie explains: “At the beginning, they’re all split. Anna needs to get away from her parents. She needs some little bit of stability, some security, and for a time she finds that in the Nickel family, where we find her. She just needs to figure out who her parents are, who she is, what she wants from them and what she wants from herself. She does need to be on her own for bit. But then she realises they’re family and they love each other and they can’t not be together.”

Genevieve O’Reilly also stars in the series, which is set in the Canadian Rockies

For Jim’s part, Roth says his character “loves his wife and his daughter. That’s just the fact of it, and that’s all.” He continues: “What was interesting, that we worked on, was he’s infinitely patient. He’ll just wait. And he’ll annoy the fuck out of you until you just have to come and talk to him. That’s a little bit of where his character is. He will wait, he’s not going anywhere. You’ll never get rid of him. Well, there is one way of doing it – but she missed!”

It’s a story that O’Reilly says is “really brave,” highlighting the ideas and ambition of the series. “It is as big as those mountains. Viewers, particularly who watched the first season, will feel immediately rewarded because of the decision to start off exactly where we finished,” she notes. “I think that will be really satisfying – it certainly was for us – to step back onto that mountain where we tried to kill each other and then have to start again. Where does it go from there? There’s great scope for drama and story within that.”

The cast reveal that on one episode in season one, there was a lot of improvisational work involved, and that has informed a lot of the approach to season two. “They had a concept and then we started to play,” Roth says, noting the freedom he and his fellow actors enjoyed on set. “There were certain [plot] points during the season we had to hit, but we could be very flexible with that. The scripts changed a lot.

“A lot of it was thinking, ‘If this happened to your character, how would your character react? What would they say? What wouldn’t they say?’ That’s something we worked on together as actors as much as possible. Some of the cast don’t like to improvise; they like a much more nailed-down version, so you provide that as best you can. We, as a family, got to be very flexible.”

Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks is among the supporting cast

Lawrie says there was a different approach throughout filming, but because scripts were delivered as filming progressed, “it made everything quite real. It was very immediate, all of our reactions, because we didn’t know what was coming next. I think that helped a lot.”

Roth adds: “I liked it. It was stressful but I embraced the challenge of it. I kind of enjoyed that and it had a chaos to it that I think the family have as well – a wildness. It’s a process that suits the family in a way.”

Returning to Calgary for the shoot, which was completed last August, felt like returning to family, O’Reilly states, describing the “beautiful team of people” the producers put together to make the show.

“They worked so hard, in extraordinary conditions,” she explains. “When we started there, there were times when filming was halted because it was too cold. By the time we were finished, we were stood down for three days because of bush fires. The extremes of weather were quite extraordinary. We were really cold, like properly cold – no acting involved. We all had slurred speech because we were so cold.”

O’Reilly, whose credits include Glitch and The Secret, also compliments the “great bunch of directors” who worked on season two, adding that they each brought fresh creativity and ideas to the set. Those behind the camera this season include Gilles Bannier, Chris Baugh, Jim Loach, Susan Tully and Justin Chadwick.

“Film and television, it’s a collaborative medium. You have engaging, collaborative, creative discussions with your director always, and we had wonderful directors on this. They were so invested in the piece and invested in us as actors but also as characters and the piece itself,” she says.

As for what viewers can expect, Roth points to Jim’s inevitable confrontation with Pastor Johan, which also marks the first time the actor has worked on screen with his longtime friend Lynch. “Expect trouble,” Roth teases. “I don’t think my character buys into the whole heaven and hell situation too easily.”

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A taste of Delicious

Writing for DQ, Phillippa Giles, executive producer of Sky 1’s Delicious and MD of Endemol Shine UK prodco Bandit, discusses how the relationship series puts women front and centre – both in front and behind the camera.

“Show us as women with all our flaws. Show us in huge close-up.”

That challenge, issued by Delicious star Dawn French upon the drama’s conception and combined with the brief from Sky’s former head of drama Anne Mensah to push women to the foreground, has always informed the series.

The show, which concluded its third four-part season on Sky1 last week and is now available via the Sky Store, centres on two women, both former wives of the same man, but now, after his death, struggling to make the hotel he left behind a success in the middle of bucolic Cornwall.

French plays passionate cook Gina, who has inherited the Penrose hotel and restaurant together with the glamorous Sam (Emilia Fox), both of whom were once married to the deceased head chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen). In season three, Gina and Sam’s business has been booming, their delicate friendship has lasted and they are on the lookout for a new protégé in the kitchen.

L-R: Serena Thompson, Ursula Rani Sarma, Robin Sheppard and Phillippa Giles

Delicious is that rare beast, a relationship show, but, even rarer, a relationship show revolving around four generations of women. The characters range from 85-year-old matriarch Mimi, played by veteran actor Sheila Hancock, to newcomer Tanya Reynolds as 22-year-old Theresa, with Gina and Sam bang in the middle. Putting Gina and Sam at the front of the series and subsequently all four generations was important to Sky right from commissioning the series. They didn’t want this to be ‘just another hotel show,’ and nor did I.

Sky has given us unrivalled support in allowing us to showcase women in front of and behind the camera in the last three seasons. We specifically look to discover new and up-and-coming women directors and writers for future seasons and hope, through the role-modelling on the crew, to bring on women in key trainee roles on camera and in sound, within the industry. Sometimes it takes a bit longer to fill these roles in a less traditional way, because the pool of talent is smaller due to the access to such positions, but the atmosphere fostered as a result is always worth the effort. There is a wealth of talented women out there waiting for their opportunity to show what they can do, and all it needs is the right project to attract them.

This season, original creator Dan Sefton, busy on other projects, was happy to pass on the baton to new lead writer Ursula Rani Sarma. Ursula and the all-female script team of Bandit head of development Muirinn Lane Kelly and script editor Ella Tayler Baron have ensured a number of things: that the sex (and it’s raunchy stuff) is not initiated by the men, that we talk about mastectomy as much as pregnancy and that we make sure there is a lot of wine-drinking, weed-smoking and skinny-dipping along the way.

Fun, both on and off set, is important to how Delicious works. With our female-heavy top tier of commissioning editor, commissioning exec, programme exec and producer, there is a family feel on set and both team and cast members are encouraged to bring their children along. In fact, one scene opens with a tracking shot past three young girls — the director’s daughter, the writer’s daughter and the composer’s daughter! The female bias percolates down through the crew with a woman boom swinger, camera assistant, art director as well as second and third ADs.

Delicious stars Emilia Fox (left) and Dawn French

Director Robin Sheppard was our lead director this season and she quickly bought into the collaborative atmosphere Delicious fosters. Schedules, scripts, design and photography all benefit from the cross-disciplinary dialogue encouraged by the woman-centric subject matter and predominance of women on cast and crew. Even the traditional bastions of chauvinism on any film set – sparks and riggers – have bought into the family atmosphere of hard work without the hierarchy.

A key sequence for us this year was the string of scenes playing out Mimi’s fake wake, or ‘death party’ as it is referred to in the script. This sequence occupies a substantial chunk of the third episode as it is the culmination of a big story strand for Mimi, which builds to an emotional climax through the season as, originally, Mimi hides her cancerous breast lump, then reveals it to her step-granddaughter who is sworn to secrecy but who eventually forces her grandmother into the open about the fact she needs help.

Second director Amit Gupta, new to the show, was tasked with giving this set piece the hallmark Delicious feel of natural beauty and cornucopia. We were anxious to shoot it in an outdoor location, as al fresco eating and partying is very much part of the Cornwall scene, but was it practical to take on the elements over two days of shooting? In the end, a compromise was reached with the design team whereby we would shoot in Port Eliot’s beautiful walled gardens with a large Victorian greenhouse to dash into for rain cover. But luckily this was never necessary.

Sheila Hancock as Mimi

The next challenge was to work with costume designer Rebecca Hale and food designer Lisa Heathcote to talk about colour palette and the look and feel of the party. Although this was a wake, of sorts, it was predominantly a family occasion with our four women leads– Sheila, Dawn, Emilia and Tanya – all needing to look wonderful but not overdressed or clashing. They also needed to carry in the food, so what they were wearing needed to be practical – no stilettos or trailing sleeves. And the food needed to survive two whole days outside in rain or shine.

These sorts of heightened family moments are the fulcrums of Delicious with its four female generations. The settings can be devastatingly beautiful and the frocks out of this world, but all this aspiration and glamour needs to be underpinned by strong writing and performances to deliver something that doesn’t tip into schmaltz or soap. The ambition of the camerawork and design helps to elevate the show, but towering performances like that given by Delicious matriarch Hancock at her own wake ensure the series maintains its own unique tonal brand of bittersweet.

The two-day stand culminated in a wonderful ‘on the blink’ moment when all four lead actresses were round the table, ad-libbing, and enjoying the family reunion as dusk set in and the camera pulled back on a long track to end the episode.

We seem to have turned a corner, with more and more series getting commissioned that have women leads and great roles for women throughout. Let’s keep up the momentum and build on this opportunity to make the best drama with women writing, producing and working behind camera. We’ve waited long enough. Now is our time.

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Roman invasion

Set in 43AD, anarchic drama Britannia follows the Roman army as they return to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.

David Morrissey stars as Roman general Aulus, alongside Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid and Mackenzie Crook.

In this DQTV interview, Morrissey reveals what drew him to the unusual role and how he was captivated by the show’s stunning set design.

The actor and executive producer James Richardson also discuss working with co-creator Jez Butterworth, the acclaimed playwright behind Jerusalem and The Ferryman, and explain why this isn’t just another historical drama.

Britannia is produced by Vertigo Films and Neal Street Productions for Sky Atlantic and Amazon Prime Video in the US. Sky Vision is the distributor.

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On the right track

As the battle for the best projects becomes ever more fierce, leading drama commissioners and producers open up about their own development processes and reveal how they work to bring new series to air. 

For television drama commissioners, the development process must feel a lot like spending their working hours at the races, looking for the right horse on which to bet and willing it to cross the line in first place.

The financial power of SVoD platforms has changed the game for those picking up series for their networks, with the battle for projects now increasingly fierce as partners come together earlier in the process than ever.

Meanwhile, producers are reaping the benefits of an increasing number of buyers looking for original, brand-defining shows. But how is the development process changing at both broadcaster and producer level, and what challenges do they face in the new television landscape?

Sky Atlantic’s epic Roman drama Britannia

Anna Croneman, SVT’s newly installed head of drama, admits very few of the Swedish broadcaster’s scripted series are developed in-house. Instead, writers or writer-producer teams will pitch her ideas and SVT will then board a project from the start. But Croneman says her development slate has been slimmed down to ensure viable projects are singled out early on.

“Last year we cut the development slate significantly, which means we can spend more time on things we really believe are right for us,” she explains. “We lose some projects to the international players, but there is really no other broadcaster doing what we do in Sweden, in the Swedish language. But once again, getting the right talent is an even greater challenge now.”

That challenge is amplified by the competition from Netflix and HBO Nordic, which is starting to commission local original series. “I see companies trying to tie down writers by employing them, or doing first-look deals on ideas,” Croneman adds.

HBO Europe pursues projects from both single authors (such as Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina) and those that use writers rooms (Aranyelet). “In some cases we go through quite a lot of storylining processes; other developments go to first script very quickly,” explains Steve Matthews, VP and executive producer of drama development at the firm. “Sometimes we will polish a pilot through a number of drafts, sometimes we will commission a number of first drafts. It all depends. There is no set system; every project grows organically – we are proudly writer-led in our developments and do our best in each case to find the best support we can bring to the process.”

The company seeks to join projects as soon as possible, and Matthews says there are no rules about what materials it needs to consider a pitch. “We like to be involved early so that we can offer support in that crucial inception,” he says. “That’s when we can help the team understand our needs as a broadcaster and, crucially, for us to understand what the writer is trying to do or say and so support them in that process. A shared vision early in the development fosters a sense of joint ownership and collective focus on the core idea.”

HBO Europe’s Aranyelet is adapted from Finland’s Helppo Elämä

When its original-programming operation was in its infancy, HBO Europe’s attention centred on adaptable formats. But Matthews says the network group wanted the same thing then as it does now – shows that feel fresh and relevant in the territories for which they are made, whatever their origins.

“The results include shows that are based on formats, like Aranyelet [Finland’s Helppo Elämä] and Umbre [Australia’s Small Time Gangster], but that push ahead into new stories that are entirely authored by our local teams,” he explains. “Furthermore, adapting formats has proven an excellent training ground. Our brilliant teams in the territories have nurtured stables of writers who have learned their craft on series like our various versions of In Treatment and are now showrunners passing on their knowledge to the next groups of talent we bring in. So we feel we have the experience and confidence to no longer rely on formats. For our new slate in Adria, for instance, we decided at the start we would only develop original ideas from local talent.”

UK broadcaster Channel 4 is known for its eclectic drama output, from topical miniseries The State and National Treasure to shows that take an alternative approach to familiar genres, like Humans (sci-fi) and No Offence (crime).

“We have regular conversations with producers and writers and have a realistic development slate,” explains head of drama Beth Willis. “We don’t want to flirt unnecessarily with projects we don’t love – it’s a waste of time for the producer and the writer. So we will be clear from the off about whether we think it’s for us. And if we do say we think it’s for us, we really mean it.”

As a commissioner, Willis says she will offer her thoughts on early drafts and throughout production, and that the increased competition for scripted projects means her team is now more conscious of the defining characteristics of a C4 drama. However, like Croneman, she notes that “the biggest competition is in securing talent for projects rather than specific projects themselves.”

Producer Playground Entertainment adapted Little Women

“We receive hundreds of pitches a year from independent production companies,” says Rachel Nelson, director of original content at Canada’s Corus Entertainment. Her team read and review each piece and have bi-weekly meetings where they determine what might be suitable for Corus’s suite of networks, which includes Global and Showcase.

“We work mostly with producers, rather than with a writer only. We are open to ideas and will accept any creative, from scratches on a napkin to full scripts,” she says, adding that Corus’s focus now falls on projects within targeted genres. “We’ve also learned how important it can be to take risks and not be afraid of doing that when we feel strongly about specific projects. We experienced this first-hand with Mary Kills People. We received the script, read it right away and were so impressed that we moved to an immediate greenlight on this show by an unknown writer, pairing her with an extremely experienced team.”

Fellow Canadian broadcaster Bell Media – home of CTV and Space – is also open to developing projects that arrive in any form, though a producer should be attached fairly early in the process, says director of drama Tom Hastings. That said, its development process hasn’t radically changed in recent years, even as the company moves with programming shifts such as the trend for shorter serialised dramas.

“We take a ‘steady ship during stormy weather’ approach,” Hastings says. “As our channels have strong brands and identifiable audiences, we remain committed to developing drama programmes that best fit those brands and work for those specific viewers.  We remain very selective about what we develop and we take our time, demanding the best of everyone, including, most especially, ourselves.”

Arguably the biggest battleground in the world of development is the race to secure IP, with producers scrambling to pick up rights to films, stage shows and, in particular, books – often before they have even been published.

James Richardson

Transatlantic producer Playground Entertainment is behind new adaptations of Howards End and Little Women, and has previously brought Wolf Hall, The White Queen and The White Princess to the small screen. But adaptations, like every development project, are not a “one-size-fits-all process,” says Playground UK creative director Sophie Gardiner. “Sometimes we will commission a script before going to a broadcaster – maybe because nailing the tone is crucial to the pitch and you can’t do that in a treatment – but more often we prefer to work with a partner in the initial development.

“Not only does this mean you are on their radar and they are invested in it from the get-go, but they can often be genuinely helpful. However, there’s no doubt the SVoD firms are looking for material to be pretty well developed, and more packaged [compared with what traditional broadcasters want].”

The Ink Factory burst onto the television scene with award-winning John Le Carré adaptation The Night Manager in 2016 and is following up that miniseries by adapting two more Le Carré novels – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl. Both are  again with Night Manager partners AMC and the BBC.

“Relationships with broadcasters are vital, and it is via those connections that we get to know each other and forge a sense of where our taste synthesises – and, from there, opportunities evolve,” explains Ink Factory head of development Emma Broughton. “Sometimes we will work on the seed of an idea and build it ground-up with a broadcaster. Some of our projects have broadcaster attachments before they have a writer or director. On other occasions, we will develop an idea ourselves to one or two shaped scripts and take those – with a series bible and, potentially, a director and cast attachments – to a broadcaster.”

Broughton says the development process has become “more innovative and collaborative,” thanks to opportunities to build stories not confined to the UK. But increasing competition means The Ink Factory must be more distinctive, original and bold in its ambitions, she adds.

Author Štěpán Hulík’s Pustina for HBO Europe

“It’s a terrific challenge,” the exec continues, “from bringing passion and vision when pitching in a highly competitive situation to secure a book, or developing projects that attract the most exciting and creative on- and off-screen talent. It’s all about the excellence of the work, being collaborative and honouring authorship.”

A “fairly traditional” approach to development is employed at Komixx Entertainment, which follows the tried-and-tested method of sourcing existing IP with a built-in audience and using recognised writers and producers. Keeping the original author of the IP closely involved is also seen as an important step to stay true to the material, in an effort to remove as much risk to broadcasters as possible.

What is different about Komixx, says Andrew Cole-Bulgin, group creative officer and head of film and TV, is where the company sources its IP, using both recognised authors such as Robert Muchamore (the Cherub series of novels) and new content from non-traditional publishers, such as self-publishing community Wattpad.

“As a young-adult producer, it’s crucial to consider that Generation Z is an audience made up of digital natives, so the best content comes from within their digital roots,” Cole-Bulgin argues. “Transitioning and retaining this audience from one digital platform, like Wattpad, to another, such as Netflix, is easier and more successful than pursuing a linear broadcasting approach.”

Komixx now has a raft of projects in development simultaneously, instead of focusing on a select few. Cole-Bulgin also believes the increasing power of SVoD platforms has transformed the production landscape, providing huge opportunities for producers. “As they look to quickly expand their libraries of content, we have to adapt our development method to fit their needs,” he notes.

Feature producer Vertigo Films has built its reputation on the back of Football Factory, Monsters and Bronson but is now breaking into TV with Sky Atlantic series Britannia. The epic Roman-era drama is set to debut in the UK early in 2018. Co-founder James Richardson says the firm is regularly “idea led,” often by the talent involved. “But every show needs to be somehow off-kilter – commercial but never straight,” he adds. “And we like projects that we feel we haven’t seen before, or that are tackling a subject we have seen before in a completely different way. Britannia, for example, subverts the historical genre.”

Vertigo has also had Sky pick up Bulletproof, a crime drama starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke and showrun by Nick Love. “Going from film to TV has been such an exciting transition creatively and I am in awe of execs in the TV world for creating shows over such a long space of time, since we have just had to make 90-minute films for most of Vertigo’s lifetime,” Richardson adds. “The process – and why we want to make a project – is the same, but there’s just more story, much more story.”

Looking forward, Richardson believes the development process for television drama, which can already take several years, will take even longer. “Getting projects to a place where they are ready before shooting – the film model – will become the norm for many shows. It makes a big, big difference.”

Komixx’s Cole-Bulgin concludes: “With companies like Facebook launching into the broadcast market, it will be fascinating to see how producers deal with the increasing demand for shortform scripted content for the audiences who are consuming their content via mobile platforms.”

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Tribes and tribulations

Hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Davina Lamont discusses her work on epic Sky and Amazon historical drama Britannia, in which a Roman army faces up to Druids and Celts in 43AD.

When Davina Lamont received a last-minute call asking her if she wanted to come and work on a “nice little Roman job,” there’s little chance she realised the scale of what was to come.

In fact, the hair, make-up and prosthetics designer could not have joined a more ambitious and visually striking series than Britannia, the Roman Empire-set drama coming to Sky Atlantic and Amazon.

But having worked on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and series such as Sons of Liberty, Legends and two seasons of National Geographic’s Genius, she had the experience needed to bring to life the three vastly different tribes that feature in the story.

“They told me for Genius season one that they had this little project and it’s going to be a nice little script – and then it turned into a monster,” Lamont recalls. “Britannia was the same. I got called in at the last minute and was told, ‘It’ll be really cool.’ Then it just went crazy. But I’m happy for those jobs.

Britannia stars David Morrissey as Aulus

“Producers are starting to like the fact they have one designer who does all three, instead of splitting up the team and having a hair designer, prosthetic designer and make-up designer. They like the fact, budget-wise, they pay one person to do all three, and I enjoy it too. I love the fact I can go from one job to the next and it’s really different – and creatively different. I do prefer to take on those sorts of jobs – the big and difficult ones.”

In television, they don’t come much bigger than Britannia, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as it sets out to crush the Celtic heart of the mysterious titular land, one led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.

The nine-part historical drama stars Kelly Reilly as fearless Celtic princess Kerra, David Morrissey as Aulus, the head of the invading Roman army, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as rogue Druid Divis and Zoë Wanamaker as Celtic queen Antedia.

All episodes of the series, produced by Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, are available to view from Thursday on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.

With just five weeks of pre-production to put her ideas together, Lamont worked with costume designer Ann Maskrey and production designer Tom Burton to create this unknown world and decide how they would represent the different tribes.

It took over three hours to complete Mackenzie Crook’s look, which included hooks in his nails

“Then from that point, we all went into this exploratory period,” Lamont says. “Five weeks was all we had to put it together. It was tough to try to figure out what the Druids were going to look like. I know they wanted a lot of tattoos and wanted some Vikings-cum-Game of Thrones elements involved. We just had to work it out and work out how it transcends into each and every tribe.”

That exploration process included plenty of trial and error. Lamont says she even questioned whether they should be putting tattoos on the Celtic king (Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid, as Pellenor) and queen.

“It looked ridiculous,” she jokes. “There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, this is my last job.’ But then you put everybody else into the same world on the same set and you go, ‘Actually it looks phenomenal.’ It was scary to start with, especially with Veran.”

Veran is the leader of the Druids, a character feared and respected in equal measure and who claims to speak directly from the Gods. Portraying him on screen is Mackenzie Crook, known for turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise and TV series such as The Office and Detectorists. In Britannia, however, the star is unrecognisable, sporting a shaved head and  several layers of prosthetics and make-up that give him a skeletal appearance, with dark sunken eyes and numerous facial tattoos and scars.

“Basically I woke up one morning and wanted to change him completely,” Lamont says of creating Crook’s appearance. “That’s how he came about. I designed the look and then I sent it off to the producers and told them to sit down because this was what I wanted to do with him. But they loved it and said go for it.

“When I rang up Mackenzie for the first time and we chatted over the phone, he said it was brilliant and was exactly what he wanted to have. So it was great, it worked out perfectly. He was brilliant, and then I said I had to shave his head – he was all for it.”

At that point, however, the scripts were still being pulled together by lead writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and Richard McBrien so it was unclear how many days Crook would be required to get into costume. But thanks to Crook’s startling look and impressive performances, his screen time grew and grew.

“I don’t remember how many prosthetics we did on him in the end, it was massive,” Lamont says. “We made it to three to three-and-a-half hours for him [to get ready]. It’s a long time.”

Crook also came in with his own ideas for Veran’s image, in particular the little round hooks we see on the end of his finger nails.

“On the very first day we did his make-up, he came in with these hooks and started drilling into his nails,” Lamont remembers. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got something to show you – I really want to do this.’ He drilled into his own nails with a drill and put these rings on. It was brilliant. So he’s fantastic to work with, he’s down for anything. He’s a brilliant actor.”

The show debuts on Sky Atlantic this Thursday

Speaking about his transformation, Crook says: “I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on, we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three-and-a-half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the make-up team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.”

Another actor who spent plenty of time in make-up was Gershwyn Eustache Jr, who plays Vitus. Also a Druid and part of Veran’s gang, he needed to have a similar look, calling for more tattoos and scarification on his face. Lamont continues: “We also had Divis (Lie Kaas). We really didn’t know what we were going to do with him. At one point he was also going to have a shaved head, and then the producers really loved the fact we etched runes into his forehead and made them like scarification. Everybody had tattoos, prosthetics, contact lenses, big battle wounds. Every single character had something.”

With the amount of money washing through television drama these days, you might expect the design teams get to play with a bigger budget, especially on a show such as Britannia. Yet Lamont says the figures she has worked with over the last few years haven’t seen the same upward trend as overall series budgets.

“They like to start off by giving me a budget that’s really small,” she explains. “But then the scripts don’t portray the budget I have. Nearly every job over the last 10 years, especially in TV now, I get a budget and it’s nowhere near close enough to what [we need for what] we have to do. My budgets do end up getting a lot bigger. Especially on Britannia, the scripts were still being developed as we were going along so we really didn’t know what would come up in the mix or all the new characters coming through. It was a big guessing game.

“When you don’t know what’s coming up, it gets really expensive because you have to have a number of wigs on hire or made and prosthetics that have to come with it. That’s what happened with Veran’s lot. We didn’t know there were going to be three other actors involved so they became big elements for us. It’s definitely changed from what TV used to be, even 10 years ago, when you could pretty much picture the budget. Now we’re basically doing five feature films in one TV show.”

Unsurprisingly, bigger budgets are demanded by dramas at the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed real-world stories on which Lamont has worked on like Top of the Lake. The designer admits she doesn’t know why she continues to be drawn back to genre shows, but says part of the fun is getting to create new worlds for each job.

“I feel like I’m probably meant to be in the fantasy world but I love the fact I can go from a job like Britannia and then go and do a job like Genius,” she adds. “They’re hugely different. With Genius, I have to make people look like they were from the 1900s, like Picasso [season two] and Einstein [season one] – actual people from the past. I love recreating people in that way. I’ve never really been into fantasy but I always get pushed into that genre, so I’ll run with it for now.”

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Back with a Vengeance

Ahead of the launch of Anglo-French drama The Tunnel’s third and final season next week, DQ visits the set to find stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy in an optimistic mood and a new lead writer taking the show back to its roots.

The Tunnel has never been a series to take the easy path. Its Anglo-French take on the beloved Scandinavian culture-clash police drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) risked charges of mere imitation, while filming in the Channel Tunnel represented a logistical high-wire act.

Most recently, external factors – Brexit, the withdrawal of original coproducer Canal+ and showrunner Ben Richards standing down – have combined to make the third and final season, subtitled Vengeance, another tricky proposition.

Yet when DQ meets cast and crew in a terraced house above Dover train station on a baking hot May day, optimism abounds. Much has changed for the leading pair of coppers, Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann, in the eight months since they brought down a ring of international terrorists. The perpetually careworn Karl (Stephen Dillane) is in an uncharacteristically happy place, reconciled with wife and family.

“Part of the difficulty of the second season,” recalls Dillane, reclining in the front garden in an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, “was that this awful thing had happened [the murder of Karl’s teenage son], but it was important not to become morose or depressed. That was hard to pull off. You could decide this man was utterly floored by his son’s death, which would be a reasonable character choice, but here, he’s not. We’ve had to move things on now, and he’s in good shape: still a detective, happy enough with work. Family life has changed, but he seems alright.”

The Tunnel stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy

Similarly, Elise was left in disarray, betrayed by her lover and almost blinded by a pathogen that was injected into her eye. “I was up for having a scar,” laughs Clémence Poésy in the back garden, wearing Elise’s de facto uniform of shapeless jumper and black skinny jeans, “but she’s made a full recovery.”

Physically, if not psychologically? “Yeah, she starts Vengeance in denial. She’s made lots of very rational changes to put the events of the last series behind her, but something’s not quite right: she grinds her teeth a lot and breaks a tooth in her sleep. If it seems to be under control, it probably isn’t, and Karl coming back breaks that cycle.

“Season one felt like Elise opening up to someone then trying to protect that person, season two was the opposite, with Karl seeing her vulnerable and trying to protect her. Season three has them both going through a lot without sharing everything. Karl is worried about Elise and Elise is unsettled by decisions Karl is making.”

With former showrunner Richards stepping aside to work on the BBC’s adaptations of JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, Emilia Di Girolamo, lead writer on Law and Order: UK, came on board. “Ben looked at complex geopolitics with [second season] Sabotage,” she says. “It would have been easier to go bigger and more epic, but I wanted to take it back to its roots and have an intensely personal, emotional story. I worked in prisons for eight years and have a PhD in offender rehabilitation, so it mattered to me that the killers’ motives are rooted in their experience. In this case, that’s trauma and loss. I get excited by how horrifying human nature can be when a person has been so damaged that they have nothing left to lose.”

Dillane’s Karl Roebuck is in a happier place at the start of season three

The Tunnel’s final season, which begins on Sky Atlantic on December 14, revolves around crimes fuelled by the refugee crisis. “We were writing as the refugee camps in Calais were being dismantled,” says Di Girolamo. “I remembered reading these articles about 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were missing in Europe. As a writer and a parent, I couldn’t ignore this startling statistic, so I asked the question behind the story: how can one child’s life be worth more than another’s?”

And then there is the spectre of Brexit hanging over a show that pivots on the fragility of cross-Channel relations. “Nobody in the writers room really believed it would happen,” recalls Di Girolamo of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. “But while we’ve got a few Brexit gags and have ramped up the unease between our French and British characters, we wanted to focus on the case and the characters. It wouldn’t have massively affected the drama if we’d voted Remain.”

The Tunnel itself experienced something of a ‘Frexit’ with the withdrawal of coproducer Canal+ (which, it is anticipated, will be airing the series in France as an acquisition), yet this decision was, in reality, neither a huge surprise nor unduly problematic, says executive producer Karen Wilson.

“Sky were clear they wanted a final season, whereas it was a big thing for Canal+ to even come back for a second. Their involvement would have been a bonus rather than something we were anticipating, because historically they haven’t done returning series. They also have a different way of working: they expect to have all their shooting scripts before going into production, but no one in Britain works like that. The European aesthetic and English-French coproduction are what have made this show unique, so rather than running away from it, we decided to embrace the challenges and the differences. We’d reached an entente cordiale by the end of season one!”

French actor Poésy returns as Elise Wassermann

In some ways, it was even a positive development. “It’s a lot simpler working for one broadcaster than two,” says fellow exec producer Manda Levin. “We had a story meeting where all the British people were thinking the audience would never forgive Karl for his fling, but the French people didn’t get that at all – he’s just shagged a really sexy woman! We came at stories really differently, but we do miss their robust script notes that pushed and challenged us. They forced us to involve the French perspective even when that was difficult from the start, and that’s what made the show feel a bit different and made us work in a different way. By season three, we knew how to do that, so I hope Vengeance won’t feel any less French.”

Logistics were easier this season, with French sequences shot in one six-week block, sandwiched between English shoots of similar lengths. The active participation of [Channel Tunnel operator] Eurotunnel further smoothed things, and also of course afforded enormous creative opportunities. The Tunnel remains the only TV series to shoot inside the Channel Tunnel itself, although documentaries and commercials have been given access on occasion. Producer Toby Welch has nothing but praise for the Eurotunnel team, especially in meeting some of the final season’s more challenging briefs, which included rats swarming over one character.

“We can’t compromise their security or disrupt their business, so the challenges they faced to make it work for us were huge. While we did use some CGI, a member of our art department still had to count in and count out 200 dead rats meticulously while a member of Eurotunnel oversaw it. There was as much attention paid to the number of dead rats going in and out of the tunnel as there was to crew members [three Eurotunnel staff were required to be in attendance for every member of The Tunnel’s cast and crew], and rightly so! We also had access to some phenomenal properties outside the tunnel: at the beginning of season three, [Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs] John Keefe took us on a tour of cool things that hadn’t been in the show yet, so Samphire Hoe in Kent features prominently in the final season.”

Six-episode Vengeance is the concluding season of The Tunnel

Perhaps appropriately, having invoked a plague of rats, the biggest challenges were presented by some pretty Biblical weather on Samphire Hoe itself, a nature reserve created from almost five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated during the tunnel’s construction.

“Samphire Hoe is quite exposed to the elements,” Wilson explains, “so prior to filming a big sequence there, the production team looked at the weather for the last eight years and identified the week that has always had kind weather. Inevitably, it was awful! They closed the road from Dover and some people couldn’t even get to the location. We lost a day but it all came together in the end.”

Many of the off-camera team members from previous seasons have returned, among them director Gilles Bannier, a veteran of French crime thriller Spiral, who filmed the second half of the season; the first three episodes were helmed by Taboo and Jordskott director Anders Engstrom. The show gave Bannier the platform to realise his ambition of working in British television – he has since directed both Tin Star and In the Dark – and it remains a unique proposition on his CV.

“My trademark style is based on documentaries, where I began my career – I used to be very handheld. I wanted to keep [The Tunnel] simple, to look after the beauty and cinematic side of it and to make sure the police work felt real, but also to hold the characters at the centre and foster the dark, baroque feeling that is part of The Tunnel. It’s totally different to all the crime shows I’ve done. In France, the idea of the auteur is still very strong, while on UK television the writer is the most important. For The Tunnel, it was a true collaboration between the writers, directors, producers and execs, which I loved.”

In the absence of Canal+, Bannier and French adapter Eric Forestier (who also directed Poésy in 2008 feature La Troisième Partie du Monde) helped ensure the accuracy of the French aspects. “We would ask whether we’ve done the equivalent of getting a 19-year-old into Wetherspoons and asking for a cherry brandy,” laughs Welch. “They told us what smelled French, even down to the names of characters.”

This final season, produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, will be leaner than ever, running for just six episodes – a decision, the team insists, that was driven by creative rather than financial reasons. “With six episodes, there’s something exciting about being so near the end, even at the start,” says Welch. “It’s nice to have a new format, because there’s no point in repeating ourselves, and there’s something very satisfying about having a trilogy.”

And a trilogy it will remain, Levin confirms. “Knowing we won’t see Stephen and Clémence on screen together again makes me sad, but we do them justice. We started The Tunnel with a man losing his son. Emilia loves writing about parents, children, love and loss, so there was a real circularity to the series. Going out on a high is the way to go.”

For Wilson, the series’ legacy is significant. “I started at the BBC and every story we developed had to be completely British. The idea of subtitles on BBC1 was anathema, and the world has evolved so much since then – in terms of stories we can tell, there are no holds barred.”

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Directors’ paradise

Viewers will be transported to Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in epic German period drama Babylon Berlin.

Based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, the story follows Gereon Rath, a police officer from Cologne investigating in the capital with his own agenda. Yet the story only serves as a way into a city overrun by organised crime and political extremism. Berlin is a metropolis for those with talent and ambition but a dead end for the impoverished masses striving for a better life.

Writers and directors Tom Tykwer, Henrik Handloegten and Achim von Borries discuss how they used to books as the basis of the 16-episode series, which they say also asks questions about German society during the emergence of the Nazis.

They also reveal how they shared responsibilities in pre-production, during shooting and in the editing process, on a production that ran to 185 shooting days and filmed on a backlot built at Studio Babelsberg, complete with four streets and squares.

Babylon Berlin is produced by X Filme, ARD Degeto, Sky and distributor Beta Film.

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Living the dream

Tony Grisoni enthuses about the merits of collaboration as he discusses career highlights including Southcliffe and Red Riding and reveals more about new projects The City & The City and Philip K Dick anthology Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

The best thing and the worst thing about being a screenwriter is that it takes a lot of people to make a film – it’s no good unless it’s actually made into something,” Tony Grisoni (pictured above), the award-winning writer of The Brothers Grimm, Red Riding and Southcliffe, explains thoughtfully. “I love that social part, that collaboration, but if you’re spending a lot of time writing and nothing’s happening, it can be tough.”

It’s fair to say that’s not a problem the 64-year-old Grisoni faces too often these days. Since his breakthrough feature Queen of Hearts back in 1989, he’s had something produced at least once every year – from 1998’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, through 2009/10’s purple patch of Red Riding and Southcliffe, to his collaboration with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope.

And yet one crucial part of his overall writing process effectively depends on dry spells – his unpaid collaborations with conceptual artists like sculptor Brian Catling. “There’s no money involved – it’s just somewhere to play,” he says, grinning widely. “We’ll make the kind of films no one would commission. But the important thing is that it stirs the cauldron. There are lots of ideas that begin there – in Southcliffe there’s an old lady with Alzheimer’s who had her beginnings in a piece I did with an artist Oona Grimes, for instance. It keeps you alive and it keeps you inventing.”

Grisoni collaborated with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope

It’s the kind of spirit that took him from sound assistant, through production manager, to runner, then assistant director on commercials and music videos across the 1970s and 1980s. “I spent my spare time writing ideas for films, or sometimes collaging images, and I shot bits of Super 8,” he explains. “It was a way of starting the filmmaking process without the funds or army of people. Then a friend who had risen up the ranks got me a commission, but it was five years before Queen of Hearts got made.”

Queen of Hearts’ story of Italians immigrants wasn’t exactly autobiographical but it was rooted in a lifetime of research growing up in London’s Italian community. Since then, deep research has been the core of half of Grisoni’s work. In 2001, he made the trek along the people-smuggling route from the Pakistan/Afghan border, through Iran and Turkey, to Europe with director Michael Winterbottom.

“When Michael said he wanted a refugee journey shot documentary-style with non-professional actors – or what we call real people – it meant I had to think carefully about the writing,” he recalls. “How are you going to write dialogue when they can’t deliver it? The starting point was to meet a lot of people who had been smuggled overland into London. Then we went out and tested the route – dangerous things happened to us and I thought that was such an exciting way to write, because instead of me making stuff, it’s about real experiences.”

The resulting film, In This World, won the 2002 Berlinale Golden Bear. Similar research infused 2008’s Kingsland, a collection of short films that Grisoni directed as well as wrote, based on a gang fight in his Hackney neighbourhood. Even the modern gothic thriller Southcliffe was based on his research into shooting sprees such as those that occurred in Hungerford (1967) and Dunblane (1996).

“I started with the idea of writing a series set in Faversham, a market town in Kent, and I wanted to explore how a community coped with a number of people dying in this small town,” Grisoni explains. “The most interesting thing was to have someone from within the community have executed these people – it makes it more complex. All credit to Channel 4, they agreed to that when I didn’t know if it was three, four or five parts. I didn’t know what happened, I knew a lot of people died and that was kind of it.”

Grisoni was one of the writers of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’s screenplay

From Southcliffe’s first draft, the writer opted to identify the killer in the first scene – “because it was about how it happened, not who did it,” he explains. “I knew that if you saw someone doing something atrocious and then you saw him repairing a radiator, you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off him. That non-linear approach engages me as a viewer because I’ve become part of the storytelling. I’m not just being fed stuff; I’m trying to puzzle it out.”

If research is roughly half Grisoni’s writing practice, adaptations are effectively the other half. “I think it’s unlikely that a production company will come to me with an idea they’ve researched as a package and say, ‘Are you up for this?’” he explains. “I find it very difficult to get into those projects. I always feel they’ve been very thought out by someone else. But if someone brings me a book and asks if I’m interested then it could happen.”

For Grisoni’s remarkable Red Riding trilogy, that’s exactly what took place. “I knew Anne Reid and Revolution Films after In This World,” he says. “They came with this quartet of books by David Peace and asked if I was interested in adapting them. I started reading the first one. It’s difficult to describe them, they’re so angry and they’re full of literary experiment but they’re also exciting, with images that repel you but draw you in at the same time. I was scared of them, to be honest, and so I said I’d only do the first one.

“Then I kept reading and had conversations over meals and drinks and, finally, I gave in and did them all. I just waded in and started to take the books to pieces. It helps to have someone – a producer – who’s on top of the books and effectively plots which character is where for you, who you can check in with every day. That’s the main thing about adapting.”

Andrew Garfield (left) and Sean Bean in Grisoni’s Red Riding

Grisoni clearly loves working on books that would scare other writers. His version of the China Mieville novel The City & The City – which will air on the BBC as a four-part drama later in 2017 – is a case in point. “It’s a noir-ish detective story in two cities – one Eastern European and crumbling, and one all glass and steel. But they coexist in the same geographical space,” he grins. “The populations of each city know it’s a sin to see the other. Once you’ve got that wrinkle, you’ve got your detective story and it becomes very interesting and very complex. And almost impossible to adapt, by the way,” he bursts out laughing. “That’s when you need a good director to fix everything.”

If Grisoni likes working with good directors, they love working with him. He’s written for and with Monty Python member Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. “Working with Terry is like a hard play,” he nods. “For Fear & Loathing he’d seen loads of scripts – including one by Hunter S Thompson [the author of the autobiographical novel] – but he didn’t like them, so we tore the book in half. He took the front half and I took the second half and we collaged it. When we needed lines or events or anything, we took them from the book. It’s about people trusting you, people being willing to take a risk.”

Grisoni also wrote the script for Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – a movie that famously collapsed back in 2000 while a documentary crew were following the making of the film. “Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were documenting us not making this film – there was one point where it was clearly collapsing and they said to Terry, who was mic’d up all the time, do you want us to stop filming?” Grisoni recalls. “He said, ‘No, someone has to get a film out of this.’”

The writer’s killing-spree drama Southcliffe

The resulting 2002 doc – Lost in La Mancha – appealed to Grisoni and he worked with Fulton and Pepe on Brothers of the Head, a dark tale of conjoined twins. “But Don Quixote is finally due to shoot next year – I’ve been re-writing it twice a year for the past 17 years and the script’s getting OK now,” he laughs.

If there’s one project that knits together all Grisoni’s technique and learning, it’s his contribution to Channel 4’s forthcoming Philip K Dick anthology series Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. His script is part research, part adaptation and part lived experience. And, in a way, he’s been working on it for years.

“Ages ago I came across a Philip K Dick interview about a story he hadn’t got around to writing, about a really crap film composer who’s kidnapped by aliens so fascinated by sound that they biochip one of their kind into his head and send him back out into the world where he starts to compose amazing avant garde music,” Grisoni explains enthusiastically. “I wanted to write that story and dovetail Philip K Dick’s life with it, so I went to California and met his five ex-wives and his friends, and [visited] the places where he saw God.

“It was the most intensive bit of research I’d ever done. Towards the end I was staying with ex-wife three and every time I used the bathroom there was this frog sitting watching me. On the last day, I looked at it and thought, ‘There’s something about that frog’s face that looks a bit like Phil K Dick.’ The moment I thought that, the frog just disappeared and I thought, ‘I have to go home now, this project is too much.’”

Recently, Sony and Channel 4 approached Grisoni to contribute to the anthology – “and I’ve never written anything faster,” he grins. “It’s purely because that frog story was there waiting to go into something. Very often someone gives you a book or suggests something and you pick up on it because it connects with something you were thinking earlier but just couldn’t crack,” he smiles. “That’s the other best/worst thing about being a screenwriter – everything is material.”

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Grisham gets the TV treatment

The 1997 Rainmaker movie
The 1997 Rainmaker movie

For decades, John Grisham has written great novels about lawyers. And some of them have been turned into classy movies. The Firm is the most obvious example, but the likes of The Client, The Pelican Brief and Runaway Jury were also entertaining films.

For some reason, however, Grisham’s works have not translated well to television – which is a surprise given that US networks are always on the hunt for series with a legal underpinning. The Client was turned into a TV series in 1995 but only lasted one 20-episode season. Eight years later, The Street Lawyer was piloted but got no further. And in 2011, there was a TV version of The Firm, which imagined the central characters 10 years on from the film. Again, this only lasted one 22-episode season before being pulled.

Now, though, there is to be another attempt to bring Grisham’s magic to the small screen. This time it is the turn of The Rainmaker, a popular novel that was adapted into a 1997 movie by Francis Ford Coppola. The original starred Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes and Mickey Rourke and told the story of a young lawyer who finds himself fighting a court case against a huge law firm that he previously aspired to work for.

Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film
Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the Enemy of the State film, which is being adapted by ABC

The Rainmaker is being adapted by Code Black creator/executive producer Michael Seitzman, who will write it with Brett Mahoney. Seitzman said: “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book. One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show – a young lawyer right out of law school, no money, no white-shoe law firm scooping him up, forced to work for a crooked lawyer named Bruiser, representing criminals one minute and chasing ambulances the next. Then he stumbles on a big case against an impossible adversary, with high stakes that are both professional and personal. That just feels like a show I want to watch.”

Another legal drama in the works is Reversible Error, an NBC show from Barbara Curry and Chris Morgan. This one is about a former attorney who is freed from prison after her conviction for murdering her husband is reversed. Now she must find her husband’s real killer, before a vindictive district attorney finds a way to prosecute her again. Curry, who used to work as a federal prosecutor, is writing the project and will executive produce.

Barracuda has been picked up by BBC3

Still in the US, there are reports of another movie-to-TV reboot, with ABC planning a series based on the 1998 feature film Enemy of the State. The show is being produced by ABC Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, who was also behind the original movie. The new version will focus on an attorney and an FBI agent who try to stop state secrets being exposed. Bruckheimer’s deal with ABC is the first that the veteran producer has signed since the end of his exclusive 15-year relationship with Warner Bros Television.

NBC is also looking at a movie-to-TV adaptation about hackers (a subject that has been in demand since the success of Mr Robot). The project is Sneakers, which started life as a Robert Redford movie back in 1992. There are also reports this week that NBC is talking to Jack Reacher novelist Lee Child about a drama called Last Hope. Child is working with screenwriter Andrew Dettmann on the project, which is about a former military police investigator who seeks justice for people with nowhere else to go.

Guilt will not return to Freeform

Fox is also busy, with reports of a new cop show called Kin. This one centres on a Florida law-enforcement family who become the main suspects in the disappearance of a drug cartel leader following a DEA plane crash. Kevin O’Hare will write the project.

And CBS has ordered a 13-part summer series from Alex Kutzman, executive producer on the new Star Trek series. Called Salvation, it centres on an MIT student who discovers that an asteroid is on course to collide with Earth. News of the CBS series comes in the same week that summer dramas BrainDead and American Gothic were cancelled by the network. Also on the cancellation front, Freeform (previously ABC Family) has announced there will not be a second season of Guilt, a thriller set in London about a young American woman accused of killing her roommate. The show, loosely inspired by the Amanda Knox story, rated pretty poorly.

The Young Pope
Jude Law in The Young Pope

In Europe, FremantleMedia-backed production The Young Pope has secured a second series. The show, which was launched to widespread acclaim this year, stars Jude Law as a maverick American-born Pope. The show was set up as an HBO, Sky and Canal+ copro with FremantleMedia International handling sales. FMI secured a sale into the Japanese market at Mipcom last week.

It’s been a busy week on the acquisition front thanks to the recently-ended Mipcom event in Cannes (see this column). One deal completed after our market round-up was BBC3’s acquisition of Australian drama Barracuda from NBCUniversal International Distribution. The four-part series, based on a book by Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), tells the story of a 16-year-old boy attempting to become an Olympic swimmer.  Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, said the show “is a compelling, complex and emotional drama – beautifully filmed and performed.”

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No losers as BBC’s rebel battles ITV’s royal

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria

For the past week, the British media has had a lot of fun hyping up the ratings war between ITV’s new drama Victoria and the BBC’s returning series Poldark (both of which, ironically, are produced by ITV-owned production company Mammoth Screen). But the truth is both sides can be pretty happy with their performances.

Victoria, produced by Mammoth for ITV and PBS in the US, debuted at 21.00 on Sunday August 28 with 5.7 million viewers. Keen to build on its momentum, ITV then scheduled the second episodes of the eight-parter on the following night, a bank holiday in the UK. This episode attracted 5.2 million, suggesting the show had done a good job of retaining the audience’s interest.

The direct clash between the two shows came the following week, when they were scheduled against each other at 21.00 on Sunday September 4. In this slot, Victoria secured 4.8 million viewers and then picked up a further 400,000 in a second showing an hour later on ITV+1. Poldark, meanwhile, attracted 5.1 million viewers to what was the first episode of its second series.

Poldark stars Aidan Turner
Poldark stars Aidan Turner

Different media outlets have interpreted these figures in different ways. For some, it has been an opportunity to attack Poldark by saying a) it was beaten by Victoria (with its amalgamated 5.2 million figure) and b) this year’s Poldark launch was weaker than last year’s, which attracted 6.9 million. However, neither of these interpretations should take away from the fact that it was a good opening for Poldark. The only meaningful comparison between the two will come after 14 to 28 days when we begin to get a sense of time-shifted viewing. By then, we’ll also have a clearer idea of whether Victoria can sustain its ratings.

Good news for both broadcasters is that the critics have praised the two shows. Both have scored 8.4 on IMDb, putting them at the upper end of audience approval ratings.

Looking to the long-term, the Victoria vs Poldark battle is likely to become a pretty permanent feature on the UK drama scene. Neither broadcaster wants to give up the 21.00 Sunday-night slot to the other but both have plans to run and run with their respective series. Poldark has already been commissioned for a third season and could easily run for five or six. ITV is also envisaging a similar life span for Victoria.

Jude Law's performance impressed critics who saw the first two episodes of The Young Pope
Jude Law’s performance impressed critics who saw the first two episodes of The Young Pope

Congratulations are of course due to Mammoth Screen for pulling off a remarkable feat. And to ITV, which gets to distribute both shows to the international market (it has just licensed Victoria to ITV Choice in Asia and the Middle East). It’s also still something of a novelty for female screenwriters to run primetime dramas – so it’s a positive sign that these shows are penned by Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) and Debbie Horsfield (Poldark).

Another show in the news this week is The Young Pope – a Sky, HBO and Canal+ co-production that sees Jude Law play a feisty young American Pope. The ten-part series has been hyped up a lot in recent months by its distributor FremantleMedia International (FMI) –and it looks like it could turn out to be the hit the company has been hoping for. The first two episodes were screened at the Venice Film Festival and received glowing reviews from the media. The Telegraph was especially enthusiastic, reporting that: “The first, feature-length episode is like the skin-prickling opening to a game of chess played across a board of gold and marble – with each piece, from king to pawn, gliding enigmatically into place for the coming battle”. Law, says the Telegraph, is a “force of nature.”

Narcos will air on Univision

FMI has also reported strong interest among buyers. Broadcasters that have already picked the show up include MNET (Pan-Africa), HBO (Pan-CEE), BETV in Belgium, OTE TV in Greece, 365 in Iceland, Sky in New Zealand and Hot in Israel. Nordic SVoD platform C More, which belongs to Sweden’s TV4 Group, has also acquired the series. As part of the latter deal, The Young Pope will also air on TV4’s free-to-air channel in Sweden. As for the partners in the show, Sky Atlantic will air it across its territories from October 27.

One of the most-talked about programmes of the last couple of years has been Netflix’s Pablo Escobar drama series Narcos – a double winner at the 2015 C21 International Drama Awards. This week, Netflix announced it had renewed the show for third and fourth seasons. It’s lucky that the creators called the show Narcos rather than Escobar – because the new series will follow the Medellin cartel after the death of the Colombian drug lord in 1993.

Queen Sugar
Queen Sugar opened strongly on OWN

As we’ve noted on several occasions, Netflix doesn’t release audience figures – so it’s difficult to know how well the Spanish-language show does on the platform. However, a deal between Netflix and Univision means the show is also due to air on the US Hispanic network in the near future, so it should soon be possible to get a perspective on its appeal. Interestingly, Netflix and Univision are also partnering a series called El Chapo, which is based on the life of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzmán. In the US, this series will air on UniMás in 2017 before appearing on Netflix. Outside the US, the show will make its debut on the streamer.

It’s been evident in recent times that there is a strong audience in the US for scripted series that place black actors at the centre of the story (Empire and Power being a couple of the most recent successes). There’s more evidence of this from a couple of newly launched shows. The first is Queen Sugar, which has just debuted on OWN. Following the same pattern as fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, the Tuesday and Wednesday roll-out of Queen Sugar drew a healthy 2.42 million viewers. With The Haves and the Have Nots also doing well on OWN, the channel’s drama output is currently firing on all cylinders.

Atlanta stars Community’s Donald Glover (far right)

More good news for the black creative community has been the early response to Community star and rapper Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta, which has just launched on FX. Set in the world of local hip hop, the show has been warmly received by critics and secured a promising 1.1 million viewers in its 22.00 slot. With an 8.9 rating on IMDB, Atlanta could shape up as one of the year’s surprise critical hits, though there was some grumbling among audiences that it was scheduled directly against the launch of Queen Sugar.

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Butterworth rules Britannia

Jez Butterworth
Jez Butterworth

Anyone familiar with the work of UK writer Jez Butterworth will know that he has established his reputation primarily through theatre and film.

Although he co-wrote a couple of short films for ITV and Channel 4 in the early 1990s (both with his brother Tom), his breakthrough moments were the 1995 play Mojo and the 2001 movie Birthday Girl, which starred Nicole Kidman. Subsequently, career landmarks include the play Jerusalem (2008) and movies such as Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass and Spectre.

Now, however, he is set to make a major impact on the small screen as writer of Britannia, the first coproduction between Sky and Amazon. The lavish 10-part drama will star Kelly Reilly (True Detective), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead, The Hollow Crown), Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and Stanley Weber (Outlander).

Butterworth will again team up with his brother (who has already established his reputation as a TV writer with Fortitude and Tin Star), as well as Richard McBrien (Spooks, Merlin), on the writing.

According to Sky, Britannia is “set in 43AD as the Roman Imperial Army – determined and terrified in equal measure – returns to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia, a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld.”

The series is shooting on location in Prague and Wales and will appear on Sky1 in the UK and Ireland and Amazon Prime Video in the US in 2017. International distribution rights (excluding the US) for Britannia will be handled by Sky distribution arm Sky Vision.

Patrick Harbinson
Patrick Harbinson

Commenting on the show, Butterworth said: “Besides being hard, hard warriors, the Celts have a belief system which makes them almost invincible. It’s a deep, heavy magic. Last time the Romans tried to invade, the mighty Julius Caesar took one look, turned round and went straight home. Now, almost a century later, the Romans are back. I’m fascinated in what happens when gods die. When an entire, ancient faith stalls, topples, collapses – and a whole new one grows in its place. New names, new faces, to suit the new times. Here we have a war between two pantheons – the Roman gods v the Celtic gods. It’s the heavyweight clash of all time, the one which most shapes who we are today. And we see it all from a human perspective, of individual survival, ambition, courage, lust, loss, revenge. All the stuff the gods have always loved us humans for the most!”

Another high-profile writer in the news this week is Patrick Harbinson. Although Harbinson’s most recent credit is as a writer-producer on Showtime’s Homeland, he is actually a Brit who broke into the business writing episodes of UK dramas Soldier Soldier and Heartbeat. Since then, he has managed to carve out an impressive career working on both US and UK series such as Person of Interest, Lewis, 24, The Day of the Triffids, Wire in the Blood, Dark Angel and Hornblower.

Now he is working with producer Mammoth Screen on a six-part series for ITV entitled Fearless. The show, starring Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders), centres on Emma Blunt, a solicitor known for defending lost causes. She is investigating the killing of a schoolgirl in East Anglia and trying to free the man she thinks was wrongly convicted of the girl’s murder. But as she digs deeper, she begins to sense powerful forces, in the police and the intelligence services at home and abroad, who want to stop her uncovering the truth. Harbinson calls Fearless “a legal thriller, but one that’s written in the crash zone where law and politics collide.”

Harbinson said he was first approached by Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer three years ago: “[He] asked me if I was interested in writing a legal series inspired by the work of lawyers like Gareth Peirce and Helena Kennedy. I immediately said yes. Much of the work I’ve done in America in the last 10 years has been about life in the post-9/11 world. The so-called War on Terror has put serious stress on the ordinary workings of the law. National security justifies all sorts of police and state over-reach – and the great majority of us are prepared to accept this. So I wanted to create a character who challenges these assumptions, who fights for those outside the normal run of society, and who is uncompromising, difficult and indifferent to unpopularity and danger. The result was Emma Blunt and Fearless.

“I’m delighted Helen McCrory has agreed to play Emma. She is a complex and contradictory character, and I am lucky to have someone of Helen’s wit, warmth and intelligence bringing her to life.”

Fearless will be produced by Adrian Sturges (Houdini and Doyle, The Enfield Haunting, The Disappearance of Alice Creed). Filming will begin in London and East Anglia in September 2016.

Veena Sud
Veena Sud

Butterworth and Harbinson are currently two of the film and TV industry’s most in-demand writers. However, breaking into the industry in the first place continues to be a struggle for most. One company that has a good track record for unearthing diverse new talent, however, is Disney-ABC though its writing programme.

Organised on an annual basis, the Disney-ABC writing programme accepts submissions from May and selects writers in around December. These writers then participate in a one-year programme that starts in February. If they turn out well, then they are given jobs on Disney-ABC series, examples being Veena Sud (The Killing, Cold Case) and George Mastras (Breaking Bad).

This week, Disney-ABC announced today that all eight of the writers selected for the 2016 programme have been given jobs on TV series. These include Dayo Adesokan (Downward Dog), Amanda Idoko (Imaginary Mary), Andrew Mathieson (Dr Ken), Ron McCants (Speechless), Miguel Ian Raya (Famous In Love), Janine Salinas Schoenberg (American Crime), Christina Walker (Still Star-Crossed) and Jeffery Wang (Notorious).

Commenting on this year’s bumper crop, Tim McNeal, VP of creative talent development and inclusion at Disney-ABC Television Group, said: “We’re proud that our selection of writers proved appealing to not only creative executives but also showrunners.”

One particularly impressive aspect of the programme is the number of writers who continue to build their career after that initial lift-off. For the coming year, 50 alumni will be employed at various levels in the industry, from staff writers to executive producers. Zahir McGhee, for example, is co-exec producer on ABC’s Scandal.

“Just as we pride ourselves by introducing new diverse voices to the creative process at the lower level, we find it equally rewarding to champion the staffing of programme alumni as a means to career longevity,” said McNeal.

Sarah Watson
Sarah Watson

In another piece of Disney news, its Freeform channel (formerly known as ABC Family) has greenlit a new scripted pilot called Issues. Inspired by the life of Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, it follows three young women who set out to conquer New York City together.

Issues is the brainchild of Sarah Watson, who worked for more than 100 episodes on NBC’s Parenthood, rising from mid-level staff writer to executive producer during that time. Having broken into the business on That’s So Raven (2004), she then worked on shows like Monarch Cove, The Unusuals and About a Boy before her career-transforming six-season stint on Parenthood.

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Le Carré and Les Misérables in le news

John Le Carré's works have proved popular among TV producers
John Le Carré’s works have proved popular among TV producers

UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.

Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.

The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.

Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.

Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.

The 2012 film version of Les Misérables
The 2012 film version of Les Misérables

Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”

Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.

The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.

It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.

Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”

The Five writer Harlan Coben is now working on The Four
The Five writer Harlan Coben is now working on The Four

Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.

The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.

Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”

Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”

Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.

The Mendendez brothers were convicted of murdering their parents
The Mendendez brothers were convicted of murdering their parents

The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.

As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.

Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”

John Barrowman in Torchwood, which he says could return
John Barrowman in Torchwood, which he says could return

Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.

Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.

Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.

Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”

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