Tick-tock trend

Tick-tock trend

By Michael Pickard
December 15, 2023


The writers behind series including Hijack, Nightsleeper, Breathtaking and Storm Lara dissect their interest in setting dramas in real time, what impact this has on storytelling and how they bring viewers along for the ride.

As he was writing the third part of Netflix’s French crime caper Lupin while on board the Eurostar, travelling between London and Paris, screenwriter George Kay suddenly had the idea for a new series.

“One day as we were in the tunnel, the train stopped abruptly. I looked around me and thought, if this is something serious, were these guys in my carriage, including me, up to standing up to the threat or confronting anything that was going on, or would we all cower in our seats? Or will the hard guy be more inclined to do it than the rest of us?”

Kay was already penning an episode of Lupin set on a train, so he transplanted his idea to a plane – and that idea became Hijack, the Apple TV+ series starring Idris Elba as a passenger on a plane that is hijacked at the start of a seven-hour flight. It is produced by 60Forty Films, Idiotlamp Productions and Green Door Pictures.

Notably, Hijack unfolds in real time, and is one of a number of series dialling up the intrigue and tension by playing out in the same number of minutes as their running time.

Kay is no stranger to writing a high-concept series with built-in story constraints, having previously paired with Hijack director Jim Field Smith on Criminal, a Netflix series where each episode takes place almost entirely inside a police interview room. When it came to his plane-set series, Kay sought out a flight path that would last the length of a limited TV series and built the story from there, with Elba’s business negotiator attempting to broker a peaceful resolution as the hijacked plane travels from Dubai to London.

Idris Elba in Apple TV+ drama Hijack

“What I really like about real time is it’s linear storytelling. You don’t flash back,” Kay tells DQ. “There’s been a generation of shows that have relied upon the irony of the audience knowing more than the characters, and we feel there’s so much more to be had out of that because it feels clever. Actually, sometimes in the industry, we think a reveal is more powerful than it is.

“You’re better off with characters experiencing things at the same time as the audience and things unfolding for both parties in front of their eyes, and that’s where real time’s really effective, because we will have experienced what the characters have experienced and therefore you have much more subjective television.”

George Kay

Thanks to 24, the long-running Fox series starring Kiefer Sutherland as tireless counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, real-time dramas will forever be associated with the ticking clock that would greet the start and end of every ad break, propelling the drama forward through another terrorist threat.

“But what you’re really doing is making it feel present and active for the audience in parallel with the character,” Kay notes. “That’s why it’s powerful, because you can’t flash back to some story that reveals how they might be feeling. You have to reveal it there and then, and that’s a really great challenge for a writer.”

For Nick Leather, 24 and classic 1952 western High Noon, about a marshal who must decide whether to face a gang of criminals or leave town, stand up as the best examples of using real time on screen. Now, in BBC drama Nightsleeper, due to air in 2024, he has created a real-time thriller set on board a sleeper train. As the train comes under attack from a mysterious enemy, a government agency desperately tries to intervene in the rapidly escalating events.

“I always like to try to write different stuff – I have a low boredom threshold – and just try to challenge myself,” he says. “I fancied writing something that was closed in time and space, and wondered whether I could make that work as a show.”

The six-part series, produced by Euston Films and distributed by Fremantle, takes place during a six-hour journey from Glasgow to London, with Leather creating a “fun, crazy” story largely rooted at a single location, in this case a speeding six-carriage train.

“The funny thing is you start playing with the story and it’s great, it’s so much fun,” Leather says. “What I found fascinating is I got the script commissioned, I sat down dead excited to start writing, I’ve got my story, I wrote the first scene, a great first scene, cut to… and then you just go, ‘Oh no.’ It’s so weird. When you’re watching shows, we instinctively expect a cut and a jump in time and space.

24 is perhaps the most successful example of a real-time drama series

“It took me a couple of drafts to get into that way of real-time thinking and get it into the storytelling. You get to a certain point and it falls into place.”

Naturally, setting a story in real time dictates the pace and rhythm of a show, so Leather found that if a character is walking from A to B and it takes three minutes, something exciting or interesting has to happen in that time.

“It made me broaden out the characters,” he says. “The main character can start walking here, but I can drop into someone else and we can get a bit of story from them. And then we can pick up from him being further down [the train],” he says. “I really wanted to introduce the train as well. I wanted everyone to know this train was six carriages and where the various characters were on the train.”

Nick Leather

Meanwhile, for ITV drama Breathtaking, doctor-turned-screenwriter Rachel Clarke adapted her own memoir about working on a hospital ward during the Covid-19 pandemic. Co-written with fellow former doctors Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Prasanna Puwanarajah (Patrick Melrose), it focuses on a frontline hospital consultant who witnesses the crisis unfolding.

Clarke says the three-parter – produced by HTM Television and distributed by ITV Studios – emerged from her ambition to dramatise what it was like for medics during that period. “I was desperate to be able to show the public what it actually looked, sounded and felt like to be in that very frightening, very claustrophobic hospital environment where everyone and everything was steeped in Covid,” she says. “A TV drama was the perfect way to do that – bringing an immediacy that I don’t think a book can quite match.”

That immediacy is put front and centre by elements of real-time filmmaking. One example comes when a member of staff who has caught Covid at work needs to be intubated and connected to a ventilator. Clarke explains: “She is critically unwell, about to have a respiratory arrest, while we watch the ICU consultant actually steering the tube down her throat. It is shocking, invasive and something I have never seen on screen before – but it’s the reality of what patients faced, and it’s so important to show that and not flinch from it. You need nerves of steel to intubate a patient under the circumstances, and real-time elements help show how extraordinarily difficult and tense these medical procedures are in reality.”

Joanne Froggatt plays a frontline hospital consultant in Breathtaking

Clarke admits it’s almost impossible for the public to imagine what it was really like inside a hospital during lockdown. Using real-time sequences, “we wanted to throw those doors wide and try to convey the almost surreal intensity of being a member of staff fighting a pandemic while swathed in PPE, knowing the very air you breathed might be the death of you. The best possible way to do so was through real-time elements in which the achingly painful reality of a medical crisis unfolds for real, sometimes grindingly, tortuously, unbearably – unlike the truncated versions you so often see in medical dramas. The viewers see what staff see, feel it as we felt it – and it’s incredibly powerful.”

Two current NHS hospital doctors with extensive Covid experience were on set throughout production to guide every detail of the medical procedures and ensure they looked exactly as they should. Clarke says: “We want doctors watching this series to feel as though they are watching their day unfolding at work. That’s the degree of accuracy that mattered.”

Rachel Clarke

While Breathtaking takes place during the height of Covid, Dutch/Flemish drama Storm Lara was born as a result of the pandemic. Writer Daan Gielis was asked if she could create a series for Belgian streamer Streamz, but the pandemic meant it needed to be set in a contained environment with just a pair of actors – who couldn’t be in the same room.

She then came up with the idea of setting a story in a radio DJ booth, where Lara (Ella Leyers) hosts a late-night phone-in. When Suzy calls, threatening to commit suicide on live radio, Lara sees an opportunity to win back her primetime slot – but finds there is more than her job at stake in a story about love, jealousy, adultery and lies. A Private View and Belga Productions produce the four-parter, with Keshet International distributing.

“I really like the power of real-time storytelling,” says Gielis, who is a fan of real-time films such as Phone Booth and Locke. “It gives such an interesting pace and urgency. When I’m writing, I like to limit myself, which is maybe weird but then you get really creative. This is set in real time over two hours, and that pressure cooker can bring so much drama, intensity and authenticity. When these stories are also in a confined space, it creates an intimate atmosphere and that allows a deeper exploration of Lara.”

Like Kay, Gielis notes the lack of dramatic irony available in real-time dramas and the shared experience the viewer has with the main character. “The viewer doesn’t have the luxury of knowing more about the story or what’s going to happen than the main character. In that sense, it’s a different kind of writing and makes it exciting and unpredictable. There’s not a lot of time to relax,” she says. “Normally when I’m writing I like to include some scenes where the character can digest what’s happened or there’s a bit of humour. Of course, this also has humour but it’s different from what I normally write.”

The story of Storm Lara unfolds in a radio DJ booth

Despite the challenges of the self-imposed constraints writers must tackle when writing real-time drama, Kay believes the boundaries of time and space are actually liberating for writers, forcing them to come up with creative ways to keep the story moving forward without breaking the rules of the format.

“Real time is really just an accelerant for how people make decisions as characters,” he says. “I was always really interested, for example, in the Blitz, how people’s lives accelerated – if you met someone in wartime and you fell in love, you might get married straightaway because who knows if there’s going to be a tomorrow. You have to take things on, and suddenly time amplifies instincts. That’s the cool thing about Hijack. It forces those characters to speak up and reveal themselves, because everything’s urgent.”

Clarke surmises that “in an age of influencers, spin and misinformation, viewers crave authenticity and the sense that what they are watching is genuine, accurately representing reality.”

“Real-time sequences are a striking way to achieve that,” she continues. “They are immersive and all-consuming, forcing the viewer to experience the sequence as though they are a protagonist, as opposed to an observer.”

Gieles adds: “For a writer, it’s really a challenge to keep the tension high all the time – but it’s a nice challenge. For the audience, it brings authenticity. You share this experience of witnessing the events unfolding together with the characters. If it’s done well, it’s really powerful.”

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