What’s up, docs?

What’s up, docs?

May 24, 2023

In production

Writing for DQ, Nutopia founder and CEO Jane Root and chief creative officer Simon Willgoss detail the production company’s approach to bringing together writers and historical experts to create the scripted elements for drama-documentaries like their recent Netflix series, Queen Cleopatra.

But is it real? How much of it is true? Did any of it really happen like that?

We live in a world where real and reality slide together on TikTok, Bing and everywhere else.

When the real world directly inspires so many of our finest dramas – think The Crown or Dope Sick; Chernobyl or The Gold – it’s not surprising that a fertile world of adjacent journalism has evolved, scrutinising and fact-checking as soon as a new show drops. I’m an avid reader of these columns – so no, Queen Camilla wasn’t having dinner with her husband when she answered the phone to Charles and was recorded for Tampongate; but yes, Diana did dance with the Royal Ballet in front of a less-than-thrilled Charles.

Jane Root

At Nutopia, we have been coming at it differently with our own take on all this. We call it premium DD (for drama-doc) – a unique hybrid of ‘pure’ scripted drama and your more straightforward drama-documentary, delivering the high-end storytelling of the former and the dependable informativity of the latter.

Although several people at the company have worked in ‘pure’ scripted content (when I was running BBC Two, we were so proud of Tipping the Velvet and The Office), Nutopia’s specialism has always been the very highest-level, research-led non-scripted work. That’s what led to us making terrifyingly enormous shows like Limitless with Chris Hemsworth and Will Smith’s Welcome to Earth. It also means we have crept into the world of scripted from a different direction.

With shows like The Last Czars and Blood, Sex & Royalty for Netflix, or Royal Mob for Sky History – about the relationships between Queen Victoria’s grandchildren that helped slide Europe into the First World War – we have trodden our own pathway. Our most recent series, Queen Cleopatra, has just debuted to enormous noise on Netflix.

Premium DD is very much our own approach. Most ‘straight’ drama-documentaries involve dramatic recreations that simply illustrate the words of a narrator or interviewees. We flip the equation, with the best directors, actors, design teams and crew that we can attract to these fantastic stories – and, most importantly, proper scripted drama written by real writers.

At the heart of our approach is a collaboration between two quite different groups. There’s a crack factual team immersed in very deep research. They work in close collaboration with an experienced and talented scripted team; the groups work hand in hand throughout the project.

We believe the result is a new kind of storytelling – a creative mashup that brings together best-in-class factual producers and academics with top writing talent.

This makes premium DD, at its heart, a collaboration between the scripted and unscripted worlds; one that begins with a solid grounding in the most detailed factual and historical research, consulting with globally renowned experts. The factual team then works closely with the writers and script producers to craft that research into the most dramatic narrative.

Nutopia’s Queen Cleopatra has proved popular on Netflix

It’s a weave that feels to audiences like a premium scripted treat with added knowledge, rather than a documentary with costumes. We avoid – like the plague – clunky dialogue written by a producer or director; clumsy filler scenes like the quill pen scratching out a missive by candlelight, or a fist thumping down on a table in slow motion…

The final part of the premium DD process is that we interview our historians on screen, but we use these interviews judiciously: as chapter headings or page-turners between scenes, to add context to the drama and not overwhelm it. There’s sometimes a moment when our broadcast partners say: “The drama is really good. Do you need the historians, scientists or business people?” But we fight for them. We’ve always chosen carefully – often searching the world for academics able to communicate passion as well as insight.

We don’t just go to our on-screen collaborators for the facts. It’s also complexity and uncertainty that can thrive in our new format. The gaps in historical accounts – Rashomon style – can be illuminated by interviewees. The questions that inspire heated debates between scientists, historians and other thinkers can be bought into focus using their carefully honed words, rather than being put into the mouths of invented characters for action-disrupting moments of backstory or explanation.

Simon Willgoss

We’ve been lucky enough to work with many incredibly talented writers, most recently on Royal Mob with Abigail Wilson and Jamie Britain, whose credits include The Larkins, Ten Per Cent and Skins, and also on our African Queens project – which includes seasons about Njinga and Queen Cleopatra – with the formidable writing team of Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji.

What attracts writers – and directors – to these projects is the chance to tell incredible stories, whether it’s the fall of the Romanovs, a fresh and feminist new take on Anne Boleyn, bringing 17th century Queen Njinga of Angola to life, or Cleopatra. But we are aware that our hybrid way of working, weaving together scripted drama and interviews with historians, with a much higher bar for factual accuracy than period drama, is unconventional.

We were tentative at first – would writers hate this? How would agents respond? Would this feel like a straitjacket, limiting the writers’ creativity?

In fact, all the writers we’ve worked with have come to embrace the historian interviews not as an intrusion, but as their friend: an often-repeated comment is that the historians free the writers from dreaded exposition. No need to find an elegant way to craft in the precise relationship between the Russian and British royal families (in Royal Mob), because a historian interview will do if for you. No need for someone to stride into a room to announce that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo. This leaves the writers free to concentrate on character and drama with nuance and subtlety.

We also know from our research that benefits for the audience are clear – the presence of the historians creates a heightened sense of realism and authenticity that can make the audience feel more connected and invested in the story. The smell of the real – so important to our enjoyment while watching – is woven into the fabric of this format. It’s something that is also perfectly suited to the new TikTok generation, who crave authentic stories but also want information in bitesize chunks.

The company worked with writers Abigail Wilson and Jamie Britain on Royal Mob

The real can be more thrilling than the entirely invented. It’s become a common trope in our offices that what really happened is often far more outlandish and surprising than anything we could possibly invent. Almost every twist and turn of Rasputin’s story? You couldn’t make it up. Edward VII as Prince of Wales punching his nephew the Kaiser in a fist fight at Cowes Week? Yes, it happened. Stranger than fiction, indeed.

While we film our shows with the best and most experienced crews in the world, it’s true that we don’t command the very biggest bucks in the industry – but then ‘cost effective’ is, tragically, a favourite phrase on the lips of many broadcasters in our post-peak scripted world. But we don’t do it because it’s cheap – we genuinely believe our hybrid model gives audiences something more, a different flavour, mixing different needs and desires.

The salted caramel of the television world, if you like… Different elements, from very different places, touching different nerves, but somehow better and more exciting than the pure uncombined salty or sweet.

And perhaps the proof really is in the pudding. The most satisfying metric, for us and the platforms we work with, is how our approach has blown open these stories to new and much bigger audiences. Our shows frequently compete with landmark scripted at 10 or 20 times the cost. The Last Czars was watched by tens of millions of people, including a big female audience. Royal Mob was Sky’s highest-rated show of 2022 among ABC1 adults; and as I write this, our new Queen Cleopatra series is sitting at number four in Netflix’s top 10, sandwiched between new seasons of Bridgerton and Queer Eye. Perhaps you can have your cake and eat it, after all…

What comes next for premium DD? We think the sky’s the limit, as the audience’s desire for more real ‘real’ continues to grow. We currently have some very ambitious projects that combine drama and fact in surprising ways – think counter-factual, sci-fi and the future meets drama-doc. We’re ambitious to find collaborators we can go on the journey with from all parts of television – scripted, non-scripted and everything in between. We believe the potential is huge, and we’re only just getting started.

tagged in: , , ,