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The Televisual Genre Report - Live and Event TV

From concerts to cup finals and ceremonial occasions, live events are increasingly important to broadcasters. Tim Dams reports

If you want proof of the power of live events, just look at the ratings. Two of last year’s most watched programmes were live events: the One Love Manchester concert and the New Year Fireworks, which attracted 11.63m and 10.4m viewers respectively.

Until this month, the Royal wedding was the top rating programme of the year with 13.1m viewers on BBC1. That was suprassed by England's World Cup game against Panama last week, which peaked at 14.1m viewers - with another 2.8m watching live on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website.

At a time when ratings hover around the 2-3m mark for shows on big channels, the power of live events to punch through a crowded broadcasting landscape is undisputed.

The rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime is changing the dynamics of live events compared to pre-recorded shows, according to Malcolm Gerrie, chief executive of Whizz Kid Entertainment, which produces the BAFTA Film Awards for BBC1. “One of the ways to compete with them is in the live arena. The change in the broadcasting landscape has given the live event space a real dose of vitamin C.”

Gerrie is surprised some terrestrial broadcasters haven’t pushed harder into the live events space. “Live events, concerts, awards shows and sport attract considerable numbers. Their ability to cut through the clutter on all the other digital channels is massive.”

“Across the industry, there is definitely more of an appetite for live events, particularly unifying moments that bring the nation together,” confirms Claire Popplewell, executive producer at the BBC’s Ceremonial Events team, which produced the Royal Wedding and the New Year’s Fireworks.

This is also driving innovation, to make live events stand out even more. This summer, for example, Sky is broadcasting the Isle of White Festival in UHD and Dolby Atmos sound – the first music event to do so, according to Jason Hocking, the managing director of CC-Lab, which is producing the coverage. 

With archive in mind, the BBC Events team produced the Royal Wedding in UHD HDR – its first live outside broadcast in the format (the BBC could not broadcast it in UHD, but the UHD pictures were made available to Sky). “It’s ultimately a moment in history, so we are trying to capture it in the best way we can,” says Popplewell.

Sports race
Sport’s ability to punch through has, of course, long been recognised. And broadcasters have long been prepared to pay handsomely to show it. Earlier this year, the Premier League sold the rights to 2019-2022 games for £4.5bn to Sky and BT Sports with two live packages still on the table.

“When it is done right, live sport can be a total battering ram in terms of audiences, whatever platform you happen to be on,” says Neil Duncanson, the CEO of North One Television, which produces coverage of Moto GP and Formula E.

The sports market has changed significantly for producers in recent years. As yet, the market has not been disrupted like the drama, entertainment and factual genres by the streamers, although producers expect this to happen in the next five years. Amazon, for example, is dipping its toes into sport, taking UK rights to the ATP World Tour from Sky.

The volume of sports production has also risen. “A multi-sport event now isn’t just one channel showing the best of the action, it is one channel plus individual channels, a red button or online offering,” says David Tippett, head of broadcast at Sunset+Vine, which produces Premier League football and Premiership rugby for BT Sport.

IMG Production, for example, now has almost 50 people in its digital team. “That is definitely going to increase in the short term,” says Graham Fry, the md of sports production worldwide at IMG, which produces the world feed for the Premier League.

Live and kicking
The demand is very much for live sport too, says Fry.  Highlights and compilation shows are less popular now, given audiences can see goal replays almost instantaneously on mobile devices. Fry has noticed that there is less demand for sports documentaries too. “It’s all about the live,” he says.

Meanwhile, leading sports broadcasters like Sky and BT Sport superserve their audiences with sport to attract – and keep - subscribers. North One’s Duncanson cites his company’s coverage of MotoGP for BT Sport, which moved over from the BBC in 2104. “Before BT got the rights, you were very lucky if you saw the podium of a race. Now we are doing three days of coverage for seven hours a day. You can see every practice session, every qualifier, every race – and not just for MotoGP, but for Moto2 and Moto3.”

Many more sports are being produced too. The Paralympics, for example, are covered much more widely than they used to be, while women’s football is growing in popularity. Meanwhile, minority sports that previously had little chance of being seen on TV can now be viewed on dedicated streaming platforms.

Growth area
One of the other big changes in the sports market, says IMG’s Graham Fry, is that federations are now working directly with production companies to produce their own content, often for streaming platforms.

Many federations are doing to so raise the profile, and ultimately revenues, for their sport. It’s proving a popular route for smaller sports if they are unable to interest a broadcaster to take on the rights. “They can stream it on a website, bringing in a production company to cover an event for a fraction of the price than it used to cost with a traditional OB,” says Fry.

“Working with rights holders is a real growth area,” confirms Mark Cole, head of television at Whisper Films, which produces C4’s Formula One and Winter Paralympic Games coverage.

Federation model
Major federations are working directly with producers too. Sunset + Vine’s David Tippett says: “The client is often now different. Broadcasters are still major clients, but we are seeing the emergence of rights owners themselves as clients.”

Sunset + Vine produces the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s coverage for competitions like the Cricket World Cup and T20.  “It’s a fundamental shift in the model,” says Tippett. 
“It allows the ICC to have greater input into coverage, to control the quality of the coverage and to cover events that local broadcasters weren’t always able to.”

Other federations, such as The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), which runs Wimbledon, have taken coverage in house. For the first time, Wimbledon Broadcasting Services (WBS) will have full control over the TV cameras and broadcast output worldwide for this summer’s competition.

The BBC retains the live UK broadcast rights, and will work closely with WBS on its domestic coverage, but final decisions will now lie with the AELTC which can tailor the content to a global audience. It’s reflective of trends across the sport industry for rights holders to take greater control of their own content.

Budget pressures
With so much sport now available, audiences are getting wise to what is properly produced and what is not. Many of the top sports are produced incredibly well. Sky and BT are lauded for the quality of their football coverage. Sky’s cricket and golf is also of a very high standard, as is BT’s rugby coverage.

Below some of these top tier sports, budgets are spread extremely thinly. “There’s a proliferation of live events across all the platforms, but there’s an increase in people trying to do it cheaply too,” says North One’s Neil Duncanson.

Even for some of the big sports, budgets can be an issue. For example, broadcasters may have spent millions to acquire the rights, leaving little left over for production – despite broadcasters wanting ever more content.

IMG’s Graham Fry says: “Broadcasters want a lot more for a lot less money, and as a consequence margins are being squeezed in a pretty big way. All broadcasters are having to pay more for their rights, leaving less for production.” Fry estimates that broadcasters are paying 10-15% less than they were two or three years ago.
For this reason some producers argue that it is sometimes better to work directly for federations rather than broadcasters, as federations want their sport to be produced in the best way possible.

Going remote
Several new ways are emerging, however, for producers and broadcasters to save money creating live sports content.
One of the most significant is the development of remote production. For the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the BBC remotely produced much of the content from its facilities in Salford.

It meant the BBC took fewer of the production team to the events, saving on travel and hotel costs. The presenters were based in a Salford studio, which was dressed to suit each event. The gallery taking the host broadcast feeds direct from the events was also in Salford, as was post production.

“We do have reduced budgets, so we have got to look at efficiencies and how we can deliver sport in a way that the viewer doesn’t notice so much if the budget is cut back,” says Jonny Bramley, executive producer for major events at BBC Sport.

Olympic plans
The BBC is now weighing up the viability of remotely producing the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

The Olympics, of course, are on a completely different scale to the Commonwealth Games. Audience figures will be much higher, and so 
too will be budgets. The bigger scale of the Olympics makes remote production more challenging. There were 55 host feeds from the Rio Olympics, and there will be more from Tokyo as new sports such as surfing and karate have been added to the line-up.

“If noticeable savings can be made, we have to consider it,” says Bramley, who says that he prefers the team to be together if possible, for a number of reasons. Face to face communication is easier, particularly between the presenter and the editor, and the gallery and the production team.

Remote future
Whisper Films also remotely produced content for Channel 4’s coverage of the Winter Paralympic Games. Feeds were brought into a gallery in Ealing Studios, run by Timeline Television, while a peak time highlights show was presented from The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead.

Mark Cole says around 80 people were working on Whisper’s Winter Paralympic coverage: 20 in Korea, 30 in Ealing and 30 in Hemel Hempstead. “Remote production definitely changes budgets. Technically it works well, but you do lose a little in terms of the relationship between producers and presenters.”

IMG also believes that remote production has a strong future. ATP Media has remotely produced its tennis coverage from IMG’s Stockley Park studios in West London for over a year.  As a test, IMG has also covered a Premier League game remotely from Stockley Park, bringing all the camera feeds back to the studio and cutting it as a live match with the director in the gallery.

“It worked perfectly well,” says David Shield, SVP global director of engineering and technology at IMG. “I can easily see football matches in the future being covered remotely.” The cost savings can be considerable, he notes, particularly if one crew can cover two matches in one day from the studio. “You are saving on one complete production crew at a game, and all the travel and accommodation that goes with it.”

“From 2020 onwards, I think there’s every chance we will be cutting more sports events remotely here at Stockley Park.”

Standout sport
Meanwhile, the sheer volume of sport available means that producers must work harder to make it stand out.  “Thinking differently about how you deliver live events is becoming ever more crucial,” says Whisper Films’ Mark Cole. “Simply sitting in a studio and linking to a bit of live sport is not enough.”

Cole adds: “When you are doing a big live event for a broadcaster, there’s more emphasis on taking it to the next level and being more creative. Otherwise, the broadcaster could just put a couple of cameras there and stream it on Facebook – and save an awful lot of money.”

He cites Whisper’s coverage of the Paralympic Winter Games. As well as pundits in the studio, it featured former Paralympic athletes demonstrating what the challenges were for some of the competitors, such as visually impaired skiers.

4k and HDR moves
Tech advances are also helping sports – and all live events – to stand out. 4K is slowly gaining traction in the industry, with BT Sport pioneering the format three years ago.

But the complexity, signal size and the challenge of delivering 4K has held it back. This year, Wimbledon will be available in 4K – but only on the BBC iPlayer. The 2020 Olympics will be filmed in 4K, which is sure to drive take up of the format. “It’s not quite there yet for sport,” says Mark Cole. But I do think it will punch through in the way that HD did.”

IMG’s David Shield is a fan of HDR, while recognizing that demand for 4K is growing. “Everybody will be able to recognize a TV that shows HDR…it has a much bigger wow factor than 4K.”

Others play down the significance of the 4K vs HDR debate. Sunset + Vine’s David Tippett says: “If I’m honest, we aren’t massively concerned with 4K or HDR, because ultimately the decisions with those lie with the client. 4K is just more pixels, and HDR is more vibrant colour essentially. It’s often driven by the manufacturers to sell more equipment. Without doubt, it improves viewer satisfaction. What we try to focus on more is production tools which help tell the story better or are game changers in terms of the coverage of sport.”

Tech advances
Cameras are a particular focus. He cites the Antelope PICO Extreme Slow Motion cameras used for Sunset + Vine’s host broadcast coverage of the London 2017 Athletics World Championships. “They offered lovely replay shots, particularly for field events like high jump, long jump and the throws.” Sunset + Vine also developed rail cameras with extreme slow motion options too, alongside normal cameras.

Technology is also important for North One’s Formula E host broadcast coverage. For a recent Rome event, it took 30 circuit cameras, 40 on board cameras, a cable camera, hele tele, a race control spy cam and five feature cameras – and a crew of 145. Its CamCat cable camera can move at speeds of 100mph, while North One is experimenting with kit that can measure the stress levels on team bosses in real time.

But it is easy to get carried away with the tech, says North One’s Neil Duncanson. “A bigger deal than anyone piece of tech is how you tell the story. If there is one mantra that has been drilled in to me, it’s that if you can tell a story simply, with good people in an entertaining way, then you are more than half way there.”

The Royal wedding
It’s true for non-sports live events too. Storytelling is becoming more and more important, confirms BBC Events executive producer Claire Popplewell. “You can have all the technology in the world, the greatest camera angles and beautiful sound, but if your narrative and your story isn’t there, you haven’t got anything.”

She says that, over the years, technology has become more discreet – particularly the size of cameras – allowing big events to be covered in 
a more intimate way.  That’s especially important when filming events like the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  The majority of the cameras at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle were remote cameras.

“Ultimately, it is somebody’s wedding day, so as much as it is the biggest TV event of the year, it is about two people declaring their love for each other. The way you plan and shoot it is hopefully sympathetic and not too intrusive.”

Wedding planning
The BBC events team started planning for the wedding coverage in January. “The first thing is to get everybody on the same side and going in the same direction, whether that is talking to the royal household, or the team at Windsor Castle or St George’s Chapel or the Royal Parks in London,” says Popplewell. “So much is down to relationships and trust.”

The BBC then agreed a camera plan with the royal household and the chapel, and provided the host broadcast from inside the Castle and the Chapel, while coverage in the town was a pooled operation with ITN and Sky. “The most important people are the bride and groom, then the family and their guest. Ideally you don’t want people to notice you are there. If they are having a good time and relax, the atmosphere is much better and the event will go better too.”

Festival focus
Although not quite on the scale of a Royal wedding, the demands of producing a live music event are high.

CC-Labs’s Jason Hocking reckons they can be more demanding than sports events. He cites the Isle of White Festival, which it produced in UHD for Sky Arts last year. For a start there are two stages, one with 10-12 cameras, the other with 6-8 cameras. There are also presentation areas to film, an acoustic set and also crews roaming on site.

“If you add all that together, it’s quite a workflow challenge, because UHD has so much more data,” says Hocking. Pre-planning and flexibility on the ground are crucial he adds, especially when producing eight hours of coverage a day.

This summer CC-Labs is producing the Isle of White Festival in UHD and Dolby Atmos. The challenge of capturing high quality audio is “a head scratching conundrum” says Hocking. It’s not just a technical challenge. Bands are often more concerned about audio than video quality, so artists and their management get involved in the approvals process too.

Event TV
Beyond music and ceremonial, there is a growing demand for live entertainment ‘events’ too. Whizz Kid’s Malcolm Gerrie cites ITV’s success with shows like The Real 
Full Monty. “You’re going to see more and more of this, because there seems to be a fatigue with a lot of traditional entertainment shows. But if you can wrap them into an event, and really make an appointment to view, you get more bang for your buck.”

Posted 25 June 2018 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: A Very English Scandal

The stars have very much collided – both on and off screen – in BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal.

Starring Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw, the three-part biopic of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, is written by Russell T Davies and directed by Stephen Frears. Talent is sprinkled throughout the project; for example, the cinematographer is Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech), while it is produced by Dan Winch (Broadchurch).

Fittingly for a production which melds talent from the big and small screen, it’s also the first drama from Blueprint Television, the new TV arm of film producer Blueprint Pictures (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

The genesis of the project dates back to 2016, when Blueprint acquired the rights to John Preston’s well reviewed book about Thorpe.

Former EastEnders boss Dominic Treadwell-Collins had just arrived as the new head of Blueprint Television. He sent a copy to Russell T Davies, who says he had always been interested in the Thorpe story. It was, says Davies, a “big gay story when I was a young lad, which was rare, so I had always had it in mind.”

Intitially, though, he thought he was too busy to take it on. But when the book arrived from Blueprint, he says it sat like a ‘radioactive tablet’ on his desk. “I started to read it and I’m not kidding, within about three pages, I knew I was going to do it.”
With Russell T Davies on board, Treadwell-Collins pitched the project to BBC senior drama commissioning editor Lucy Richer, who quickly said yes to the project. Amazon later took US rights.

Meanwhile, Blueprint’s film contacts led to Stephen Frears. The combination of Frears and Davies in turn attracted more talent. Frears, for example, had recently worked with Hugh Grant on comedy drama Florence Foster Jenkins.

Treadwell-Collins says he knew the combination of Frears and Davies wouldn’t necessarily make for an easy ride during production. “You’ve got two geniuses – two men who are utter perfectionists.”

He recalls turning on his phone at 7am in the morning, and seeing a stream of late night emails between Frears and Davies. “You would see a very clever, very passionate argument raging through the night. And eventually they would both find a way of agreeing on the way forward.”

That, he adds, was the attraction of working with them – although he and producer Dan Winch have a few more grey hairs as a result. “Brilliant people aren’t always going to lie back and agree with each other. You want the argument because you want the best possible result at the end. In an age when so much TV is being made, you want to be A*, not B+.”

Treadwell-Collins said a key early appointment was a producer ‘who could handle all this and be practical on the ground’. Winch boarded A Very English Scandal last June, ahead of a 10 week shoot which wrapped in early December.
One of Winch’s first jobs was to lock in key heads of departments – such as production designer Helen Scott, costume designer Suzanne Cave and make up artist Daniel Phillips. Then it was about making sure that everyone was ‘clear on the ambition of Russell’s scripts and Stephen’s vision’.

Costumes and make up were key. Hugh Grant spent hours in make-up tests to create a likeness of Thorpe. Plenty of research went into costumes too. “It’s very easy to research costumes, but a whole other level of achievement to make the artists feel like they belong in the costumes, and are not caricatures,” says Winch.

Treadwell-Collins credits Hugh Grant with ‘forensic levels of research’ when approaching the part of Thorpe. “He doesn’t just imitate him, but embodies him.”

Based at Ealing Studios, the production – which had a cast and crew of around 100 – also filmed in Devon, Wales, the outskirts of London and Manchester, where the Town Hall doubled for Parliament.

DoP Danny Cohen filmed with a Red camera. He sought to bring out the vibrancy and colour of the period, rather than the browns and dark oaks of so many political dramas. This was also emphasised in the grade at Goldcrest, which handled post production. The Flying Colour Company looked after visual effects.

The vibrant look in many ways mirrors the drama’s tone. But, because it’s a true story, the drama needed ‘one foot on the ground,’ says Treadwell-Collins. “Stephen very much brings that to it – it is lavish and real and true.

Russell’s writing is also lavish and true, but Russell has the tone of John Preston’s book which is more rambunctious. As such, he reckons A Very English Scandal captures the essence of the writer and director. “It’s as if Russell motors along and Stephen, the slightly older man, just goes, ‘Slow down there…’”

A Very English Scandal (3x60-mins) is the true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy to murder. It is the late 1960s, homosexuality has only just been decriminalised, and Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), the leader of the Liberal party, has a secret he’s desperate to hide. As long as his ex-lover Norman Scott (Ben Wishaw) is around, Thorpe’s brilliant career is at risk.

Writer Russell T Davies
Director Stephen Frears
Exec producers Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin for Blueprint Television and Lucy Richer for the BBC Producer Dan Winch
DP Danny Cohen
First assistant director Chris Stoaling
Production designer
Helen Scott
Costume designer
Suzanne Cave
Make up & hair Daniel Phillips
Production sound mixer Alistair Crocker
Editor Pia Di Caula
Casting Leo Davis, Lissy Holm
Location managers Alex Gladstone, Matt Winter
Original music Murray Gold
Camera Red Weapon Helium S35
Post production Goldcrest
VFX The Flying Colour Company

Posted 18 May 2018 by Tim Dams

The Genre Report: Entertainment and Comedy

For a while now, TV drama has been in the ascendant with few fresh hits emerging in the world of TV entertainment.
In a two-part special, Tim Dams reports on TV’s fresh focus on entertainment, and new directions in comedy

Just a few months ago, there was something of a pall hanging over the entertainment genre.

Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, ITV director of programmes Kevin Lygo noted that “there haven’t really been any entertainment shows in almost 10 years that have taken the world by storm”, while former C4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said the genre had been “moribund for a long time”.

Their comments underlined the harsh reality of the genre – that landing big new entertainment shows remains difficult, particularly when broadcasters have preferred to play it safe on Saturday nights with tried and tested formats such as The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, The Voice and I’m A Celebrity.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and there is plenty going on. For the past year or so, broadcasters have been ploughing time and energy into searching for new entertainment formats or attempting to resurrect heritage hits.

One industry exec estimates that there are up to 100 entertainment shows in paid development across the main broadcasters. Asked about the BBC’s entertainment strategy, controller of entertainment commissioning Kate Phillips picks on the word experimentation. “I’m trying lots of ideas – and so are all the other channels,” she says.

ITV is also readying a slew of new ideas, while Channel 4 is focusing on entertainment in a way that it hasn’t for years. Channel 5 is experimenting more with the genre after the relaunch of Blind Date last summer, and UKTV now sees itself as a predominantly entertainment network having created a raft of home grown entertainment hits such as Taskmaster. Over at the streaming platforms, Facebook, is hunting ‘appointment-to-view’ formats as its push into original programming gathers pace.

It’s not just new entertainment ideas that are being trialled though. Many classic entertainment hits are being rebooted, aiming to appeal to older fans and a new generation of viewers. ITV relaunched Dancing on Ice in January and is prepping the return of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, while the BBC is bringing back The Generation Game. C4 has relaunched The Price is Right and The Crystal Maze, and C5 is readying another series of Blind Date for this summer.

The reasons for the renewed focus on entertainment are clear. Drama has been the headline story in TV for several years now, with millions invested in shows like The Crown and McMafia. But, at a time when broadcaster revenues are under pressure, entertainment is the place to go for a cost effective way to win audiences. For a reasonable budget, an entertainment show can deliver amazing viewing figures. For example, ITV’s decision to resurrect Dancing on Ice paid off handsomely with a launch audience of 7.5m (compared to McMafia’s 5.6m). Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, meanwhile, was the top rating show in the final week of February, returning with audiences of 7.6m and a 37% share.

Live entertainment shows that bring together the whole family are also seen as a key weapon in a broadcaster’s armoury in their fight against the library offer of online players like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

At a time of political and economic uncertainty, many producers and broadcasters also say that viewers are increasingly hankering after joyful and fun distractions. “Most people are good at heart, and want to be uplifted,” says ITV’s head of entertainment commissioning Siobhan Greene.

It’s no wonder, says C4 head of entertainment and TV events Ed Havard, that broadcaster demand for new entertainment ideas is stronger than it has ever been. “There’s been a factual renaissance, and a drama renaissance. Now it is entertainment’s turn.”

Steve North, the genre general manager for UKTV’s comedy & entertainment channels, says there is huge competition among broadcasters for the best ideas and biggest names. “We are all pushing is much more competitive.”

Producers confirm this broadcaster take. Talkback Thames md Leon Wilson says the entertainment market is “actually quite positive”. The demand from broadcasters is straightforward too, he explains. They want clear, simple formats; there is little point pitching ideas with nuance or where the format is unclear. Big name talent also has to be attached to help a show to stand out. “The expectations around talent are bigger than ever,” says Wilson.

The trend for shows that are generous-hearted rather than confrontational continues too. ‘Nasty’ formats like Big Brother and Weakest Link – which thrived at the turn of the century when the economy was booming – have very much fallen out of favour. By comparison, some of the top shows on TV are those that exhibit warmth, humour and entertainment – from Strictly through to Bake Off.

The most recent series of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, for example, traded conflict for warmth, with many of the camp mates bonding in a way they might not have done years ago. Producers say digital channels are often a better space to try out shows that put conflict to the fore, citing the success of Roast Battle on Comedy Central.

At the BBC, head of entertainment Kate Phillips overseas a huge entertainment slate, spanning over 500 hours of content, including The Apprentice, Masterchef, Top Gear, Dragons’ Den, The Graham Norton Show, Have I Got News For You, Would I Lie To You?, Pointless, Strictly, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show and Robot Wars. Despite this established slate, she stresses the BBC’s doors are open to new entertainment ideas, saying that director of content Charlotte Moore is supportive of trying new shows and taking risks in the genre.

She cites the singing contest All Together Now, which launched in January. “It’s a big play for us,” she says, noting that producers Remarkable have “landed a very distinctive, fun, fresh format for us.” She picks up on the fact that 100 judges from the audience choose the winning talent. “I immediately thought I have never seen that before.”

Phillips also highlights The Mash Report. “Launching a new satirical show is never easy but we’re really pleased with the way The Mash Report has landed on BBC2. It has given us an opportunity to work with new writers and comics.“ She says that as well as good ratings, sketches from the programme have gone viral; Rachel Parris’s piece on how not to sexually harass someone has clocked up 26m views.

Coming up, Phillips cites The Button, a new game show from Avalon. The show will visit five families each week, placing a talking button in their front room which issues spontaneous challenges against the clock to win a cash prize. Phillips says that on the surface it might seem a simple idea, but underneath it is deceptively complex – fixed rig cameras in each house allow the families to compete in real time against each other.

Looking ahead, she says big, ambitious Saturday night entertainment shows are a priority. “We want people to think big – we get pitched a lot of middling shows.” Elsewhere, she notes that BBC3 is a natural home for growing new and diverse talent.

Over at ITV, head of entertainment Siobhan Greene stresses that “entertainment is at the heart of ITV and what happens at the weekend.” She picks out Saturday Night Takeaway as an example of the power of entertainment shows to alter the mood of audiences. “It’s a lightening rod for bringing joy to millions of people. It’s the most uplifting, joyful show we do, and is very close to my heart. There is nothing cynical about it.”

Shows that are well executed and have those values are the big hits of today, she explains, citing Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity as well.

ITV has also enjoyed success by bringing back Dancing On Ice. “Resting it did it the greatest favour,” she says. Greene argues that, contrary to popular belief, the show never limped off four years ago and was loved by audiences. She adds a literary quote from James Joyce – “Absence is the highest form of presence” – to explain its newfound popularity.

That said, it wasn’t a simple matter of replicating the format. The ice rink was built in a new venue, the practice rink was introduced and the lighting and graphics have been overhauled too. “You can’t just bring it back, that is not enough. The set needed to shift and move on – we’ve looked at every area.”

Would The X Factor benefit from a similar rest? The once mighty series averaged more than 14 million in 2010, but last year’s run ended with 5.8 million – the lowest since at least 2006. Greene says ITV is committed to the show and won’t be resting it, citing a three year deal with Simon Cowell that will keep it on ITV until at least 2019. “There is a groundswell of love for The X Factor,” she says. The success of such shows, she adds, is hard won – and they need to be nurtured.

It’s a point backed up across the industry, where there is an acknowledgement that ratings for all shows have been coming down year on year as a result of digital competition, and that it is now incredibly hard to find shows that will rate more than five million.

Greene picks out a number of shows to illustrate the direction of travel for the entertainment genre at ITV. Coming up is Last Laugh in Vegas, which will see veteran entertainers like Cannon and Ball and Sue Pollard prepare and put on a show in Sin City. It’s as much about ageing and relationships, as it is entertainment.  She also cites Ant & Dec’s DNA Journey, which uses a combination of DNA and genealogy research to plot their family histories, from Newcastle to Neanderthal. “It’s one of the best things we have ever done,” says Greene.

There’s also new musical game show Change Your Tune, produced by Twofour – the makers of This Time Next Year. The series is similarly billed as a ‘time travel’ format which will allow viewers to see the transformations from awful singer to a polished performer in an instant. Greene describes the series as ‘warm and uplifting.’

Channel 4
Meanwhile, C4 is focusing intently on entertainment, in particular experimenting with talent led formats. Head of entertainment Ed Havard says his new entertainment team has been busy for months, investing a lot more in development and now has 20/30 ideas that all have the potential to grow into something bigger. Some are at pilot stage, others are in paid development.

Havard says a focus on talent has given Channel 4 “a way back in to authored entertainment”. He also says entertainment is particularly important for terrestrial broadcasters like C4 to “bring a greater sense of anarchy” to the schedule. “Entertainment is one of the genres that can offer something very different to what people are getting on SVoD.” Havard explains that the 11pm slot has opened up once again for entertainment ideas with the ambition of bringing on a new generation of talent. It’s a slot, he says, where producers can genuinely feel comfortable taking a risk and experimenting.

He cites recently announced non-TX pilot, The Big Narstie Show (w/t), produced by Expectation. Grime MC Big Narstie will team up with co-host Mo Gilligan and celebrity guests to present original, straight-talking segments on the news of the week, TV, showbiz, trends, phone-ins, and food.

C4 is trialling ideas for 9pm and 10pm too. Coming up is the Alan Carr-hosted I Don’t Like Mondays which offers the chance for a member of the studio audience to win a paid year-off work.

Channel 5
C5 is dipping its toes into more entertainment. Last year’s run of Blind Date was the first studio based entertainment show it had commissioned for many years. “When the opportunity to bring it back presented itself, we were on board from day one,” says C5 commissioning editor Sean Doyle.

Not only is Blind Date a well known heritage format, but it also gave C5 the opportunity to counter-schedule against the Saturday night singing contests on BBC1 and ITV. The show has been a launch pad for the broadcaster to get back into entertainment and try other ideas, such as Celeb Wind Ups and Before They Were Stars. C5 is also looking for a new quiz show, and plans to order a non-TX quiz pilot. In Solitary, in which members of the public are challenged to spend five days in solitary confinement, will also come back this year with more of an entertainment feel and with celebrities as the main participants.

Doyle notes that C5 had lots of entertainment pitches after the Blind Date commission, but points out that the channel has to be “really precise” in what it commissions. “When it comes to Saturday night entertainment on Channel 5, talent is still key for me at the moment. We either need big names who drive an audience or to use talent you wouldn’t expect in a prime-time entertainment vehicle.”

UKTV has become a significant player in the entertainment genre, which is remarkable given that five years ago its push to boost original content was focused on the lifestyle genre, specifically food and home programming.

UKTV’s lead channels – Dave, Gold and W – are based around entertainment. “There are enormous opportunities for us in entertainment, precisely because some networks are focusing on factual or drama,” says UKTV director of commissioning Richard Watsham.

Watsham credits the commission of 2013 series Dynamo: Mission Impossible as showing UKTV the potential opportunities in entertainment.

Since then, the network has greenlit acclaimed series such as Red Dwarf, Zapped, Murder on the Blackpool Express and Taskmaster. In 2018, it plans to increase commissioned hours by around a third from indies. Coming up on Dave, for example, are comedy format Jon Richardson: Ultimate Worrier from Talkback Thames and Judge Romesh, from Hungry Bear Media, which sees Romesh Ranganathan hold court over real-life disputes. Watsham says he’s after shows that are different from other broadcasters.

Steve North, the genre general manager for comedy and entertainment channels, talks up the partnership with talent and producers that UKTV can offer. UKTV, he notes, has become home to talent such as Dara O’Brien, John Bishop and Johnny Vegas. “10-15 years ago, these people wouldn’t have looked twice at UKTV. Now they come to us with ideas and trust us to make and broadcast their shows.”

Profane and absolutely brilliant: Derry Girls is the funniest thing on TV,” ran The Guardian headline for its review of Lisa McGee’s new Channel 4 sitcom.

Speaking soon after the show landed, C4’s head of comedy Fiona McDermott sounds understandably pleased at the performance of the Northern Ireland set series, noting how hard it is nowadays to launch a successful comedy.

“It is all about backing a writer. Our best shows are when we back writers who write shows that no-one else could. Only Lisa McGee could write about being a Catholic girl in 1990s Derry.”
At first sight, the shows seems an unpromising potential comedy hit – a cast of unknowns, set in a remote part of the UK still synonymous with The Troubles. Yet it also has many of the key elements of a traditional sitcom – it’s set in the familiar precinct of a school and is about ordinary family people in extraordinary times.

As such, the show is a neat example of the diverse kinds of comedy that many broadcasters now say they are looking for.

Over at the BBC, controller of comedy commissioning Shane Allen says he is on the look out for shows that are “specific and reflective of certain communities and subcultures” and that “are very rooted in British settings.” Citing BBC hits such as This Country and Car Share, he says audiences are warming to a sense of place in comedy shows.

This of course plays neatly to the diversity agenda that is so prominent at broadcasters in 2018 – as well as a desire to reflect the reality of modern Britain. “We are looking for a diverse range – in setting, class, race, age and gender,” says C4’s McDermott.

It’s the same at Sky too. Head of comedy Jon Mountague says the#metoo and #oscarssowhite campaigns have created “a bit of a sea change around diversity”. The audience is demanding change, he says, which is great because it allows broadcasters to tell more stories. “I still think British comedy has too few diverse voices. When I get lists of talent who are hot sent through to me, they tend to be white and male.”

Progress has, of course, been made. Female writers and actors such as Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller Bridge and Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel are among the comedy industry’s biggest stars.

Casting an eye over the comedy landscape, execs say that the industry is holding up to the challenges posed by streaming players Netflix and Amazon. Comedy shines in the on-demand era, says the BBC’s Shane Allen, noting that a series like White Gold gets an additional 50% lift from viewing on BBC iPlayer. Similarly, Inside Number 9 might get 1m overnight, then double on iPlayer. Car Share, meanwhile, was a huge hit on BBC iPlayer, attracting over 10.6m requests for its second series. “Comedy is the king of catch up,” says Allen.

It’s for this reason that Sky – now a major player in the genre thanks to hits such as Stella – is looking for premium comedy with a box set feel, much of it that would fit comfortably in the 10pm slot on the linear schedule, says Jon Montague, who notes that an increasing amount of Sky shows are being viewed on catch-up. “The focus for us is about creating shows that customers think are worth paying for.” He picks out programmes such as David Walliams’ Ratburger, which achieved a cumulative audience of 2.61m – the biggest audience that the channel has had across all genres for five years.

Posted 19 April 2018 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: C4 and Netflix's Kiss Me First

In a TV world awash with new drama, there is little out there that looks like Kiss Me First.

A thriller adapted by Skins writer Byran Elsley, Kiss Me First combines live action scenes with impressive CG virtual world sequences.

Sophisticated TV animation usually takes too long and is too costly for most scripted shows. Yet this co-production from drama and comedy producer Kindle Entertainment and Elsley’s Balloon Entertainment, which is backed by Channel 4 and Netflix, has tackled the animation challenge head on. Up to 30% of its screen time comprises sustained animation sequences.

Kiss Me First is adapted from the book for young adults by Lottie Moggach, which Kindle Entertainment’s Melanie Stokes optioned four years ago at manuscript stage. With three teenage (triplet) daughters, Stokes was keenly aware of the psychological and emotional impact of the internet on a new generation of adolescents – an area she felt TV hadn’t really engaged with. Moggach’s book confronted this directly and, crucially, had a thriller format, making it ripe for a drama adaptation.

Stokes gave the book to read to Elsley after meeting him while speaking together on a panel at a festival in Galway. “I usually say a blanket no to adaptation proposals, but something about this book caught my attention,” recalls Elsley.

Describing Moggach’s book as a “strange, elusive piece”, Elsley explains that he is interested in narratives about parallel worlds. “One of my favourite films of all time is Mary Poppins. I vividly remember going to see it as a child, and when Mary and her kids jump through the pavement into the animated world, I couldn’t imagine that such trickery could exist in the world.”

The project was taken first to E4, which agreed to develop the script. Then Elsley went to LA to meet with Netflix, which boarded Kiss Me First as a co-producer, taking rights outside the UK.

A key early decision was to change the setting of the book, originally based around chat rooms, to the world of virtual reality games. “Chat rooms in a TV series are not that televisual,” says Elsley. Conceptually, this was a very easy narrative step to take, says Elsley. “Practically, it involved upending everything you know about television production.”

Kindle then introduced Glasgow’s Axis Animation to the project. Stokes says it was crucial to find an ‘extraordinary’ animation partner like Axis which knew the worlds of computer gaming as well as how to tell a story through animation. Stokes also wanted to work with a UK animation studio if possible, rather than one from overseas, aware that the tone of complex projects can change if the partners are working in different time zones.

It was at this point that one of the central challenges facing TV animation started to become clear - creating believable animated characters who can express complex emotions.  For example, Elsley told Axis he was writing a complicated fight sequence in the first episode which he thought would be difficult to pull off. “Axis said, ‘Actually we do that every day of the week. The problem for us is that you have all sorts of expressive nuances in the faces of your characters – and that is very hard to achieve.’”

For Kiss Me First, Axis used motion capture techniques to underpin the animated sequences. A storyboard was first created for the animation elements. Then the lead actors were filmed using motion capture technology, which took place at Shepperton Studios.

Stokes said two key lessons were learned during the animation process. Firstly, that the flatter the performance of the actors the better – anything too exaggerated would jump out and look distracting. And secondly, the animated character couldn’t look too similar to its real counterpart – an idealized, painterly version of the performers “gives them more soul.”

The live action shoot took place over four months, with one episode filming in Croatia and the rest in West London. The animation process, by contrast, took 18 months. In many ways, it was the complete opposite to the often fluid and flexible of making a typical TV drama. Animation is, necessarily, much more involved and precise.  “Everything needs to be agreed and nailed down to the floor,” points out Stokes, who says it took some time to work out how to get the two disciplines to work together effectively.

Elsley adds: “We had to go through quite a lot of trial and error – and there was quite a lot of error, let me tell you – to work out how to make our workflow feel like a TV production. Having done it once now, we feel that we’ve worked out the algorithm.”

The whole process, he adds, has left him with a new respect for the computer games world. “There’s an extraordinary level of creativity and audience that in some respects TV can only dream of.”

Kiss Me First moves between the real and virtual animated worlds. When Leila (Tallulah Haddon) stumbles across a secret paradise, hidden on the edges of her favourite computer game, she meets Tess (Simona Brown). Tess is everything that Leila is not: hedonistic, impulsive and insatiable. So when Tess turns up in Leila’s real life uninvited, Leila’s world is forever changed. But then a member of the group mysteriously disappears and Leila begins to suspect that maybe the hidden sanctuary isn’t the digital Eden it seems.

Broadcasters Channel 4, Netflix
Production companies Kindle Entertainment, Balloon Entertainment
Animation Axis Animation
Exec producers Bryan Elsley, Melanie Stokes
Producer Bradley Adams
Adapted by Bryan Elsley
Directors Misha Manson-Smith, Tom Green
Animation director Kan Muftic
DoP Jamie Carney
Post The Farm

Posted 26 March 2018 by Tim Dams

Britannia: behind the scenes

Druids and Ancient Britons battle it out with Roman invaders in Sky and Amazon’s big budget Britannia. Tim Dams reports

In many ways, Britannia symbolises the new era of high end drama production in the UK.

A tale of British tribes and druids uniting to resist the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD, this sword and sandals spectacular is clearly pitched at the global audience that has lapped up Game of Thrones.

A co-production between broadcaster Sky and streaming giant Amazon, it comes with the necessary big budget and high production values too, and was shot in Wales and the Czech Republic. Sky won’t reveal the exact figure, but the broadcaster bills the series as its ‘most ambitious ever.’ Amazon has US rights.

And finally, it boasts the kind of on- and off-screen talent needed to make a drama stand out on the international market – including writer Jez Butterworth (Spectre, Jerusalem), Star Wars producer Rick McCallum and actors Kelly Reilly, David Morrissey and Zoe Wannamaker.

A filmic approach
Britannia is also the first TV drama for British film producer Vertigo Films, which has dozens of features to its name including Streetdance, Monsters and Walking on Sunshine. Vertigo is just the latest in a line of film companies to produce for the small screen, a move that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago before the rise of high end television drama.

As such, says executive producer James Richardson, it was a baptism of fire for him and for Jez Butterworth, for whom Britannia is his first TV project too.

“You have no idea how much respect I have for my colleagues in the TV business,” says Richardson. “It’s the length of it. When you think it is all over, you have got the next script and episode to make and to edit. It is a relentless process.”

Richardson traces the genesis of Britannia back to a trip to the AFM (American Film Market) four years ago – a time when Netflix was on the rise and starting to disrupt the industry. “There was something in the air that said the indie film business was in a very different place, a declining space.” He and his business partner Allan Niblo decided there and then to launch a TV division.

It wasn’t just a business decision though, but a creative one too. “I had made 35 films and I felt I wasn’t getting inspired by film like I used to.” Film, he says, blossomed creatively in the 1970s. But it is rare to find films that are really surprising today, he says. “We have got this three act structure where you kind of know what is going to happen at the end of the first, second and third act.” TV drama is where the creative boundaries are being pushed now, says Richardson.

Richardson started to develop a project about the warrior queen Boudicca, which morphed into a project about the Romans, Celts and Druids – an area he felt had never been properly explored on screen. “I was pitching as a bit like Star Wars, but with ancient Britons,” he says.

At this point, he talked to Jez Butterworth (who happens to be his brother-in-law) about the project. “Jez is one of my oldest friends, and he is also married to my sister. We always said we would never work together.” But the pair started to talk about projects more seriously a few years ago. “With someone like Jez, he is so brilliant and extraordinary you kind of just have to surf with him, catch one of his crazy waves and see where you go with it. It’s incredibly exciting.”

“And he just said, I know what to do with this – it is going to be my first TV show.”

Butterworth was interested in exploring the ‘myth angle’ of ancient Britain, particularly the cultures that had been irrevocably altered by the Roman invasion, having been inspired by a book called A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.

Britannia explores the lost world of ancient British tribes, imagining how they might have lived. But it is a freewheeling romp through the period, rather than an historical piece. The focus, stresses Richardson, is very much on story, not history. “We had a brilliant historical advisor, Jonathan Stamp, who had worked on Rome, and we asked him to tell us about the druids. He said the great thing about what you are doing – we know about 40% of what the Romans did, 20% of what the Celts did, and we know nothing about what the Druids did. You can do whatever you want.”

Richardson says that Vertigo, which has executive produced the series with Neal Street, approached Britannia as it would one of its movies. He describes Vertigo films, whether Bronson or Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, as ‘not normal, classical fare’.  “If we are making a show about Britain in 43AD, let’s make it look and feel very different and extraordinary – let’s challenge it and push it and tell a story that has scale, but not just visually. This show goes mental as it goes on – what you started watching at the beginning is totally different by the end.”

The push into television looks to be paying off for Vertigo. The company is also making new police drama Bulletproof, starring Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke, for Sky, together with Company Pictures. Another project is soon to be announced, adds Richardson. “There is so much opportunity and disruption in TV, which creatively is the most exciting place to be.”

Distributor Sky Vision has invested heavily in Britannia, taking international rights outside the US and UK.  Sky was marketing the drama aggressively at last month’s Mipcom programme market, with a red carpet premiere screening and a lavish beach side party for international buyers.

The scale of funding now needed for standout drama means that the risks have increased for investors like Sky Vision. “It used to be that drama advances were at best top up funding and an advance against distribution rights. Now our advances have gone from 10% of budget up to 60%,” says Jane Millichip, managing director of Sky Vision, who stresses that “managing risk” is key for distributors. “Good is no longer good enough in the drama field. Only excellence is, and that means putting in more risk funding and producing brilliant drama.”

For Millichip, however, it all starts with the writing – and the involvement of Jez Butterworth as a writer and director, making his TV debut after huge critical success in the theatre with plays like Jerusalem, was a clear attraction. The ‘common thread’ that Sky Vision looks for in dramas, she adds, is really bold, flavourful worlds and precincts. “We are creating worlds that are very confident in themselves,” she says.

The writer is also key to drawing in top acting talent. “My big attraction to a drama like Britannia is the writing,” says the show’s star, David Morrissey. “If it is someone like Jez – he and Tom (Butterworth) are like showrunners – that is a great carrot, but also a level of comfort for me.”

“You are signing up with those people. And that is where you are putting your trust, and then you as an individual can get in there and get busy as well. You want to be part of the creative team – that is important.”

The drama boom fuelled by Netflix and Amazon that has given risen to large-scale projects like Britannia is, admits Morrissey, rich in opportunity for actors.
Television, he says, has become like a “long form novel” with multiple characters and storylines unfolding over many episodes which viewers can binge watch whenever suits them.

Viewers want to watch over many series too, and this has had an effect on acting talent. “For me, the one difference compared to ten years ago is that when I come into a TV project, they are probably looking for a three year option in your contract. In America if you go and do a TV pilot, you will sign a seven year deal – that has been the case for a long time. But now in the UK that is coming in a bit, particularly for a two or three year option. Britannia is a three year option, but whether they use you for three years …but you are not surprised if it comes at you.”

Morrissey says the other attractive factor about the drama revolution for actors is that it is “creative driven”, citing shows like Narcos, Gomorrah and The Crown. “You hear people talk about the creative licence they got to make their show – and it is true of Britannia as well.”

When the Romans invade Britain in 43AD, Kerra (Kelly Reilly), daughter of the King of the Cantii, is forced to put her differences aside with arch-rival Queen Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker) to face their invaders. The Romans, led by General Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey), are determined to succeed where Julius Caesar failed and conquer this mythical land at the far edge of the Roman Empire. As tribes and Druids unite to fight the Romans, Kerra spearheads the resistance against the might of the Roman army.

Co-produced by
Sky and Amazon
Production companies
Vertigo Films, Neal Street
Created by
Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson
Executive producers
James Richardson, Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Nicolas Brown, Jez Butterworth and Anne Thomopoulos
Rick McCallum
Jez and Tom Butterworth, Richard McBrien

Posted 19 December 2017 by Tim Dams

Report: the huge growth of the UK's studios sector

New studios are going up all over the country thanks to the boom in TV drama. Tim Dams reports on the expansion of the UK studio sector

Last month, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan confirmed his backing for a new studio in Dagenham East – the first new TV and film production studios in London for at least 25 years. The move followed publication of a study, led by the economic consultancy SQW, which confirmed that there is more than enough demand for a brand new studio in London. The next step is to find investors to back development of the 20-acre site – nine acres of which is industrial land purchased from Sainsbury’s for £12m last year.

Production figures certainly prove that demand for studio space is high. The production of high-end TV – shows that have a core expenditure of more than £1m per hour – is growing over time. In 2016, 450 scripted original shows aired on American TV, a figure that has doubled since 2010. (It is expected to be even higher in 2017). Netflix’s total spend alone on content is expected to be more than $8bn this year.

Many are choosing to shoot in the UK, attracted by the talent base, attractive tax benefit and the weak pound. The UK production spend of qualifying high-end television programmes was £726 million in 2016.

Around 65% of this expenditure comes from overseas, principally the United States, on shows such as Netflix’s The Crown and HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Studio bosses confirm that business is buoyant, with many benefitting from the rise of high end television drama – which has often made up for a collapse in lower budget film production. Elstree, is home to The Crown, Humans and Grantchester; The Crown uses three stages including George Lucas Stage 1 and the Backlot. Meanwhile, Belfast’s Titanic Studios hosts Game of Thrones, Space Studios Manchester is the base for Cold Feet and Bristol’s Bottle Yard has hosted Poldark, Trollied and Broadchurch.

The Dagenham East study found that TV and film productions typically need large, permanent studio spaces of at least 125,000 sq. ft of stages to meet their needs. But it concluded that demand is so buoyant that a number of major productions are having to be turned away.

Number 9 Films producer Stephen Woolley (Made in Dagenham, Their Finest, On Chesil Beach) said: “The UK is witnessing a real production boom for film and TV and it shows no signs of slowing, so new studio space to complement sites like 3 Mills, Pinewood and Shepperton is terrific news. When we shot Made In Dagenham we actually had to film part of it in Wales – if this site had been an option maybe we could have made the whole film in 
east London”

New studios are, of course, being developed in all corners of the UK to meet demand. In Northern Ireland, the £20m Belfast Harbour Studios project includes over 120,000 sq ft of studios, workshops and offices.
It secured its first production this summer, a Superman prequel Krypton for Syfy channel from Phantom Four in association with Warner Horizon Scripted Television.

Scotland looks set to get its first studio complex, after proposals for six sound stages on the outskirts of Edinburgh were approved this year.  The £230m Pentland Studios project will sit on a 106 acre site and offer studios ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 square feet along with a water stage and workshop and office space.

A new studio, Wolf Studios Wales, is also being readied in Cardiff, in a deal between indie Bad Wolf and the Welsh government. Bad Wolf will film all of their upcoming shows in the studio including the series A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials.

There are also proposals to build more studios at Purfleet (Quartermaster Studios) and North Greenwich.

Meanwhile, existing studios are busy expanding. Pinewood recently applied for planning permission to build another three sound stages. This comes on top of the five it opened last July.

Elstree has finance and approval for a 21,000 sq ft stage on its backlot area. It also intends to build a smaller stage of approximately 11,000 sq ft.

Space Studios Manchester is in the midst of building a sixth stage, measuring 30,000 sq. ft., part of a £14m expansion plan. Leavesden Studios plans to extend facilities at its site by a quarter.

Not all TV dramas, of course, are heavy users of studios – many will be based at a studio, but will shoot on location.

Traditional studios also face competition from warehouses on industrial estates which have been adapted for filming. For example, a former council depot in Hartlepool is set to be converted into a film studio. Screen Yorkshire has converted a former aircraft hangar at Church Fenton into a studio, home to ITV hit Victoria.

Established studios stress their onsite facilities, such as art departments through to camera and lighting hire.  They are also air-conditioned and acoustically treated.

The studio building boom is predominantly focused on sound stages for drama and film, where record growth is taking place. By comparison, fully equipped TV studios – with galleries and shiny floors – are finding business more challenging. They may be busy, but many TV studio execs say that budgets for TV shows remain under pressure (although production aspirations are higher than ever) with studios taking a hit.

At the same time, running a TV studio is expensive; the cost of upgrading them to ever higher technical standards continues to rise.  Television studios say they are having to squeeze in ever more shows and to work harder to make a decent return.

Many well known TV studios, like Fountain and Teddington, have closed after being sold to property developers – an indication that its owners think they can make more money elsewhere. The London Studios also closes next year when ITV redevelops the space.

The plans for a new studio in Dagenham are welcomed by producers because they address a real shortfall of studio space in the UK’s creative hub, London.  However, it is difficult to build new studios in the capital – the demand for housing land in particular is intense, constraining new supply. 
The authors of the report on building the Dagenham studio called it “a rare chance to build a world-class film studio within the boundaries of Greater London. It would support the long-term success of the UK’s booming film and TV production industries while also contributing to the ongoing regeneration of east London and the Thames estuary.”

It concluded that a studio with at least 125,000 sq. ft of stages at Dagenham could generate around 780 full time equivalent jobs and £35m of gross value added (GVA) per year for the economy.
The report concluded that some industry execs believe Dagenham might be a ‘hard sell’, given its distance from the west London heart of the London film business. The report also said that the social aspects of the area, such as its retail and leisure offer and its public realm, will need further thought as part of wider regeneration plans if it is to appeal to such workers. Other challenges need tackling too, not least a noisy railway line running along its southern boundary.

That said, there is strong political support for the project, plus the transport links are good too. The Dagenham studio would also be part of a regional film/TV cluster that included existing studios, such as 3 Mills and Maidstone, and proposed ones at Purfleet (Quartermaster Studios) and North Greenwich.

More importantly, there is the question of demand. Film London estimates that over the past two years the UK has lost between five and ten major productions due to a lack of large-scale (i.e. 125,000 sq ft-plus) studio space. It estimates that a new facility in Dagenham could accommodate anything between three and five of these projects per year.

Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission, said: “This is a golden era for London’s screen industries, and the city’s success helps drive growth in film and TV production across the UK as a whole. However, such success brings its own challenges, and if we’re to maintain our position then we need to make sure we can continue to remain competitive and meet global demand.”

3 Mills

Set amid period buildings on an island in East London, 3 Mills has been busy thanks to high-end TV drama from the US and the UK. It also attracts animation features, plus theatre rehearsals. Facilities 9 filming stages (3,219 sq ft to 13,483 sq ft); 11 rehearsal spaces; production offices,62 seat screening room; make up, dressing and costume rooms; workshops  Credits The Royals (E!), Guilt (ABC), Jekyll & Hyde (ITV)

Bottle Yard

Series four of Poldark is now in production at Bristol’s Bottle Yard, which also recently hosted BBC4’s Eric, Ernie & Me. They add to a raft of dramas which have shot at the studios in the past year.  Facilities Eight stages from 7,000 – 22,000 sq ft; min height 27 ft, max 70 ft; green screen; back lot; costume & make up rooms; offices. Credits Broadchurch (ITV); Ill Behaviour (BBC2); Poldark, (BBC); The White Princess (Starz)

Ealing Studios

Ealing opened for business in 1902 and has been in use ever since - most recently with dramas like The Durrells and Taboo. Stage two was built in 1931 and is a classic sound stage, while stages 3A and 3B can combine into an 11,900 sq ft space. Facilities Five stages, ranging from 924 - 11,900 sq ft; wardrobes, dressing rooms, hair and make up rooms, prop stores,  workshops & office space. Credits The Durrells (ITV), Taboo (BBC1)


Elstree is popular because of its close proximity to London and because two of its stages are some of the biggest in the UK. Facilities Seven film and TV stages. Its two biggest stages are 15,770 sq ft each, and 50ft high. Studios have production galleries, wardrobe, make-up and dressing rooms. Credits The Crown (Netflix), Grantchester (ITV), Humans (C4)

Pinewood Group
Iver Heath

Pinewood now has 40 film and TV stages across three sites: Pinewood, Shepperton and Cardiff. Five new stages opened last July at Pinewood. Facilities 40 film and TV stages; digital and post services; three dedicated TV studios; water facilities; sets and props. Credits When Bowie Met Bolan (Sky Arts) The Collection (Amazon); The Child in Time (BBC1)

Space Studios

A purpose built production stage complex, Space Studios Manchester is investing £14m to expand. A new 30,000 sq ft sound stage opens by the end of the year. Facilities Five stages (9,000-11,000 sq ft); dressing and make up facilities; laundry; prop storage; workshops; offices; canteen. Credits Cold Feet (ITV); The A Word (BBC1)


Best known for hosting Game of Thrones, Titantic Studios is based on the site of a former shipyard in Belfast. Facilities The Paint Hall - four 16,000 sq ft “cells” set out in a square and connected by an internal road and streets. The Hurst and MacQuitty stages comprise two 21,000 sq ft spaces with an eaves height of 43ft Credits Game of Thrones (HB0)


With a good location, a boutique atmosphere and excellent facilities, Twickenham is a popular home for UK indie features and high-end TV drama. Facilities Three sound stages; three Dolby Atmos sound mixing theatres; one Foley/ADR theatre; 2K/4K Baselight theatrical and TV grading facility.Credits Black Mirror (Netflix), Howard’s End (BBC2), Josh (BBC3), Hold the Sunset (BBC1)

Warner Bros

Originally a WWII aircraft factory, Leavesden began a new life as a film studio in 1994 – going on to be the base for all eight Harry Potter films. Warner Bros bought the studios in 2010 and has invested heavily since. Facilities 13 sound stages; 100 acre clear horizon backlot; external water tank and indoor heated water tank; offices, dressing room, workshops, mill. Credits Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Wonder Woman, Justice League; The Conjuring 2

Wimbledon Studios

Wimbledon offers two stages close to central London. It’s also home to a purpose built, permanent exterior street set which has terraced housing, a fully dressed pub, shop and takeaways. Facilities Two sound stages: Studio 1 is 7,000 sq ft, Studio 2 is over 8,000 sq ft; office suites; workshops; costume facilities; dressing rooms; hair and make up facilities. Credits Bad Education (C4), Drifters (E4), Cuckoo (BBC3)

Posted 14 December 2017 by Tim Dams

Focus 2017 report: the impact of the global production boom

From high-end TV dramas such as The Night Manager, The Crown and Game of Thrones to big budget movies such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Justice League, there has been a well-documented boom in international production in recent years.

Money has poured into film and TV production, with tech giants such as Netflix and Amazon backing lavish shows that are shot all over the world.  It’s not just scripted content though; video production of all kinds is on the up, whether factual TV, commercials or branded content, as consumers around the world embrace new ways of viewing content on mobile platforms. Demand for talent and crew as well as production services and facilities has shot up as result.

The impact of this global production boom was the big talking point at FOCUS 2017, the annual show for the creative screen industries held at the Business Design Centre in London (December 5&6) which has Televisual as a media partner.

Exhibitors at the show included film commissions, location providers, service companies and production technology outfits from over 60 countries. They were all there to tap into this production boom, looking to attract the interest of hundreds of attendees, such as producers, directors, location managers, unit managers, financiers and writers for films, TV, commercials and branded content. (Delegates this year included Spectre executive producer Callum McDougall and Star Wars: The Last Jedi supervising location manager Martin Joy).

One of the reasons so many exhibitors from around the world were there is that the rewards for attracting a high profile project are greater than ever in this era of big budget production. Securing a location shoot for a show like Game of Thrones, with its reported budget of $10m an episode, is a major prize, and can significantly boost a local economy, providing spillover employment and spend throughout a region.

All this explains why there was, for example, a large contingent of Sri Lankan companies at the show. One of them, production service outfit Asian Film Location Services, was keen to explain the merits of shooting in a film-friendly country that in the past hosted features such as The Bridge of the River Kwai or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but lost out as a result of the Civil War which finally ended in 2009. “We’re now going out to tell the world that Sri Lanka is operating as normal,” says director Jayantha Jayatilaka.

So too was Uganda’s Talking Film Productions, which has worked on features such as Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and Marvel Studio’s upcoming Black Panther. Derrick Kibisi’s company offers a full range of services from securing locations to casting and moving gear in and out of the country. For a long time, Uganda was known as Idi Amin country, he explains. But that’s changing, and more productions are drawn by Uganda’s landscape, security, good weather, friendly people and competitive prices. “The only thing it lacks is incentives, but it is still the cheapest place to shoot in East Africa.”

Even Film LA, based right at the heart of the global film industry, was at FOCUS. The Los Angeles region is vying to win back many of the Hollywood films that shoot outside the state, attracted by generous government incentives and cheaper labour rates. “We’re here to let people know that California is competitive again,” says Film LA’s Paul Audley, citing its tax credit and a single shooting permit that covers 20 cities in the state. It’s Audley’s third year at FOCUS; in his first year he says he attracted a $30m film to Los Angeles. “It’s my only foray into Europe and a good place to be and to meet people.”

Other stands showed off the latest in new production technology from around the world, explaining how they can help film-makers. Netherlands-based WeMakeVR was at the show, displaying its virtual reality experiences. VR, says lead producer Diede Bron, is great for showing locations, saving on travel costs. Because it is seen as so cutting edge, VR is also gaining popularity for commercial shoots, for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger.

There were plenty of financial and tech companies at FOCUS too, offering clever solutions to help make productions more efficient. Fair FX, for example, is an expenses management platform; it allows productions to hand out pre-paid debit cards to travelling cast and crew, instead of cash. “It’s the most cost effective way of doing expenses,” says chief commercial officer James Hickman.  Tripgrid, meanwhile, uses technology to help productions to organise complex international travel schedules. “It means you never need get a call from a crew member saying, ‘Help, what time is my flight?” explains Tripgrid’s Bartek Podkowa.

There was also a strong UK presence at FOCUS, with companies selling specialist services to the film and TV industry such as logistics, security, legal advice and travel expenses management through to locations, temporary studios, drone filming and lighting gear.

Many of them agreed that the industry is enjoying a purple patch, and that they have benefitted as a result. Tony Scott, operations director of logistics provider Dynamic International, says it’s the busiest period in his company’s 30-year history. It sent out a convoy of 56 vehicles to Tenerife for the movie Jason Bourne. It has also been shipping and arranging customs clearance for kit and equipment for the last six seasons of Game of Thrones, which shoots in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Iceland, Morocco and Spain. “It’s a boom period,” says Scott, citing the rise of the streaming platforms and explaining that terrestrial channels have upped their game too as a result.

The boom has also rippled through to companies such as Above the Line, which offers security for film and TV productions in studios and on location. The company had 150 security guards a day working on Jurassic World. Its offer extends from traffic management through to terrorist training management control. “It’s very busy because there are so many films coming over here,” says Above the Line’s Lamorna O’Toole. “And next year is shaping up to be very good too,” she adds, citing features such as the next Star Wars. 

The pros and cons of this boom was explored in depth at FOCUS’s programme of seminars and keynotes.

Many of the speakers acknowledged that TV appears to be supplanting film, once considered the highest of the screen artforms. Producer Robert Jones (The Usual Suspects, Dirty Pretty Things, Babylon) said: “TV has matured and developed in a way that is easily comparable to film in terms of its scope and ambition and its production values. It represents an enormous creative playground and challenge.” Writer/producer Dominic Minghella (Knightfall, Doc Martin) added: “Great movie talent is moving into television, and the distinction between film and TV is becoming blurred.” It was a point picked up by David Shepherd, the director of the Vancouver Film Commission: “Feature film was the Holy Grail, but that has now flipped. Now high end TV is the bedrock of the industry. For us, it is all about building the crews and multiplying the resources to take care of what they need.”

All were quick to acknowledge that demand for content is booming. “There is an absolute insatiable demand for content which doesn’t seem to be waning at all, as more and more platforms are opening up,” noted agent Elaine Steel.

As a result, there are more opportunities for producers to create and sell new projects to a host of new buyers, such as Apple, Facebook, Hulu and YouTube Red. Some even acknowledged that they were struggling to keep up with demand. Einar Sveinn Thordarson, partner at Icelandic production services outfit Pegasus Pictures, has worked on shows such as Game of Thrones and Fortitude in recent years. Citing Iceland’s population of 320,000, he said that if more than three big TV projects shot in the country, “we are depleted.”

But competition has intensified as more companies look to tap into the production boom, with many film indies pushing into the TV market. Scott Free Films executive producer Carlo Dusi said the TV drama boom had pushed up prices for crew, talent and facilities, making it harder to produce independent films. Many speakers warned that the boom was only benefiting top level talent, particularly writers, stars and showrunners, whose names can help sell a project in such a crowded marketplace.  Others feared that big scale projects were drowning out innovative, local dramas which struggle to stand out. “I feel like everyone has been hunting for projects like The Night Manager as far as UK broadcasters are concerned,” noted Katie Spence (Peaky Blinders, Luther), the managing director of Fifty Fathoms.  Nicolas Brown, the director of film and TV at Neal Street Productions (Penny Dreadful, The Hollow Crown) added that very few shows are now made for a budget of less than £1m an hour.

There was also an undercurrent of fear that the tech giants are slowly but surely disrupting local broadcast ecologies with their big spending ways. “Eventually they will commission direct and own everything. The UK is in grave danger of becoming a service industry for them,” said agent Elaine Steel.

Other speakers stressed that the content boom isn’t just confined to film and TV. Lindsey Clay, the chief executive of TV advertising body ThinkboxUK, noted that TV advertising revenues had increased in each of the seven years leading up to Brexit, when growth had ground to a halt.  But the outlook for next year is more positive, she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic for 2018,” said Clay. Meanwhile, Steve Garvey, the founder of Moving Image, talked about the growing demand for corporate film and branded video in recent years.

This content boom has, however, revealed shortcomings in the skill bases in lots of countries, with many productions struggling to find experienced and trained  crew. Rob Alcock, head of training at the BBC Academy, cited key skills shortages in four specific areas: digital, production leaders such as executive producers, craft based skills and broadcast engineering. “This is an industry marred by dependency on short term contracts, which impacts on training,” said Alcock. “Where in the system is the time and money being spent on training people?”

His point was picked up by Magnus Temple, chief executive of The Garden (24 Hours in A&E), who said that attracting and retaining talented staff is a major challenge for his TV indie. “Rarely a day goes by without some conversation about retraining or developing talent.”

The chief executive of Directors UK, Andrew Chowns, said the film and TV employment market is malfunctioning, citing long hours, job insecurity and lack of diversity. The industry, he said, was fortunate to be trying to deal with this during a boom time. “Every studio, warehouse and airbase is full – demand is exceeding supply,” he said. Despite this, hirers were reluctant to move out of the circle of people they trust to search for new talent. “There is a lack of confidence in trying people who are new or unfamiliar.”

Inevitably, Brexit was also a key talking point, although views were split on what it means for production.

Dan Films producer Julie Baines said that all producers are desperately worried about Brexit. “It impacts right across the board, from development through to distribution.” Others, however, said Brexit had not affected business – yet. Rob Stapledon, director commercial banking at Arbuthnot Latham & Co, who acts for many media companies, said: “From my perspective, in all honesty, I haven’t seen that much impact to my UK clients. Everybody has just been getting on with it.” Ben Barrett, the joint managing director of programme funding outfit Drive, said “Day to day, we’re not seeing any differences.”

Looking ahead, though, there was concern from many producers that Brexit would affect the free movement of people and the ability of the UK to attract talent from Europe to work on projects.
This is rightly a worry for the British industry, and one that is made all the more stark at a show like FOCUS where so many countries and companies compete to attract footloose, big-spending international productions.

Posted 14 December 2017 by Tim Dams

Showtime for drama

The drama market is more dynamic, but also more competitive, than it has ever been. Tim Dams reports on the reality of scripted’s golden age

It’s a heady time to work in drama production. The genre is arguably more lively and exciting than ever before, say producers, writers, directors and talent. This is largely being driven, they say, by the growing number of companies investing in TV drama. Streaming services have become major backers of the genre as they seek must-see content to attract subscribers.

Netflix announced last month that it will spend as much as $8bn on content next year, with a significant proportion of this going on original commissions, much of it on drama. “Our future largely lies in exclusive original content,” said CEO Reed Hastings. 

Facebook and Amazon have each pledged to invest $1bn in content, much of it on drama. Last month, Facebook announced new shows for its Watch platform, including an English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam.

Apple is also making a $1bn a year push into original production and recently hired former C4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt (who has credits including Black Mirror and Sherlock to her name) to lead a new programme commissioning team based in London.

Meanwhile Hulu, which found success with The Handmaid’s Tale, plans to invest $2.5bn on content this year. YouTube Red is stepping up its investment in original content too: last month it greenlit Origin, a sci-fi thriller from Left Bank Pictures, the indie behind Netflix’s The Crown.

This investment by streaming services comes on top of continued funding by the traditional UK broadcasters in drama. Indeed, the BBC, C4 and ITV have been able to increase budgets for their shows by co-producing with SVoD players on upcoming dramas like Good Omens (BBC2/Amazon) and White Dragon (ITV/Amazon). However, there are concerns that this co-production funding may soon dry up (see box, below).

Multichannel services such as Sky and Virgin have also stepped up their spend on the genre in recent years. Sky, for example, has backed big budget plays like Fortitude, Riviera and Britannia. Other US broadcasters have invested heavily in original drama aimed at the international market, including Nat Geo, Discovery and Fox Networks. Fox, for example, has fully funded upcoming espionage thriller Deep State (pictured, below) from Endor Productions, its first regional commission for Europe and Africa.

Distributors have also significantly increased the amount of money they invest in drama, particularly for projects with potential to sell widely on the global market. In the past, distributors might chip in around 10% of the budget to top up funding. Now, as competition and ambition, has increased “we will often be asked to come in and deficit fund up to 60% of budget,” says Liam Keelan, director of scripted at BBC Worldwide, whose current slate includes McMafia (pictured, top) and Split. Like many distributors/superindies BBC Worldwide has invested in a swathe of drama indies, including Clerkenwell, House Productions, Two Cities, Lookout Point, Baby Cow and Expectation to secure drama content.

Private equity money is also making itself felt in the genre. Drama commissioning ‘club’ Atrium TV, spearheaded by former Sony boss Sir Howard Stringer, plans to produce 10 drama series over the next five years, with budgets at around $5m per hour. Meanwhile, former BBC director of TV Danny Cohen chairs a new commissioning entity at Access Entertainment that can greenlight scripted TV series without backing from a network or platform. Access is owned by billionaire industrialist Len Blavatnik, and it plans to invest hundreds of millions into high-end TV, film, digital and theatrical productions.

Add all this to the generous tax credits available to productions shooting in the UK, and it’s understandable why there is so much industry focus on drama.

A raft of new production companies have launched in recent years, looking to take advantage of the drama gold rush. They include Sister Pictures (Jane Featherstone) and House Productions (Tessa Ross). Leading film producers have also moved aggressively into the genre too, including Working Title, Vertigo, Blueprint and Cuba Pictures.

“There’s an incredible amount of competition – and ambition,” confirms producer Hilary Bevan Jones of Endor Productions (Deep State). “A lot of our friends from the film world are swimming into TV, something they wouldn’t have contemplated a few years ago when TV was very much a second class citizen.” On the plus side, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are no longer the only major investors in UK scripted. “You are not just shut down after three meetings,” says Endor producer Tom Nash. “But the sheer weight of great projects out there is just incredible.”

The drama market is both “incredibly dynamic and incredibly competitive, adds Kenton Allen, CEO of drama production company Big Talk (Living the Dream). “There are lots and lots of very high-level projects looking for finance. I don’t think it has ever been more competitive. And nor have expectations ever been higher.”

Streaming services have been swamped with pitches, receiving up to 40-50 a week – many of them fully packaged with an A-list cast attached. But there are signs the SVoD players are struggling to cope with the deluge. “They now seem much more interested in engaging with you at an earlier stage, and not being offered things and asked to get the cheque book out without any creative engagement,” says Allen.

A-list writers continue to be in big demand, particularly as producers are increasingly financing the development of scripts themselves – and want to do so with recognised writers who can pique the interest of commissioners.
Writers themselves say the sheer number of dramas being made is helping to spur creativity in the genre. Tony Grisoni (Red Riding) has just adapted China Mieville’s The City and The City for BBC2, made by Mammoth Screen. He says audiences are “hungry for something different, new and extraordinary.”

Directors also recognise the need for projects to stand out and to look and feel different amid a plethora of choice available to viewers. “There’s a hunger for material that will challenge and provoke,” notes Tom Shankland, the director of The City and The City, whose credits include The Missing and 
Ripper Street.

That doesn’t mean that anything goes now. To achieve success, a drama needs to be “completely culturally authentic”, warns Kudos chief executive Diederick Santer. “Specific works. If something is too generalised, or too calculated or cynical, the audience smells it.” Santer points to Kudos productions Broadchurch, Gunpowder and The Boy with the Top Knot as examples of dramas where “specificity is a universality.”

Kudos’ next big project is about a very specific place. Troy: Fall of a City is a big budget co-production between BBC1 and Netflix, which is produced by Wild Mercury in association with Kudos, and exec produced by Derek Wax and David Farr. It is, says Santer, the biggest drama that Kudos has been involved with, with hundreds of vfx shots. “For years, we made shows like Spooks, Hustle and Life on Mars – contemporary UK shows. Broadchurch and Humans are in that model.” Earlier this year, Kudos launched the big budget Tin Star. Troy is a step up again, symbolic perhaps of an arms race in scripted production budgets that shows no sign of abating.

Big is not always best
Big budget, lavish shows like Game of Thrones and The Crown have become the emblematic of the new era of scripted production.  As a result, many producers are pitching very expensive shows, packaged with top 
on- and off-screen talent and high production values.

Yet big is not always best. “There is still a lot of extremely good drama that sells everywhere and performs everywhere that is made at very modest price points,” says Cathy Payne, chief executive of distributor Endemol Shine International.  She cites Silent Witness. “It sells everywhere, and is not made with a huge budget.”

Expensive shows, with budgets of say £3m an hour, can be a risky prospect for distributors like ESI to recoup their investment on the international market.

“The area that most interests me is what we call ‘domestic plus’ or ‘super domestic’ – shows that are made around the £1.4m (per episode) mark – where you can still get great writers and good talent.” They can be funded simply with one primary broadcaster, a generous distribution investment and the tax credit.  “Our shows made around that level are the most successful,” says Payne, citing Grantchester, Peaky Blinders and Broadchurch. For example, Broadchurch has been sold right around the world. “There are only about five territories left where you are not able to watch it.”

The end co-pro honeymoon?
The ‘honeymoon era’ of co-pro dramas funded by UK broadcasters and SVoD players is over, according to Jane Featherstone, the founder of Sister Pictures.Delivering the annual BAFTA lecture last month, Featherstone warned: “The co-production tap is going to be turned off, or at least reduced to a trickle.”

“Already some shows on the BBC are funded 80% by Netflix, and many more have around 20 to 30% funding from the likes of HBO or AMC. ITV has followed suit – with the recent Netflix-supported Marcella – while C4’s Humans was only made possible at all because AMC stepped in.”

“The SVOD’s are going to start ramping up commissioning of only fully owned original programmes, meaning that they won’t need to co-produce any more. Why keep investing in shows where they don’t own the territory most likely to make that show a hit, it doesn’t make sense for them.”

Featherstone noted that top talent like Shonda Rimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) have jumped ship to Netflix. “More will follow. And what will follow that will be a slow – or not-so-slow- starvation of the quality mainstream on free-to-air platforms and channels. While networks waste away, Netflix is fighting fit. Some great mainstream TV will emerge, of that I am certain. They will be the first truly global channel.”

This article is taken from the November issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here

Posted 28 November 2017 by Tim Dams
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