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Getting the look: Sunset Song

Michael McDonough, the DoP of Terence Davies’s upcoming film Sunset Song tells Tim Dams why he opted for the large format - and rarely used - Arri 765 camera to achieve the unique look of the film

Sunset Song is an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel by acclaimed director Terence Davies (House of Mirth, Of Time & The City).

Starring Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan and Kevin Guthrie, it’s set at the dawn of the First World War and is the story of a young woman’s endurance against the hardships of rural Scottish life and the changes wrought by the War.

The film beautifully captures the turning of the seasons, in the years leading up to the War, and shot in Scotland, Luxembourg and New Zealand – the latter so it could capture the harvest cycle.

Critics have noted the cinematography of DoP Michael McDonough. (“He lets the camera glide through magic-hour-magicked corn fields, before a genuinely spine-tingling shift to wintry whites, and fills the frame grandiloquently with brooding expanses of sky,” said The Telegraph’s Tim Robey).

McDonough used both film and digital cameras for Sunset Song, specifically two Arri 765 – 65mm film cameras with Kodak 500T negative and 65mm lenses, as well as Arri Alexa XT cameras shooting 
in 2.8k ArriRaw with the latest Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses.

The choice of the large format, and now rarely used, Arri 765 was “a masterstroke by the production,” says McDonough. “It gave a scope and grandeur to the landscape work that went hand in hand with the idea that the landscape was an equally important character within the story. In many ways, it’s what the film is about – the land will endure.” He adds that the Alexa XT was perfect for studio work – light, agile and considerably smaller and faster than the film camera.

Plenty of pre-shoot testing proved that the combination of digital and 65mm would work well together, says McDonough. “The size of the negative and the lack of substantial grain in the 65mm matched very well with the subtle noise floor of the Alexa XT and they cut back and forth seamlessly.”

The 765 came with its own set of 65mm lenses – rehoused Hasselblad medium format glass. They came pristine, straight off the shelf from Arri in Munich because the large format camera has been such a specialist tool, limited to films such as Little Buddha, Shutter Island and Gravity. 

Similarly the Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses for the Alexa XT were brand new. “So new in fact they only had three focal lengths for us to use – 35mm, 50mm and 75mm. This worked perfectly well in the studio and gave the film a great sense of consistency, backed up by Terence’s preference for beautifully controlled movement and framing.” McDonough adds that the lenses were sharp and clean and true all the way to the corners, “but still have that cinematic quality, akin to the peripheral vision of the human eye – the areas of fall off – that I am so drawn too.”

The “stellar” grade was carried out by colourist John Claude at Dirty Looks in Soho. “I came into the grade a few days late because of work commitments in LA and he had already given it an overall pass and it looked just as we’d designed,” says McDonough, who adds that this was built on the on-location DIT work of Matthieu Straub. “Together we built LUTs for the Alexa which were rich and heavy, meaning I had plenty of negative range underneath, and these were translated to the dailies each day so Terence had a very strong sense in the edit of the finished film. The consistency of Matthieu’s oversight and the rigour of the stage lighting made for an easy translation to the DI suites the majority of the time.”

Looking back, McDonough says shooting on 65mm “was a personal joy for me” and a unique career moment. “It gave such a concrete reality to the landscape.”

Sunset Song is released on December 4th.

Posted 23 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Teletubbies

The new series of Teletubbies, out this month, is produced in 
a radically different way from the original.

Why? It’s the question many people ask when they learn that another 60 episodes of pre-school classic Teletubbies have been made. Over 360 episodes were originally produced by indie Ragdoll, enough surely to continue to satisfy the demand of most pre-schoolers.

But much has changed in the 18 years since since Teletubbies launched in March 1997 – not least in terms of broadcast quality. Filmed on tape in DigiBeta, the original episodes pre-date HD let alone 4K. Teletubbies went on to play in 120 territories, but also came out before YouTube, the iPad and mobiles revolutionised the way kids now watch TV.

The brand’s new Canadian owners, DHX Media, which bought Ragdoll in 2013 for £17m, believe there is a ready market for an updated version. They were encouraged no doubt by Teletubbies postings on YouTube garnering almost 76m views – per month.

DHX briefed the show’s new producers, Darrall Macqueen (Topsy and Tim, Baby Jake) to stay true to the original series’ characters and styling. So Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po all return with only subtle updates. For example, their Tummy Screens now reflect the 16:9 dimensions of flat screens TV and also feature touch button technology. The episodes are also shorter, at 14 minutes, to make them more digestible for short form mobile viewing.

But the really big changes have happened behind the scenes. The original show was famous for its vibrant green, undulating set created – at huge expense – in a field in Stratford. The new Teletubbies is shot inside a studio in Twickenham, using a blue screen and a miniature 3D model set.

DoP Simon Reay, who was also camera operator on the original show, says the new set up gave the cast and crew a much greater degree of control. “On the original show, we would shoot outside if it was sunny, and inside the dome if it was raining. We always strove for clear blue skies, but you rarely had that in an English summer.”

The model set was designed in CAD, and 3d printed by The Prop Shop at a scale of 20:1. It measures around 3m x 3m; the hillocks are just 5cm high. 20,000 laser cut flowers – daisies, buttercups, cornflowers and poppies – decorate the model. The grass, made in Germany by a company called Noch, is 6mm high, and was trimmed with scissors to give the feel of a meadow. “The scale was quite extreme,” says Reay. “We would have made it bigger but it would have been astronomically expensive.”

The 8ft high live action Teletubbies were filmed against the blue screen at one end of the studio. It had full scale blue domes that matched, at a ratio of 20:1, the hillocks on the 3d model set up across the room. Footage from the live action camera was then lined up exactly with footage taken from the miniature camera, and mixed together by Lola Post Production to create the illusion that the Teletubbies are walking in a real world. Lola also added CGI flourishes such as the horizon, flowers blooming 
and the turning of the Windmill (a 25cm high prop 
on the model).

Reay shot with the Red Epic, in 5k for the blue screen and 4k on the model. “The Red Epic seemed the right way to go. We shot 4k for the model because I wanted the smallest sensor with the greatest resolution. The smaller the sensor the smaller your depth of field – and I needed a depth of field somewhere between one and two centimetres from the front element to two metres back. Everything had to be in focus.” He also used an 18mm Arri Master Prime lens. “It’s the sharpest lens you can get. I wanted the blue screen to be as crisp as possible."

The studio shoot was technically far more challenging than the original outdoor shoot. But it gave the crew far more flexibility, not only in terms of the weather. The original Teletubbies, for example, used speeded up sequences to add energy and dynamism. The new version can be more precise, speeding up only one of the characters at a time while the others move at a normal pace. “With little things like that we can play with and enhance the story,” says director Jack Jameson. “Hopefully we are using the technology in a good way.”

Jameson was aware of the expectations when taking on the project: “There is a challenge as a director when it has been done so brilliantly in the first place – are you trying to make it better or keep it the same?” He focused on the core appeal of the show – the Teletubbies themselves – trying to work out what was so magical and appealing about them. “For me that magic is in their movement,” says Jameson. The old costumes, he says, were heavy and cumbersome. “I guess that’s why the Teletubbies have that child-like, toddler movement with little trips – you don’t know if they are intentional or not. We wanted to retain that, even with more comfortable costumes – so lots of time was spent with the performers exploring that playful spring in their step.”

The new series of Teletubbies ditched its famous outdoor set in favour of an indoor studio in Twickenham that replicated Teletubbyland using blue screen production techniques and a 3d printed miniature model of the set. The voice cast for the 60x14-min series includes Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, Daniel Rigby, Fearne Cotton and Antonia Thomas.

Production company
Darrall Macqueen, Machame & TPL for DHX Media
Executive producers
Maddy Darrall, Billy Macqueen, Kate Bennetts, Michael Towner, Steven DeNure
Series producer
Fiona Robinson
Jack Jameson, 
Richard Bradley
Catherine Williams
Simon Reay
Production designer
Ant Howells
Steve Dix
Red Epic
Lola Post Production
Post production
The Farm Group

Posted 17 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: The Last Panthers

The rise of complex, multi-layered European drama has been one of the big TV trends in recent years, thanks to standout series like The Killing, The Returned and The Tunnel.  

The Last Panthers is likely to appeal to a similar kind of audience, but the six-part series ranges far more widely than most. The story of diamond raid gone wrong, it zigzags from London to Marseille and across Europe to Belgrade and the Balkans over a 20-year time frame.

According to its writer Jack Thorne (Skins, This is England ‘86), it’s about far more than a robbery: it’s a complicated tale about state of the European Union, organised crime and shadowy international finance.

Like it’s subject matter, the story of the £15m production is complex too. It shot entirely on location, in multiple languages (English, French and Serbian), with a Swedish director, English writer, French heads of department, and a crew from across Europe. The cast includes UK stars Samantha Morton and John Hurt as well as France’s Tahar Rahim and Croatia’s Goran Bogdan. Meawhile, the budget was boosted by the French tax credit, and the title track is by none other than David Bowie.

The show originated in France, the brainchild of crime journalist Jerome Pierrat. He pitched the idea to the producers of The Returned, Haut et Court TV, who secured the backing of Canal Plus. Realising that the story and budget required European co-production support, Haut et Court’s producer Caroline Benjo took it to Warp Films’ Peter Carlton – a friend from the European arthouse film circuit.

Warp, which produced This is England, then brought Jack Thorne on board to write the script, and won the backing of Sky – which will roll the drama out simultaneously this month to its subscribers in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Austria.

Thorne says the script, which was developed over three years, grew out of conversations and research trips across Europe with Pierrat to meet shadowy figures in the mafia as well as insurance chasers, and with input from the European cast. “They all played a huge role in how the scripts turned out – there was a lot of talking and working things out together.”

Given the complexity of the story and the shoot, director Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), says that early on the team decided to “make this series as one big ass movie” rather than individual units in a series.

Thorne completed all six scripts before the show started shooting (although he often tweaked it on location). Unusually for a TV drama, Renck signed on to direct the entire series, which was planned so scenes from different episodes could be shot in a single location before the cast and crew moved on to the next location to shoot more. This helped make more efficient use of the budget.

“It is a restless show,” says Peter Carlton. “Most crime shows are based around some sort of precinct. But on this, we shot for nearly 130 days (with the second unit too) – and the longest we were ever in one location was four days.” The schedule, admits Carlton, “brought everyone to their knees.”

The series was shot using Arri Alexa, while flashbacks scenes to the Bosnian war were shot in Super 16. Certainly, The Last Panthers looks cinematic and authentic – halfway between a movie and a TV drama. Carlton says: “We almost had to invent a genre for it – we called it “operatic realism”…people think authentic as meaning gritty – but it isn’t gritty, it is real. It is very stylised and has a very particular look – the colour palette is controlled but is driven from real places.”

Thorne sought to present his characters as three dimensional and believable, not simply as ciphers for good and evil. This particularly applied to the jewellery gang from Serbia, a country that’s home to more than its fair share of TV and film villains. 
“We all feel passionately about Serbia, a country that is in a mess and has massive problems with corruption. But there is nobility to the country. We wanted to make sure that we were not just going Serb bashing…the complexity of the country is really important to us.”

Samantha Morton says it is her first TV series in 20 years. “This is the best part I have ever played. For women, parts like these are just not written.”

Carlton doesn’t play down the challenge of making the show, amid tales of difficult shoots on storm-swept Montenegrin mountainsides and being bottled in Marseille. But, he says: ”I’m immensely proud of the show. At a time when massive questions are being asked about the EU, it is a gesture of genuine European solidarity.” For all the differences amongst the cast and crew, he says they had far more in common. “Europe is so broken up nationalistically and that is reflected in our film – but we do have massive common references.”

The Last Panthers opens with a daring diamond heist by a Serbian gang that goes badly wrong. Samantha Morton plays a British loss adjustor charged by her boss (played by John Hurt) with recovering the diamonds whatever the cost. Also in pursuit is a French-Algerian policeman, played by Tahar Rahim. The chase  quickly takes them through a Europe where a shadowy alliance of gangsters and ‘banksters’ now rule.

Sky Atlantic and Canal+
Production companies
Warp Films and Haut 
et Court TV
Peter Carlton (Warp), Caronline Benjo, 
Jimmy Desmarais 
(Haut et Court)
Johan Renck
Original idea by
Jerome Pierrat
Jack Thorne
Luke Dunkley
Arri Alexa, Super 16
International sales
Tandem, Sky Vison
Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, John Hurt, Goran Bogdan

Posted 10 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Hitting the right note: composing music for TV

An original score provides a distinctive edge to a TV show, whether factual hits like The Apprentice or dramas like Sherlock or Poldark. Despite many shows opting for cheaper library music, composers argue that an original score need be neither expensive nor complicated to create – and can add huge value to a show.

Library music can, of course, be very useful – particularly if a production needs music in a hurry or tracks that are expensive to record, like a big band or jazz score. Factual shows, in particular, can get away with library tracks because the music is often an underscore, providing background under narrative.

Original vs library music

But, says The Apprentice composer Dru Masters, an original score recorded with live musicians makes a show “more unique”, contributing to a distinct identity and style.

There can be a bland uniformity about library music, even though libraries offer a huge range of tracks for low fees. Says Masters: “What happens in an edit situation is you just don’t have time to go through 1,000s of CDs, so everyone ends up using the same stuff. They know it works, which is why you end up hearing the same cues over and over again.”

In factual, original music can provide a unifying and unique tone while emphasising what is on screen. In The Apprentice, for example, key points such as the boardroom scenes are all scored with composed music. The tasks alternate between original cues, commercial and library tracks. If the editors want more original tracks, they contact Masters. “It makes it a much more unique piece,” says Masters.

In drama, meanwhile, the role of music is different. “Often it is telling you something you can’t see,” says Masters. “You rarely use music in factual that way.” He says viewers would never dream of watching a drama like Sherlock and hearing library music in the middle. “You would expect it to be composed, to have a theme and variations, and then cut back and interweave into other things.”

Composing costs

The costs of original music aren’t prohibitive either, insist composers. Indeed production companies often make back the money they invest in an original score from the royalties they share with the composer.

Original music for a factual series for a terrestrial broadcaster might cost £1000 an hour to score. Masters says he would write about 50 tracks for a series, working on and off over a period of three months.

Drama, of course, is more expensive. Sherlock composer Michael Price says a budget of £15-20,000 an hour will pay for an original score, plus real players recording the tracks in a studio.

He argues that TV music budgets have fallen behind film, despite TV drama becoming more filmic and the lines blurring between the two genres. “People talk about something like 3% of a film production budget for the music. Somewhere, somehow as TV drama has got more expensive, the music budgets have been left behind. “

Price says it’s best to pay for live musicians to record a drama score, with 10-20 performers the norm. “Sherlock would absolutely not sound like Sherlock if you didn’t record those things for real. It would be a different show without the performers.” Cutting the performance element is a “short term saving, but long term loss”. Citing shows like Inspector Morse, Price says: “The scores that are recorded for real with orchestras age really beautifully – they still sound wonderful.”

Commissioning a composer

Many producers and director, however, feel awkward or nervous about commissioning original music for a show, and struggle to find the right vocabulary to describe what they want.

Price says: “Most filmmakers feel very comfortable on set, talking to the DoP about lenses and light or the picture editor in the cutting room…but when it comes to music, it is either the most magical or terrifying department to deal with.”

He adds: “The best way to be briefed is however the producer or filmmaker feels most comfortable to do it. Often a successful way is to talk about emotions rather than musical specifics.”

However, composers tend to have different ways of working. Poldark composer Anne Dudley says she ‘almost always’ works with a finished edit and starts with a detailed briefing session with a producer and / or director. “At that stage, it’s likely that they have put in some temp music and you have to persuade them to get that out of their heads and try and look at it as a whole – and spot where the pieces of music should go, and find good in points and out points rather than it being a continuous mush.”

Dudley tends to sit at her piano with the drama on screen, working through ideas, writing them down and recording them. “It has to be an emotional response really. What I am trying to do is add something extra. It’s no good just trying to score the sync points and what is there. You are trying to say a bit more than what is there – to illustrate the inner emotional life of it.”

Price, meanwhile, says his preferred way of working is to write a ten-minute sweep of ideas that aren’t specific to the picture. He will compose on his computer with Logic Pro software and a keyboard. Often, a show will be presented with temp music attached. He says temp music can both help and hinder. “Sometimes it can tell you what not to do. Usually there’s something to be learnt from every piece of music up against a picture. It’s often a very useful shorthand.”

Masters says he is “really inspired by the picture”. But factual shows he works on are often being cut right up till TX, so the process is more fragmented. “I will write to picture, and by the time I have sent it back to them in two or three hours, they will have cut it again. They will cut again what I have sent to them to fit pictures, and I will rework – it can happen half a dozen times. “

Posted 09 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: ITV's Jekyll & Hyde

Expectations for Jekyll & Hyde are running high. ITV director of TV Peter Fincham helped fan the flames for the network’s adaptation of the classic Victorian novella at the Edinburgh TV Festival, picking it out as a highlight of the broadcaster’s autumn drama slate.

Written by Charlie Higson, the ten-part series is aimed squarely at a family audience and liberally reworks Robert Louis Stevenson’s original tale of a man battling two personalities.

With a budget of around £1.5m an episode, the ITV Studios produced series is funded by ITV and its distribution arm, ITV Studios Global Entertainment. A significant proportion of the budget has also come from the tax break available for high end TV dramas.

It’s a generous budget for a UK drama, but still short of the millions spent on many US-backed shows that series like Jekyll & Hyde are now routinely compared against.

So the production team have worked hard to make the budget go as far as possible. Shot on location in Sri Lanka and at Chatham Dockyard, it has also filmed on sets at 3 Mills Studios in East London. Special effects are being produced at vfx house Double Negative’s TV division.

Televisual paid a visit to the sets at 3 Mills in the summer, and the ambition of the drama is quickly evident. Production designed by Catrin Meredydd, the sets are hugely impressive. A perfectly constructed music hall bar rises out of the middle of one studio to conjure up the spirit of 1930s London, replete with art deco touches. Dr Jekyll’s laboratory is also there, a fantasical circular room fit for a mad Victorian professor. Meanwhile, co-star Richard E Grant stood quietly preparing for his next scene amidst the activity of the crew in a dark, underground set designed to be the nerve centre of the organisation, MIO, that hunts the source of Hyde’s secret powers.

The genesis of the project goes back two years, and forms part of a strategy by ITV’s network, studios and distribution arms to create ambitious, big budget dramas that can work for the UK channel and appeal to the international market as well.

ITV Studios drama executive producer Francis Hopkinson then began a search for eight drama treatments from different writers that Network Centre and ITV GE could look at. Actor, scriptwriter and author of the Young Bond series Charlie Higson was one of the writers he approached. Higson put forward the idea of a new adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde, and by January 2014 it was one of three treatments picked up by ITV. Higson has written six of the ten episodes, with four other writers contributing scripts too.

Hopkinson says Higson’s scripts have sought to build on the ‘established mythology’ of the Jekyll & Hyde story, while setting it in the glamorous, art-deco infused 1930s and against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe. From the outset it was designed to play as a fantasy adventure series in a pre-watershed slot, and uses films like the Indiana Jones series as a benchmark. “We are aiming at two things,” says Hopkinson. “It has got to have the sophistication to entertain the adults, and a sense of adventure and pace that will keep people under 20 watching.”

Still, this kind of fantasy adventure drama is pretty unfamiliar territory for ITV, which last aired Demons and Primeval back in 2009.

So it has drafted in a senior team with plenty of experience in the genre to steer the project, led by producer Foz Allan (Wolfblood, Robin Hood) and lead director Colin Teague (Being Human, Doctor Who). “There’s a good team working on this, with a very clear creative vision,” says Hopkinson.

One of the key early decisions for the team was who should play the lead. It’s a pivotal, but difficult role to cast as it requires an actor who can play both a mild mannered doctor as well as a larger than life character with superhero qualities. Kate Rhodes James was the casting director, and 50-60 actors were auditioned. Many were brought back three or four times.

Tom Bateman, who starred in Da Vinci’s Demons, The Tunnel and had the lead role in the West End revival of Shakespeare in Love, was one of the first to be seen. “When he came in, Charlie (Higson) said, ‘I think he is our man’ but we still had to see lots more people before we worked that out,” says Hopkinson.

Jekyll & Hyde filmed from February to July. Hopkinson insists that the production team have sought to make an original show for ITV, rather than a slightly homogenous drama made for the international market. “You can’t sit around and guess what the buyers want. One thing I have been very clear about is that we have to be true to ourselves.”

Updated to 1930s London, the action and adventure series focuses on Robert Jekyll, the well-meaning grandson of the original doctor. At the heart of the drama is his quest to discover his family history and the nature of his ‘curse’: his unwitting ability to transform into the dark, powerful and superhero-like Hyde 
in moments of stress and anger.

Jekyll & Hyde is produced by Francis Hopkinson’s ITV Studios drama team, which is also behind Lucan, Homefires and the forthcoming Tutankhamun

Writer and executive producer

Charlie Higson
Executive producer
Francis Hopkinson
Series producer
Foz Allan
Lead director
Colin Teague
Steve November, 
Jane Hudson
Production designer
Catrin Meredydd
Kate Rhodes James
Post production
The Farm
Visual effects
Double Negative

Jekyll & Hyde starts on Sunday 25th October on ITV

Posted 23 October 2015 by Tim Dams

TV industry weighs up growing US presence

America looms large in the mindset of British TV executives. This was clearly illustrated in the speaker line-ups at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival and RTS Cambridge Convention, where senior figures from Discovery, Viacom, AMC, ABC, Showtime, HBO, NBC and Amazon were given platforms.

Their invitations reflect the growing presence of US companies in the UK TV market, through ownership of broadcasters like Channel 5 and Sky as well as major production groups like All3Media, Endemol Shine, Warner Bros, NBC Universal and Sony.

The reaction to this growing US presence has varied from the welcoming to the hostile. Many have looked for investment from US companies to grow their companies and boost budgets for their programmes, or have themselves sought to access to the lucrative North American market.

Endemol Shine’s Tim Hincks argued at Cambridge that US investment had given his company the financial freedom to take more creative risks in the UK: “The scale we get from consolidation allows and also helps foster risk taking for British creators.” NBC Universal’s Michael Edelstein said his company could “add tremendous value” to its UK produced shows, citing the casting of Rob Lowe in Sky1 show You, Me and The Apocalypse (pictured above).

However, many expressed concern. Notably, C4 and the BBC sought to portray themselves as some of the last bastions of British-ownership – and worthy of special protection as a result.

“The Britishness of British broadcasting matters. It isn’t isolationist or backward looking to say that,” argued BBC director general Tony Hall in keynote speech at Cambridge. He worried that changes to the UK’s distinct broadcasting ecology could lead to the decline in television production made in Britain.

C4 chief executive David Abraham, meanwhile, said that the IP and profits of many successful British production companies “are now held in New York.” He took particular issue with Discovery boss David Zaslav’s description of its UK production assets as “an IP farm”.

In an echo of his MacTaggart lecture of 2014, Abraham said: “The risk taking appetite that is built into the public service system has fuelled the creative economy and is different to how things work in America.”

Posted 13 October 2015 by Tim Dams

Is TV's ecosystem under threat?

The ‘ecosystem’ that lies behind the success of the British television industry is under threat as never before. That’s the warning from a swathe of senior executives and creative figures who have voiced their concerns in recent weeks about the future of the television sector, one of the key drivers the UK’s £76.9bn creative industries.

A number of events in recent weeks have sparked the concerns: an increasingly acrimonious and political debate about funding levels of the BBC ahead of Charter Renewal; the revelation
that the government is actively mulling the privatisation of Channel 4; a surprise review of
the Terms of Trade; and ongoing acquisitions in the UK production and broadcasting sector by US media companies. 

The future funding of the BBC has galvanised creatives to speak up in the corporation’s defence, in particular following the government’s surprise emergency Budget in July which saddled the corporation with the £700m cost of licence fees for the over-75s.

The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci got the ball rolling in August with a rallying cry to programme makers to support and champion the BBC in the face of attacks from politicians in his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival.

Meanwhile, Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky accused the Conservatives of “trying to eviscerate the BBC” for ideological reasons. Former Doctor Who executive producer Russell T Davies told the Radio Times festival last month that he believed the BBC was doomed, labelling the threat to the corporation a disgrace. “In 10 years time, everything we understand the BBC to be, will be gone.”

But it was at last month’s Royal Television Society’s Cambridge Convention that many of industry’s concerns were vented most loudly.

RTS President Sir Peter Bazalgette said the single most important issue facing the TV industry, particularly around BBC Charter Renewal, is the fall in investment in originated programmes, down from £2.6bn to £2.4bn in the five years to 2013.

“Originated programmes are about our democracy, they are about our culture, they are about our economy. They are by value the single most important intervention in the creative industries, and they are declining at the moment and I think we should come up with policies and strategies to get that number going the other way,” said Bazalgette.

The BBC is the UK’s largest investor in new, first run, originated programmes. As director general Tony Hall noted at Cambridge, the licence fee accounts for around 20 per cent of TV revenues – but around 40 per cent of the investment in original British programmes.

So it may have been reassuring to hear Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, in a speech at the Convention, say that there is no prospect of the BBC being abolished. “Let me be clear,” he said. “There is no threat to the BBC as a world class broadcaster.”

However, many in the industry are not sure if they can trust the emollient words of the Culture Secretary. In August, Whittingdale said that
the government was not currently considering
a sale of Channel 4, only for an official to be photographed in late September outside N.10 Downing Street holding papers that proposed privatisation.

The leadership team of Channel 4 has warned of the risks of privatisation in the past. Chief executive David Abraham said that privatisation would inevitably mean less money being spent on original content so that C4 could achieve a “20- 25% margin, like ITV”. The implicit warning is that C4 would have to spend less on distinctive, not for profit shows like Dispatches and Channel 4 News if it is privatised.

Meanwhile, Whittingdale’s decision to review the Terms of Trade, one of the foundations of the UK production sector’s growth over the past ten years, has shocked indie producers.

Pact chair Laura Mansfield called the move “utterly astonishing.” She said: “Given that the terms of trade are there to help and support qualifying indies and entrepreneurs who need it - such as my indie Outline – and do not apply to the non-qualifying indies,
I just don’t understand why a government
which champions small businesses would want to create such instability”.

Reviews of the
BBC, C4 and the Terms of Trade have led to real concern about government policy towards the TV sector. Iannucci has accused the government of creating ‘a rather frightened atmosphere’ within the industry.

This comes on top of fears that consolidation, in particular US acquisitions of producers and broadcasters, is already reshaping the British television industry. Ofcom recently reported that large foreign media companies now own six of the top seven UK producers, accounting for around £1bn of UK revenue. This has led to concern that the bigger companies will focus only on the most commercially attractive genres, leading to a lack of innovation in the less commercially attractive genres such as current affairs.

It was a theme picked up by Tony Hall
at Cambridge. “The Britishness of British broadcasting is under challenge. It’s obvious and measurable,” he said. C4 boss David Abraham warned the industry shouldn’t “sleepwalk” into a major change to its ecosystem. What does the world look like,
he asked, if ITV and Channel 4 are taken over, and the BBC is hit by a ‘different’ licence fee settlement? “Then you are in a different country. We really do need to wake up to the consequences of those cards falling in that way.”

Some, however, argued that the UK makes too much of its special TV ecology. Tom Mockridge, the CEO of Virgin Media, said: “I’ve worked in many countries. For a period I was a chairman of Bulgarian TV. Pretty much every country I have worked in believed that their TV was the best in the world...But there is a great deal of creativity around the world.”

Posted 12 October 2015 by Tim Dams

BFI London Film Festival: strong women on show

This month’s BFI London Film Festival puts diversity to the fore, focussing on films made by and starring women.

There are 238 films and documentaries playing at this month’s BFI London Film Festival, so it’s not easy picking out a single theme to unify such a diverse offering of movies from around the world.

Yet, the opening night gala of the 59th edition of the festival gives a strong clue about the key theme identified by the LFF programme team.

Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, fighting for women’s right to vote. It’s a film produced by  Alison Owen and Faye Ward, directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan.

In the words of festival director Clare Stewart: “It’s an extremely British film by British women about British women who changed the course of history.”

She calls the 2015 line-up, “the year of the strong woman.”

Stewart explains that once Suffragette had been secured as the opening night film, it gave the festival the opportunity to shine a light on gender diversity in the film industry, specifically the lack of strong roles for women on screen and the lack of women working behind the camera.

So strong women headline in a number of  the festival’s gala films: Kate Winslet standing up to the Apple boss in Steve Jobs; Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara falling in love in Carol; Saoirse Ronan in an adaptation of Brooklyn; and Maggie Smith as the irascible down and out in The Lady in the Van. Documentary He Named Me Malala is about the Pakistani schoolgirl targetted by the Taliban.

Actress Geena Davis is also at the festival to launch a global symposium on gender in the media. “It gives us a very strong platform on which to really focus the discussion around the representation of women and girls in film and media,” says Stewart.

Almost 50 of the festival’s films are directed by women. But, as Stewart acknowledges, that is only 20% of the programme.

Stewart argues that the barriers facing women film-makers increase as productions increase in scale and budget. “When cinema is at its most independent, there is a lot more equity both in terms of the roles you see in front of the camera and also who is calling the shots behind the scenes.” She points out that the balance of female to male directors in the festival’s short film competition is almost 50:50. But as the films become bigger in scale, the balance shifts: there are just three films directed by women in the gala section, two in official competition and three in first feature.

“There is definitely some kind of tipping point. But it is not easily definable – if it were we would have made better inroads in terms of addressing it.”

It is a similar story at other festivals: just 13% of competition films at last month’s Venice Film Festival were directed by women, while it was 26% at the Toronto International Film Festival, according to the Women In International Film Festivals website.

The TV industry fares little better than film. A landmark report published by Directors UK last year called for 30% of all original TV programmes to be directed by women, after publishing findings that showed women are particularly poorly represented in directing drama, comedy and entertainment programmes. Just 13% of dramas had a female director, and 8% of entertainment and comedy programmes.

The BFI London Film Festival runs 7-18 October

New talent on show at the LFF
Beyond the headline galas, there’s a wide range of up-and-coming filmmaking talent on show at the London Film Festival.

Festival director Clare Stewart describes director Chanya Button, behind road trip comedy Burn Burn Burn (pictured), as a “new comedic talent who came out of nowhere for us.”

Esther May Campbell’s Light Years plays in the First Feature competition, and is called a “really distinctive debut feature”. Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist is billed as “an impressive, powerful first feature.” Meanwhile, Andrew Steggall’s Departure, about a mother and son packing up a French country house, has a “really incredible sensibility.”

Posted 08 October 2015 by Tim Dams
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