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On set: Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on the Edge

It’s both the sense of scale and the attention to detail that you notice on a set visit to Stephen Poliakoff’s latest drama, Dancing on the Edge. The scale is immediately apparent at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall, so redolent of power and prestige with its portraits of Prime Ministers and monarchs along its sweeping staircases.

The Club doubles up as the location for a 1930s German embassy party in Dancing on the Edge, where the cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, John Goodman and Janet Montgomery, add to the sense of occasion by wandering around between takes in their costumes of black tie and tails and ball gowns.

The attention to detail, meanwhile, can be seen in the canapés and champagne that wait to be served for the party scenes: little swastika flags poke out of the period nibbles, while the Pol Roger champagne labels date from a 1928 vintage.

Poliakoff, who’s clearly in command of the set and fiddles constantly with a yellow straw during and between takes, has long been regarded as one of television’s leading dramatists, with credits including Shooting the Past,    Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince and Gideon’s Daughter. He wrote and is directing Dancing on the Edge, the story of an early 1930s black jazz band who find fame amongst the parties of London’s upper class society. It deals with many of the issues of the 1930s – from the glamour of a post-recession and pre-war society, through to immigration, racism and the rise of fascism.

Poliakoff’s script made it clear from the very beginning that Dancing on the Edge would be a very large-scale project, and so it has proved. With a crew of 90, a starry cast, a 12 strong band, an original score, as well as a string of impressive locations, the five-part drama series has a £7.8m budget.

The scale of the piece meant that the BBC’s budget could not cover the entire production, so producers Ruby Films had to stitch together the shortfall. At one point, says executive producer Faye Ward, it looked as if the production would have to go out of the UK in search of budget, with Ruby considering making it as a Canadian or Irish co-production.

In the end Ruby managed to find backers, including US sales company Endgame, international sales house ITV Studios Global Entertainment as well as UK post outfit LipSync and regional fund Screen West Midlands.
To make the most of the £7.8m budget, the production schedule has been very tight with 16 weeks of back to back shooting.  “It’s been very intense,” says producer Nicky Kentish Barnes, who describes weeks of moving from “one vast location to another.” Birmingham’s Grand Hotel and the Banqueting Suite of the Council House – two remnants of the city’s Victorian heritage – doubled up as the ballroom and the lobby of the hotel where much of Dancing on the Edge is set. National Trust properties Upton House in Warwickshire as well as Fenton House in Hampstead were also used, along with Syon House in London. Filming has been like “a massive jigsaw puzzle,” says Kentish Barnes.

The look of the drama is, as with all Poliakoff pieces, also crucial. This is his first project in a 35-year career to be shot digitally. Poliakoff originally planned to shoot Dancing on the Edge on Super16 film, as he has most of his dramas.  But DoP Ashley Rowe recommended shooting in HD – and in particular to use the Arri Alexa.

“He really was quite dead against it,” recalls Rowe, “and wanted to shoot on film. So we shot some tests and showed them on the big screen. And he liked the look of them.” Rowe says he has been very impressed with the camera’s sensitivity, particularly in low light. “The fastest film stock I use is 500ASA, and this camera is rated at 800ASA – it sees everything. So I am putting in very little field light, because it just sees into the shadows.” Rowe describes the lighting as “dark and moody” – and “very real.” Which neatly sums up, one imagines, Dancing on the Edge itself.

Dancing On the Edge starts on 4 February at 9pm on BBC2

Dancing on the Edge is a five-part drama set in the early 1930s and follows a black jazz band as they find fame with London’s upper class society. But when the band becomes entangled in their shadowy world, it results in a suspected murder. 
Stephen Poliakoff
Ben Stephenson, 
Janice Hadlow
Indie Ruby Films
Budget £7.8m
Funding BBC, ITV Global Entertainment, Endgame, Screen West Midlands, LipSync Post
Cast Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, Jacqueline Bisset, 
Janet Montgomery, Joanna Vanderham
Phillipa Lowthorpe
Nicky Kentish Barnes
Exec prods Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits, Faye Ward
Production designer Grant Montgomery
DoP Ashley Rowe
Casting Andy Pryor
Locations manager Harriet Lawrence
Adrian Johnston
Dancing on the Edge is distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Posted 29 January 2013 by Tim Dams

How Scripps cooks up lifestyle brands in the UK

Slowly but very surely, Scripps Networks Interactive has been building itself a foothold in the UK television market.

Described by UK and EMEA md Jonathan Sichel as “the smallest large media company in the US”, the lifestyle broadcaster launched Food Network here in 2009. Then, in 2011, it paid £339m for a 50% stake in UKTV. Last year, Food Network invested in a slot on Freeview, helping boost its monthly reach to 5.8m viewers. In May, Scripps assumed full ownership of Travel Channel in the UK and internationally. Scripps is increasingly engaging with the UK production community too, commissioning indies to make shows  such as Andy Bates Street Feasts and Jenny Morris Cooks Morocco.

Nick Thorogood, who is in charge of content and marketing in the UK and EMEA, says that about 20% of Food Network UK’s shows are from Britain – with the balance coming from the US parent company. “We realised that if we wanted to get our channels talked about, we needed some original content to generate press and publicity.” He cites Andy Bates, discovered by a Food Network producer, who was working in a street market in East London and now hosts one of the channel’s top five rated shows. Sichel adds: “In a sea of content, where we have food and travel shows on every network, these brand ambassadors are key to our success and how we define ourselves.”

Currently, Scripps is focusing on Travel Channel in the UK, rebranding and bringing in new shows and genres. “The Travel Channel is going to get a lot of investment this year,” says Sichel. The move will see the channel bolstered with imports in a wider range of genres than previously. But it’s likely to mean more opportunities for UK producers too: “We need to find more content. Very specifically, as with the Food Network, we are looking to build up our brand ambassadors for travel,” says Thorogood. Budgets for UK shows range between £20-30k per half-hour.

Despite all the investment, its clear that Scripps has some way to go before its activities in the UK pay healthy dividends. Daily ratings for the channels, particularly Travel Channel, are low. (According to Barb, Travel Channel has a daily reach of 110k, while Food Network has a daily reach of 700k viewers). Throrogood says he is thrilled when a Food Network show gets 30-50k viewers. He says ratings comparisons with terrestrial channels are misleading. “For us, it is all about consistency and how we deliver our impact.”

Both stress that Scripps’ US operation is a good indicator of how the business might develop here in the long term. Impact and revenues are generated from broadcasting as well as digital, publishing and merchandising spin-offs.

 “Food Network is such a powerhouse brand in the US,” Thorogood says. “You can cook on Food Network pans, source Food Network wine and the Food Network magazine was the most successful magazine launch in ten years.” Meanwhile, Scripps claims to attract 25% of users online searching for food-related information.

Sichel adds: “Scripps is a patient company. They are willing to invest for growth – they are not about short, immediate gain and then getting out of the business.” He says Scripps will be testing out business models here, whether through publications, cookbooks, building up websites or syndication deals.

Television, however, will be at the heart of the Scripps offering “There is nothing like the aggregated, passionate audience of television. I believe in the power of television,” says Sichel. Despite competition from the web in the lifestyle category, the mass audience that TV can deliver is crucial. “If you want to get your product famous and you are in the food category, how many different YouTube videos would you have to sponsor to reach 6m people in a month?” asks Thorogood.

The audience for Scripps’ channels is typically slightly older than average, with a bias towards C2DE viewers. Sichel says it is important that such an audience can trust the channels. “I like to think of us as comfortable brands. People can tune to us and they are not going to see shocking videos or something that is very disarming.”

Carving out presence in the competitive UK market is all about knowing your brand and having the right attitude, adds Thorogood. “We have never allowed ourselves to think small. We have always had the ambition to say that we are fabulous and that we love what we do. We may not have the biggest budgets and may be late to the party, but we have never allowed that to get in the way. We are just going to do what we do, and do it really well.”


A specialist in lifestyle channels, Scripps’ six US brands are Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network, Cooking Channel, HGTV and Great American Country.
Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, Scripps roots lie in newspapers – it began when Edward W. Scripps founded the Penny Press in Cleveland in 1878. In 2008, newspaper owner E.W. Scripps Co spun off its TV assets as Scripps Networks. With revenues of $9.3bn, Scripps is busy expanding internationally. Food Network is now in 90 countries, while Travel Channel broadcasts in 130.

Jonathan Sichel (pictured top right) Formerly acting general manager of Travel Channel in the US, Sichel was named md of Scripps Networks Interactive’s operations in the UK and EMEA in July. He’s a previous vice president of business affairs at Discovery.

Nick Thorogood (pictured top left)
Senior vice president of content and marketing for the UK and EMEA at Scripps Network, Thorogood used to be controller of Five Life and Five US; editor of ITV daytime and UKTV head of lifestyle channels.

Posted 16 January 2013 by Tim Dams

The world's most extreme production

The cameras and editing kit that Sir Ranulph Fiennes is taking on his 2,000 mile journey across the Antarctic need to be incredibly robust to work in an environment where temperatures drop to -70ºC.

Fiennes is leading a team of five other explorers across the Antarctic in the middle of winter. No one has tried a winter crossing of the Antarctic before, largely because the weather is so cold and unpredictable and it is dark 24-hours a day.

The expedition, dubbed The Coldest Journey, is planning to document their experiences, sending footage via an Iridium sat-link to global news outlets, including the BBC, and also posting frequent video blogs to be viewed by schools.

But there are huge challenges involved in filming at such temperatures. It’s so cold that if a bare-hand touches a metal camera part, it will stick fast to the skin. And, crucially, the expedition needs cameras and kit that can function in the extreme cold.

So it’s something of a coup for Panasonic that the expedition has chosen to use its kit.

The team will be using a mix of professional and consumer cameras – from the AG-HPX250 P2 HD camera through to the HC-X900 camcorder and compact still cameras. Footage will be edited on the CF-53 Toughbook mobile PC.

Panasonic kit already has a reputation for hardiness, used by natural history film-makers on series like the BBC’s Frozen Planet. But The Coldest Journey team wanted to test the kit for themselves, and earlier this year put it through its paces at a shoot in Sweden. Temperatures dropped below -60ºC. “The kit stood up remarkably well to the cold,” says The Coldest Journey operations manager Tristam Kaye. Key considerations were how the cold affected battery life, and fogging on the lenses.

Spencer Smirl, The Coldest Journey’s lead equipment technician, who is travelling with Fiennes, says the team has had lots of training in editing and filming so they can regularly send film packages back to broadcasters. But it’s likely to be a slow process. He notes that it can take days to send each film via the Iridium sat-link as they will only be able to upload at speeds of 128k per second. That, however, is likely to be the least  of their worries in the hostile Antarctic environment.

The team’s expedition boat SA Agulhas set out in December from London for the Antarctic. It departed on its last leg to the continent from Cape Town this week, and the explorers will begin their 2,000 mile journey across the Antarctic on the 21 March.

Sir Ranulph will lead a two-man ski team. Behind them will be industrial sledges, each with a modified shipping container on top. Inside two of them are living quarters and supplies, and in the third, a science lab. Behind these are 14 smaller sledges, transporting fuel. All will be pulled across the Antarctic by two customized bulldozers.

The Coldest Journey is aiming to raise $10m for charity Seeing is Believing.

Posted 09 January 2013 by Tim Dams
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