Heading Out is something of a departure for Sue Perkins, best known as one half of comedy duo Mel & Sue and presenter of BBC2 hit The Great British Bake Off.
Produced by Perkins’ indie Square Peg TV and drama outfit Red Production Company, Heading Out is her first venture into scripted comedy.
It’s the story of a successful vet, Sara (Perkins), who is too scared to tell her parents she’s gay. So on the night of her 40th birthday, Sara’s friends give her an ultimatum – either tell her parents when they come to visit in six weeks time, or they will.
It’s an idea that Perkins says she harboured for a long time. But, originally, she envisaged it as a road trip, with the lead character hijacked and bundled into a car by her friends and then forced to tell her parents.
“It showed up my naivety about production costs and logistics,” says Perkins in hindsight.
She first pitched the idea to then BBC comedy controller Cheryl Taylor. Her key feedback was that the idea would work better as a sitcom, rather than a road trip. “Initially I was furious,” jokes Perkins. “But within 15 minutes, I had bowed to her knowledge.”
So Perkins had to envisage a precinct in which to set the show. “I tried to think of a place I could write about from experience,” she recalls. The traditional sitcom precinct, the family home, was clearly off limits as the lead character had no kids. A dog owner herself, Perkins came up with the idea of a vet’s surgery, which seemed perfect because a vet “has every demographic and kind of people passing through.”
She wrote a script in late 2011 for a table-read, attended by BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow. “It’s quite a sterile process, but luckily they laughed,” says Perkins.
When the show was commissioned for a full series, she teamed up with Red to produce it. “I’d always had a high regard for the shows that Red makes and for (md) Nicola (Shindler) personally...The cleverest business decisions are often when you realise you don’t have the skills do something by yourself. I want to write – but I don’t necessarily know who the best boom operator in Manchester is. And Red does.”
Perkins worked with Red’s Richard Fee and Shindler on the scripts, while executive editor of comedy Kristian Smith steered the project for the BBC.
Working to a tight budget (£1.4m for 6x30-min episodes), Heading Out was shot in a disused NHS health clinic in Wilmslow. Downstairs was remodelled as a vet’s surgery, while upstairs was converted in to the home of Sara. This one building was used for more than half of the locations, helping to limit the costs.
Shot on the Alexa camera, the entire show was filmed in just five weeks – with the crew working long days to cover 6-12 pages a day.
The result, says Perkins, is an ensemble piece –featuring Dawn French, Shelly Conn, Joanna Scanlan and Mark Heap –where each character has proper jokes. “I’m old fashioned enough to think that a good comedy needs jokes.”
In ten years, Andrew Sheldon, Jess Fowle and Glyn Middleton have built up Leeds-based True North in to one of the largest indies outside London. Here's how they did it.
The original inhabitants of the converted 18th century mill where True North is based would no doubt find it hard to grasp what is now created in the building.
The Leeds indie makes TV shows for all the key UK broadcasters, and exports them to 210 countries. Built in the early days of the industrial revolution, the mill has floor to ceiling arched windows and now hums to the work of TV production teams, working on features, docs, reality shows and kids series such as MTV’s The Valleys, C4’s Compare Your Life, CBBC’s Junior Vets and Nat Geo’s Bloody Tales of the Tower. There’s also a full post production wing in the building, home to 19 Avid edit suites.
The scale of the operation is impressive, all the more so when you consider that True North was set up in 2002 in a spare bedroom by three colleagues from Yorkshire Television’s documentary department – Jess Fowle, Andrew Sheldon and Glyn Middleton.
At the time, Yorkshire TV was caught up in the turmoil at ITV, and with ever decreasing opportunities internally, the trio set out on their own, determined to create work for themselves in Leeds. “We wanted to make a wider range of programmes than YTV could offer. But there wasn’t enough scale in the existing Yorkshire indies to provide a broad enough range of work for the three of us. So we decided to do it ourselves,” recalls Fowle.
True North’s growth since then is particularly notable given its Leeds location, where it is the only sizeable indie and is miles from London, the base for most TV commissioners, companies and talent. Indeed, on paper, Leeds looks a very challenging location for an indie. During True North’s lifetime, ITV has dramatically scaled back its once mighty regional base in the city, while rival city Manchester is, for most broadcasters, now synonymous with production in the North.
Yet Sheldon, Fowle and Middleton have made it work. In recent weeks, True North has taken on its first md, former BBC and Pathe executive Marc Allen, to bring extra commercial experience to the company. It’s also opened a Manchester office, to tap into the talent in the city. And it runs a big production office in Cardiff, the base for production of The Valleys.
True North’s first ever commission was ITV doc The Lottery Liar, which they won on the back of making singles for the network. It helped put the company on the map. Other commissions proved vital in the early days, notably Crimefighters which ran for five series and provided a steady income stream thanks to international sales. But Sheldon points to one particular commission – Animal 24:7 for BBC Daytime – as crucially important. They pitched the idea in 2005 to BBC head of daytime, Jay Hunt (now chief creative officer at C4), and walked out of the room with an order for 20 episodes. The show went on to run for eight series, running to 160 episodes – and more than £1m in secondary sales. “It really was a key turning point – we were able to hire in staff and build up the infrastructure of the company, and get some real momentum” he says.
More recently, True North hired The Only Way Is Essex producer Fiona O’Sullivan to lead a push into factual entertainment, features and formats. She has duly delivered with MTV commission The Valleys. “We’ve been seen as a factual series and documentary company. So it’s great to be seen doing cheeky noisy shows like The Valleys – it means True North can surprise people with what it does,” says Fowle.
Other key hires include head of production Carol McKenzie, who came from ITV factual; exec producer Liz McLeod, who has been expanding the company into international markets; Jo Haddock, and the former series producer on Wife Swap; and Marc Allen as md. Middleton says: “Those extra people make True North a very different proposition. We now have a lot of programme making experience in a lot of different genres.” Sheldon adds: “There’s a tipping point for an indie when you realise that if you don’t come to the office, the operation keeps going. The company has a life beyond the founders’.
Certainly, True North now has the infrastructure and experience to rank as an indie that’s a trusted supplier of complex series. It might lack visibility with London commissioning editors – who will do viewings by ftp rather than popping into the office. But its regional base can be turned to its advantage too. “We’re very happy that we’re from the North, but it absolutely doesn’t define us. We can give broadcasters the northern stories that nobody else can get access to,” says Sheldon, citing shows like Back From The Dead: The John Darwin Story, made for ITV and Panorama special Shannon: The Mother Of All Lies. Middleton adds: “The fact is that we are not in that melting pot of other indies in London. So we have forged our own way of doing things – and people seem to like it.”
True North Andrew Sheldon: A journalist with a 20 year career in TV, Sheldon is primarily responsible for current affairs, docs and daytime shows at True North. His credits include One Life: Getting Away with Murder, Real Story: Death of a Policeman, Animal 24:7 and Sunday Life. Jess Fowle: Started in TV as an ITV trainee, working at TV-am, Central and Yorkshire TV. At True North, she’s focused on features, formats and childrens shows like My Mums Used to be Men, My Fake Baby and Animal Rescue Squad. Glyn Middleton: Began his career on the First Tuesday doc strand and was deputy editor of current affairs series 3D. Middleton looks after distribution, secondary rights and international business. His exec producer credits include Jon Venables: What Went Wrong, Churchill’s German Army and Killer Couples.
The prospects for UK film production look good in 2013, with high expectations that a raft of big budget, US studio features will shoot here, as well as a significant number of UK projects.
Last month, visual effects company Double Negative moved many of its 900 staff into a new office on Great Portland Street – a building that once served as the HQ for Virgin Media. Set up 15 years ago with just 30 staff, the growth of Double Negative into such a sizeable company speaks volumes about the film production boom that the UK has enjoyed in the period.
Double Negative has produced vfx for features such as the Harry Potter franchise, Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and Total Recall, winning significant business from US studios thanks to its talent, technical expertise and ability to deliver complex projects.
The international reputation of the UK’s vfx sector, which also includes companies such as Framestore, MPC and Cinesite, is one of the many reasons for the influx of studio films into the UK in recent years. Inward investment boom Indeed, according to BFI figures, international productions spent just over £1bn in the UK in 2011, the highest figure ever recorded.
The investment has helped create film industry jobs too: up to 62,000 people (from 48,000 in 2010). The reasons for the inward investment boom are well documented – the strength and depth of UK production and onscreen talent, the range of facilities such as vfx houses and studios, the favourable exchange rate, and the popular UK film tax credit. “The UK film industry has proved to be recession resilient over the last few years,” says Double Negative managing director Alex Hope. “It is a global centre for film production.”
He says that the prospects for 2013 look very positive, reporting that “lots of films are looking to shoot in the UK.” Double Negative, for example, is to work on effects for Andy and Lana Wachowski’s (The Matrix) sci-fi film Jupiter Ascending, which will shoot this year in the UK. The company is also working on vfx for the sequel to The Hunger Games – even though the film didn’t shoot in the UK.
Hope’s comments are backed up by Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission. He says that 2012 was a strong year for inward investment films, despite distractions such as the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, and the fact that the US studios cut costs and reduced their output. In fact, inward investment fell compared to 2011. But the UK maintained its market share of global film production last year, says Wootton. “Although fewer films are being made by the US studios generally, we got the business that was to be got,” he says, citing big budget features that filmed in the UK such as Dark Knight Rises, The Counsellor, Fast and Furious 6 and Jack Ryan.
Certainly, there was a strong end to film production in 2012, with Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) directing Tom Cruise in sci-fi thriller All You Need is Kill in the last few months of the year. The movie closed down Trafalgar Square and the airspace around it for one scene, which saw Cruise land in the middle of the London landmark in a military helicopter.
Wootton also believes 2013 will be a strong year for inward investment, predicting that studios like Disney and Warners will shoot big films here this year. “We are looking at a solid and encouraging 2013 in film. There are an awful lot of things gearing up to come here,” he says.
The UK’s film studios also believe that the production boom looks set to continue. Pinewood Shepperton’s chief executive Ivan Dunleavy says that the “number of film productions contracted so far next year is encouraging.”
Tellingly, Pinewood began clearing a site for a new 45,000 sq ft studio facility last year. The refurbished Leavesden Studios opened in June last year, backed by investment from Warner Bros. The new studios are said to have provided an additional 30% in terms of film studio capacity to the UK market. Leavesden has been home to All You Need is Kill during its shoot. East London’s popular 3 Mills Studios will also be fully available this year, having been out of action for a chunk of 2012 because it was the base for rehearsals for the Olympics opening ceremony. And Elstree is getting multi-million pound investment to fund new film and television production facilities. Such moves should add more capacity to the UK film industry – capacity that many say is needed for the industry to cope with expected growth.
And the flow from inward investment projects could be even greater this year and next, thanks to the new tax credit for TV dramas with budgets over £1m. Wootton predicts a “significant influx” of high-end TV production will come to the UK as a result. “US companies are not saying we might come here, they are saying we want to come.”
All of which is likely to provide more opportunities for crews, creative talent and facilities in the UK.
UK film-making prospects
The prospects for UK produced films also look encouraging this year. Certainly the profile of British-made films continues to be high internationally, as proved by another strong batch of nominations for this month’s Baftas and Oscars. Working Title, which is backed by Universal Pictures, has 12 Oscar nominations alone for its UK produced and shot features Les Miserables and Anna Karenina. Eon Productions has five nods for Skyfall, while British-made animation features Frankenweenie and Aardman’s The Pirates! are also in the running in the best animated feature category.
The UK also had 15 features in official selection at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, including Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan as Paul Raymond, the infamous British entrepreneur, impresario and ‘king of Soho’.
British made films are also performing well at the box office. The Sony-backed Skyfall became the biggest grossing film of all time at the UK box office, the first to earn £100m (and its taken over $1bn globally).
Meanwhile Les Miserables impressive January opening weekend of £8.13m beat that of the previous biggest musical at the box office, Mamma Mia!. Other British made hits of 2012 include The Woman in Black, The Pirates! and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
It remains challenging to raise budgets for films, though. Observers say UK film production is polarised, with more low budget films being produced as well as a significant number of higher budget features. Mid-budget films, by comparison, are very difficult to get off the ground. BFI figures show that 200 domestic productions were shot, worth a total of £200m. Of these, 124 (62%) were made on budgets under £500k. The barriers to making a film have, of course, come down considerably. For example, Ben Wheatley’s (Sightseers, Kill List) next film, psychedelic civil war drama A Field of England, was shot in just 12 days, and was fully funded by Film4’s talent and ideas hub Film4.0.
In fact, there seems no shortage of films being produced in the UK. Working Title has six more films coming to market in 2013: Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, Richard Curtis’ About Time, Dan Mazer’s I Give It A Year, John Crowley’s Closed Circuit, Ron Howard’s Rush and Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January.
Film4 has 20 films on its slate that are heading for greenlight – four of which started production last month: Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan; David Mackenzie’s prison drama Starred Up; Yann Demange’s thriller ‘71; and Mike Leigh’s biopic of J.M.W. Turner. Two of its bigger budget projects are Danny Boyle’s art heist thriller Trance and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Other planned Film4 projects this year include Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses doc, Made of Stone, Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, Clio Bernard’s Selfish Giant, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Roger Michell’s Le Weekend.
And BBC Films is behind a raft of productions this year too. The Alan Partridge movie started shooting in January, while its slate includes Rufus Norris’ Broken, starring Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy, the Belfast set Good Vibrations, Mat Whitecross’ Stone Roses movie Spike Island, Nick Murphy’s Blood, Stephen Frears’ Philomena and the Jude Law starring Dom Hemingway, a London set black comedy.
Film4’s head of commercial and brand strategy Sue Bruce-Smith thinks it is a “really positive time” for UK film-making, citing Film4’s presence at Sundance last month with Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love, Jeremy Lovering’s debut In Fear and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and two short films by newcomers The Curse by Fyzal Boulifa and Jonah by Kibwe Tavares.
In search of investors
Bruce-Smith says that investors – whether studios, financiers or sales agents – remain encouraged by the fact “that film is still something that audiences clearly want to see on all available platforms,” despite the more competitive media landscape. Of course, the domestic industry remains very much dependent on public money, whether from Film4, BBC Films or the BFI, or via film tax breaks. In the UK, there is little sign of growth in terms of private investment into film – a situation that is unlikely to change given newspaper coverage of the Treasury’s high profile investigations in to film tax schemes.
But the production finance market seems to have eased up since the days that followed the credit crunch in 2007.
International investors such as Zurich-based film financier Silver Reel, film producer heiress Megan Ellison (daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison), and finance outfit Aver are new to the international market.
And the pre-sales market has picked up too, with sales agents now able to achieve bigger advances on projects than in previous years. Bruce-Smith cites four examples as evidence of an improved pre-sales market. CBS Films pre-bought Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths for the US, Studio Canal are backing first time filmmaker Yann Demange (Top Boy) on ‘71, Mike Leigh’s Turner pre-sold to the US and France, while Lava Bear has taken on Ben Wheatley’s upcoming Freakshift and is “confident of raising a substantial budget for it.”
The burgeoning VoD market – bolstered by companies such as Netflix and Lovefilm – also means that there is a greater demand for new films. This, in turn, has fed down and enabled distributors – like eOne, StudioCanal and Momentum – to offer more sizeable advances for UK films.
All of which suggests the prospects for UK film – as well as inward investment – remain strong for 2013. “There’s a real buzz – there’s a lot of exciting projects about,” says Double Negative’s Alex Hope.
This article is from the February issue of Televisual