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Behind the scenes: BBC2 spy thriller Legacy

The Paula Milne-scripted Legacy is the mainstay of BBC2’s Cold War season this month - and was one of the first shows to take advantage of the new drama tax credits.

The centrepiece of BBC2’s upcoming season on the Cold War, Legacy hits the screen this month thanks to the curious interplay of timing, talent – and tax. 

Set during the height of the Cold War in 1970s London, the Paula Milne-scripted espionage thriller tells the story of a young spy who discovers the disturbing truth about his father’s complex past.

The 90-min single drama only came about thanks to extraordinary good timing. Slim Film and Television’s Simon Crawford Collins was meeting with BBC drama commissioner Lucy Richer in November 2012 to discuss a historical series he was developing.  Richer mentioned in the meeting that she had just had a briefing from BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow, who was putting together a Cold War season of documentaries and was looking for a single drama to lead the season. Did Crawford Collins have a concept or idea that might suit – and crucially, that could be delivered on time?

A former producer of Spooks at Kudos, Crawford Collins had once met with Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, as part of his development research. Dearlove had recommended Alan Judd’s novel Legacy as one of the best books about life as intelligence officer in the Cold War.

So Crawford Collins immediately suggested the book to Richer, who thought it sounded promising. He phoned Judd’s agent that afternoon, found out the rights were available and offered to option the book the same day.
Given that the project would have to be delivered in less than a year, Crawford Collins wanted a top screenwriting talent for the script. “When time is against you, you need a really good writer,” he says. Coincidentally, BBC head of drama Ben Stephenson was having dinner with Paula Milne about the same time – and he gave her a copy of Judd’s book. Even though Milne was busy, she read the book – and decided she wanted to do the screenplay.

And so it turned out that, within a couple of weeks of Richer mentioning the possibility of a Cold War single drama, Paula Milne was working on Legacy. “That is unheard of in the drama world,” says Crawford Collins. “If only other things were that easy.”

The script was approved at the end of February. By that stage, Slim was planning the shoot. The timing was too tight to trawl for additional finance, but Slim realised that it could boost the budget by applying for the newly launched drama tax credit – which would add about 20% to the budget of over £1m provided by BBC2 and distributor BBC Worldwide.

Meanwhile, Slim had also lined up director Pete Travis for the project. Travis had worked before with Milne on the acclaimed drama Endgame, and had also directed Omagh and comic book adaptation Dredd. “He ticked all the boxes,” says Crawford Collins, pointing out that Travis knows how to deliver emotional and political stories, while able to tackle action on a cinematic scale.

Armed with a Paula Milne script and Pete Travis as director, casting proved straight-forward – more so given that Legacy was a single film that wouldn’t tie down actors for a long series. It meant the producers could aim high: Charlie Cox (Stardust) was cast as the leading man, alongside Romola Garai, Richard McCabe and Simon Russell Beale.

The production itself, though, was not so straightforward. The script determined that much of the film had to be shot at night. But, because of its tight schedule, Legacy had to shoot in July and August, when it didn’t get dark till very late at night.

The producers had to schedule in three weeks (out of four in total) of night shooting. The cast and crew would be called at 7pm or 8pm, when they would assemble for a cooked breakfast (caterers still work on the basis of a full working day). The shoot itself would not start until darkness fell after 10pm – but then only after the DoP had spent 45 minutes setting up his lights. “The hours of darkness were so precious we worked straight through,” says Crawford Collins. “We had to eke out every second of night time.”

Adding to the pressure was the decision to film Legacy in and around London, with shoots in residential areas in Ealing and along the Southbank. It was particularly difficult to find residential streets that would host film crews at night time.

And there were financial pressures too. Dramas that hope to claim for a tax credit have to shoot and spend their budget in good faith – and then apply for their rebate after the film is delivered. So producers have to finance the shortfall. In Legacy’s case, BBC Worldwide provided the gap finance – but only after Slim had ensured Legacy met the cultural requirements of the tax credit regime, and had received an advice letter from accountants Grant Thornton that the production would, in their opinion, qualify for the rebate.

Crawford Collins hopes he will get the money back from the taxman before Christmas. He calls the credit an “absolute God-send”. He adds: “It was a struggle to get this made – in fact I don’t think we’d have made the film if there wasn’t a tax rebate.”                 

Broadcaster BBC2
Produced by Slim Film + Television
Cast Charlie Cox, Romola Garai, Andrew Scott, Simon Russell Beale
Commissioned by Ben Stephenson, Janice Hadlow
Written by Paula Milne
Based on the novel by Alan Judd
Producer Rob Bullock
Director Pete Travis
Executive producers Lucy Richer, Simon Crawford Collins, Paula Milne, Alan Judd
Line producer Elizabeth Binns
Script executive Rebecca Ferguson
DoP Felix Wiedemann
Production designer Victor Molero
Art director Lynne Huitson
Composer Ruth Barrett
Post supervisor Jessica Rundle
Editor Stuart Gazzard
Colourist Paul Ensby
VFX Munky
Cameras Arri Alexa

Posted 18 November 2013 by Tim Dams

When real effects are better than vfx

Twenty five years old this year, Artem is something of a rarity in a UK production industry that has embraced digital VFX with relish.

Based out of a 20,000sq ft workshop on an industrial estate in West London, and another in Glasgow, Artem makes things – by hand.

In the week I visit, Artem designers have created and built a 60ft whale carcass, a talking toilet and painstaking replicas of World War II tank commanders’ throat mics.

Artem’s longevity proves there’s still a demand for physical effects on films, commercials and TV in this digital age, and is a reminder that not everything can or need be created by computer.

Artem works on major projects for museums and exhibitions too, and last year produced 20 separate pieces for Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony including a 60ft high Voldemort puppet, David Beckham’s pimped up speedboat, trampoline beds, the Child Catcher’s carriage and a giant baby’s head as well as some of the night’s pyrotechnics.

To outsiders, many of these projects seem unthinkably complicated to produce. For example, Olympic engineers originally cast doubt on the feasibility of the giant baby’s head, saying it would weigh 22 tons, which was far too heavy for the stadium’s stage.

With a deadline of just a month, Artem worked on the design with materials used in aircraft manufacturing, and brought the weight down to less than a ton.

“In this business, you are often thrown a problem and you just have to solve that problem,” says Artem founder Mike Kelt. “If there is no ideal solution, you have to come up with the best solution. If you are nervous or get stressed, my advice is don’t get into the business – it is not conducive to a quiet life.”

Kelt began his career in the BBC’s special effects department in 1979. His first job was to build the inside of a Dalek, which was about to be blown up in the studio, so that viewers could see the inner workings of Dr Who’s legendary foes when it exploded. “It was a great place and a great learning curve,” he says.

He stayed for nine years at the BBC, leaving to found Artem in 1988 with four other colleagues, two of whom are still involved, Simon Tayler and Stan Mitchell. Together they bought a workshop and, in the early years, commercials became the mainstay of the company.

“In those days, advertisers had budgets to spend and because ads are quick turnaround, the cash flow was positive and we were able to build up the company,” says Kelt.

The growth of digital technology has, he admits, had a huge impact on the physical effects industry. George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy and then Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur tale Jurassic Park started to change the game. “We used to do quite a bit of animatronic creature work – but most of it has gone. And I don’t think anyone would build a spaceship for real now.”

Kelt says a generation of people who have grown up with computers now forget that things can be built for real. “Real is almost always cheaper – and it usually looks better too,” he adds.

That said, digital technology is far more prominent in physical effects than it was even ten years ago. Many props are still designed and created entirely by hand. But others will be drawn up on a computer, from where the design file will be routed to a giant robot arm or a 3d printer to mechanically create the prop. Even then, though, the prop will be finished by hand.

Walking round Artem’s workshop, there are props everywhere that it has created or is working on: a half scale Wright brothers bi-plane, robot suits, fake potatoes (that can be thrown at actors without hurting them), a dead body, the Churchill Insurance dog. In each case, the workmanship is extraordinary.

“I often think that the skills involved in physical special effects are more widespread than anything in this land,” says Kelt.

Kelt adds: “It sounds stupidly arrogant, I know. But a heart surgeon deals with a heart, and he knows a heart backwards. But we are dealing with a huge range of skills – things that happen in the digital world, precision engineering, sculpting and explosives for example. Although you don’t have to be an expert in all areas, by the time you are a supervisor you have got to be pretty good with it all. And that is where you get your solutions from.”

Posted 13 November 2013 by Tim Dams
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