Sky’s The Five was created by two of the biggest names in publishing and TV: author Harlan Coben and producer Nicola shindler
With over 60 million books in print worldwide, Harlan Coben is one of the most high profile thriller writers at work today. Yet despite having 28 page-turning novels to his name such as Tell No One, No Second Chance and Gone for Good, the New Jersey-based author’s work had never – until recently – made it to the small screen.
But he was specifically targeted by Red Production to help them create new drama series The Five for Sky. Red founder Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Queer as Folk) recalls: “We started having conversations with the Sky drama team about how you do a thriller on TV which has the same impact as a thriller you read, where instead of staying up to read the next chapter you have to watch the next episode.”
Red head of development Richard Fee then suggested approaching a thriller writer to help plot such a story, which could then be taken on by a scriptwriter. “We put together a top ten list of writers to work with, and Harlan was at number one,” says Shindler.
So Red approached him via his agent. Within two hours of getting in touch, Coben himself emailed straight back saying he had an idea. ‘Do you want to hear it?’, he asked.
Coben, speaking over the phone from the US, picks up the story: “I had this idea playing in my head, and I was going to write it as a novel, but I always saw it too visually to be a novel.”
He outlined the basics straightaway: a story about four friends, one of whom’s brother goes missing; twenty years later, one of the friends is a policeman and discovers that the young brother’s DNA has been found at a crime scene, suggesting that he is alive.
“That was such a good, gripping start that we said yes straight away,” says Shindler, who then travelled to New York with Fee to meet Coben.
Over the course of a two day visit, Coben talked through the storyline. And Shindler was impressed: “He always knew the ending. He had a brilliant opening, but then he has to know the ending too, otherwise he can’t start writing. It’s really unusual for a writer. Lots of them could learn from that.”
Shindler and Fee came away with a five page document outlining the story. “We then had to turn it into a ten part television series,” adds Shindler.
Danny Brocklehurst (The Driver, Clocking Off) was brought on board to write the script for The Five. The pair clearly got on well: “Danny brought a great sense of pace and a fantastic understanding of how to break things up to tell the story. Our mantra throughout this show was to not make it too timid,” says Coben. For his part, Brocklehurst would read a different book of Coben’s before writing each episode to get a feel for the way he tells stories.
Coben was involved throughout the scriptwriting process. “We would tell him that we have 20 minutes when nothing happens in episode seven, and he would go away and then throw ten ideas at you. It was a great way of working,” says Shindler.
The Five is set in the UK and filmed in and around Liverpool and Cheshire. A fan of British dramas such as Happy Valley, Coben says seeing his story through a foreign lens adds a whole new element to his typically US-based dramas.
Shindler explains that one of the big challenges of producing The Five was its scale. “We have never done ten hours before. And a single story over ten hours is really tough.” The budget was bigger than she is used to, with Sky’s investment topped up by a pre-sale to Canal Plus and backing from distributor StudioCanal, the parent company of Red.
The brief from Sky was to produce a show that would sit well with its American imports. So the production team aimed for a cinematic look to the drama to lend a sense of scale and ambition. “The storytelling is a little bit heightened, certainly in comparison with Happy Valley, and I think you need the visuals to go with that,” notes Shindler.
She credits director Mark Tonderai for creating the cinematic look of the series. Unusually, he directed the entire series – shooting for 127 days between March and October 2015. “It was incredibly difficult for Mark, but it really paid off for us because we had such a single, strong voice on it.” The Five was shot in blocks of two episodes at a time. “We had a two week break between each block where Mark recced for the next block and did a bit of editing. And we were editing while filming. It was like he worked 24 hours a day.”
Looking back, Coben says he enjoyed making the switch from books to TV; he even makes a guest appearance as a waiter in one episode: “I’ve never collaborated in my life as I write novels, but with The Five everyone had their own ideas to add in a positive way.”
The Five is on Sky 1 from April 15th at 9pm
The Five is a ten part drama about four friends, Mark, Pru, Danny and Slade. When they were 12 years old, Mark’s five-year-old brother Jesse was bothering them so they told him to get lost. Jesse ran away. He was never seen again. Twenty years later, Danny - now a detective - learns thatJesse’s DNA has been found at a murder scene.
Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach, Sky
Nicola Shindler, Red Production Co; Harlan Coben; Cameron Roach
Paulo Pandolpho, Celia Haining, John Murphy
c/o Face North VFX
Sports indie Whisper Films has stepped up a gear with its F1 coverage for Channel 4. Tim Dams talks to co-founder Sunil Patel
A good start. That seems to be the verdict of most Formula One fans to Channel 4’s coverage of the sport since it took over from the BBC last month.
Viewers seemed to like C4’s new presenting line up, which includes drivers David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Susie Wolff and Karun Chandhok as well as presenters Steve Jones and Lee McKenzie.
Before the launch, C4 stressed the diversity of its new F1 presenting team, and talked up its history of innovating in sports TV, notably with Test Cricket and the Paralympics. “We have a unique ability to innovate with live sports coverage, and we are going to do the same again with Formula One,” said chief creative officer Jay Hunt.
However, few viewers thought that C4 had reinvented F1 coverage after watching its debut coverage at the Australian Grand Prix. That’s hardly surprising given that sports indie Whisper Films had less than 10 weeks to put together its coverage for C4. The indie won a competitive tender from C4, which picked up free-to-air rights to F1 in December when a cash-strapped BBC pulled out of its deal three years early.
The fact that Whisper is minority owned by C4 through its Growth Fund raised a few eyebrows at the time. However, C4 insists the tender process was properly managed. A C4 insider adds that the Growth Fund was specifically designed to back fledgling indies like Whisper, particularly in markets such as TV sport where barriers to entry are high and the sector is dominated by two players, IMG and Sunset + Vine.
Whisper was launched in 2010 and is run by former BBC Sports producer Sunil Patel, presenter Jake Humphries and former F1 driver David Coulthard.
To date, Whisper’s programming includes films for brands within F1 such as Red Bull, UBS and Shell; short films for the BBC; highlights programming for ITV; and a doc for BBC1, Racing With The Hamiltons: Nic In The Driving Seat. But the F1 contract takes it to a new level. Now employing 25 people, Whisper last year relocated from Ealing Studios to larger premises in Power Road Studios, Chiswick.
Patel says Whisper’s immediate priority for its F1 coverage is to “be credible and deliver the sport”. He adds: “We are not going to take it off into a new direction that is going to upset existing fans.”
“David Coulthard is there week in week out to be your comfort blanket, then we layer around him people who have absolute credibility – whether it be [technical analyst and Formula Asia Championship winner] Karun Chandok, [Williams F1 test driver] Suzie Woolf or [former F1 champion] Alain Prost.”
Looking ahead, Patel says he’s keen for Whisper’s coverage to bring a new audience to F1. “C4 stand for innovation, and that is where we will be pushing.” And that, he explains, is about “how we come on air, how we present the graphics, the talent line up, different voices and different opinions.”
Whisper is limited in how it can present the races as it takes core coverage from a world feed produced by Formula One Management (FOM). So any innovations will take place around the edges of its race coverage, particularly in VTs.
In particular, Patel thinks Whisper lift the production values of its F1 coverage. He praises the BBC’s coverage of F1 (which he used to work on). But he believes that F1 was ‘slightly underloved’ at the BBC, not by the people working on it, but at a wider level where it was seen as an expensive sport to produce for a niche audience.
By contrast, and speaking just before Sky snatched all rights to F1 from 2019, Patel insists that Whisper “has got C4’s backing to really go for it. The channel are really behind us.”
Whisper is shooting features to accompany the races on Sony F5 cameras “to give a Whisper feel” to all packages. The ‘Whisper feel’, he explains, is cinematic, high-end and glossy.
He says such a look is a calling card for Whisper. “In a relatively short space of time, we have created a production company that is well known for producing high end sports content – whether motor sport, American football, tennis or football. Whatever we do, we will do in a cinematic way.”
Other technical innovations have seen the Whisper production team move editing platforms from Final Cut 7 to Adobe Premier Pro. “Premier Pro has more bells and whistles to it. It lends itself to quicker workflows.”
The decision to switch editing platform was taken the day after Whisper won the F1 contract, adding to the challenge of producing the coverage. Says Patel: “We were also covering the Superbowl for BBC2 and BBC1 while setting up what we are doing on Formula 1. It’s been a busy and exiting time…and it’s been challenging.”
Whisper Films CV
Whisper Films was launched by David Coulthard, Sunil Patel, and Jake Humphrey (pictured) in 2010
Patel was previously a producer for BBC Sport where he worked on Euro 2008, Match of the Day, the Olympics, Wimbledon, The Open and Formula 1 coverage. He has also worked at Sky and IMG.
Coulthard is a former Formula 1 racing driver who won 13 Grand Prix during his career. He is now a pundit and commentator for F1.
TV presenter and journalist Jake Humphrey is the presenter of BT Sport football coverage and previously presented BBC Sport’s Formula 1 coverage from 2009-2012.