There’s very little, on the surface, that links naturalist Gerald Durrell, novelist Neil Gaiman and thriller writer Len Deighton. Yet Sid Gentle Films is currently juggling three TV dramas based on stories by these three very different writers.
Sid Gentle was launched in 2013 by Sally Woodward Gentle, the former creative director at Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films, with Lee Morris as md and Henrietta Colvin as head of development. It is backed by global investment firm The Yucaipa Companies.
A whole host of drama indies have launched since then, looking to take advantage of the demand for long form scripted shows. But Sid Gentle has quickly made strong headway in this competitive landscape.
Its very first drama, The Durrells, was a hit for ITV, which promptly commissioned a second series. It starts shooting in August. This month, Sky Arts launched Likely Stories, a four part adaptation of short stories from Neil Gaiman, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the duo responsible for Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth, with an original score by Jarvis Cocker. And in the autumn, Sid Gentle delivers its BBC1 adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS – GB (below), penned by Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Set in Nazi-occupied London, it’s based on the premise that Germany won the Battle of Britain.
At one point, Sid Gentle – which has six full time staff working from its Fitzrovia office – was filming on all three projects at the same time.
As well as being book adaptations, Woodward Gentle says the three dramas are linked in that Sid Gentle has sought “to be completely true to the material.” The Durrells, for example, is “completely authored by Simon Nye” who adapted all of them. “Filming in Corfu, we were in a little bubble – there was no sense we had to do this for an ITV audience. It was about doing it because the material demanded it.”
Sid Gentle made one key change to the book, shifting the focus from Gerald Durrell onto his mother. “Then you have got almost the perfect construct – a woman with four unruly children. They have all got their own individual problems, they bicker like any other family, but deep down they love each other. Then you have stunning Corfu, animals and Simon Nye’s beautiful writing – it sort of works.”
The adaptation of four Neil Gaiman short stories couldn’t be more different. In this era of box set dramas, each is self contained and runs to 22 minutes. But, says Woodward Gentle, they are linked by common themes – human consumption, destructive obsession and psychological cannibalism.
Woodward Gentle was introduced to Gaiman’s short stories by his agent, Mel Kenyon. “I sat and read about 40 – they are extraordinary.” The choice of a single directing team was important too, meaning that Forsyth and Pollard “could realise them as something that has a completeness.” Forsyth and Pollard’s background is as artists, with their work exhibiting at the Tate Gallery and ICA. “They have an amazing aesthetic and incredible attention to detail.”
SS – GB, meanwhile, is still in post. Deighton’s thriller, says Woodward Gentle, is cerebral rather than a big action series. “It is another authored piece – we have one director Philipp Kadelback doing all five hours.” Kadelback is German. “Again we are working with a director who is not really within the British system,” says Woodward Gentle, emphasising how Sid Gentle’s dramas are helmed by slightly left-field choices (The Durrells was directed by Steve Barron, who made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
Woodward Gentle clearly enjoys the freedom that running her own indie entails. She likens it to the early days of Kudos, where she used to work. “You are a tiny little team, you develop stuff you love and think you can sell and you make it to the best of your abilities. Because we are not owned by a distributor and our backers are incredibly in the background, we can do what we believe in.” Likely Stories ‘frankly isn’t going to do anything to our bottom line’. But, she highlights that it has meant working with Gaiman, Forsyth, Pollard and Cocker. “We want to build a reputation for working with really interesting people.”
Looking ahead, Woodward Gentle acknowledges that high broadcaster demand for drama “doesn’t seem to be tapering off at all.” The likes of Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and BBC America have expanded the client base for drama indies. But this, she adds, has led to greater competition. “Lots of people out there are making things and everybody is setting up an indie.” The price of book rights has also gone up, she says. “New contemporary books are really hard to pick up because the competition is massive.” And there is a lot of competition for the best writers.
As for trends, she says TV drama is notoriously cyclical. “There is a complete over development of period material and so there is now a big need for contemporary material.”
Sally Woodward Gentle launched Sid Gentle Films in September 2013.
She was previously creative director of Carnival Films, executive producing Whitechapel, Any Human Heart and Enid.
Before Carnival, she was the creative director for BBC Drama Production. At the BBC she worked on Tipping the Velvet, Cambridge Spies, Waking the Dead, the first series of the new Dr Who, and The House of Saddam.
Woodward Gentle was formerly managing director of Kudos, executive producing Psychos and overseeing the development of Spooks.
As voters head to the polls in the referendum, it’s worth reflecting on what a Remain or Leave vote might mean for the UK’s creative industries.
The creative industries have been one of the great success stories of the UK economy in recent years.
Take the studios sector, for example, which has boomed thanks to the growth in big budget international dramas and films shot in the UK.
Studios here have hosted a raft of films and TV shows such as Warner Bros’ upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Netflix’s The Crown or HBO's Game of Thrones, reflecting how the UK has become one of the pre-eminent global production hubs. The picture above, for example, is of Tom Cruise filming The Edge of Tomorrow on the backlot at Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios.
International talent and finance has flowed into the UK, coursing through the extensive supply chain that supports production – whether Soho vfx houses or Belfast studios.
Figures show that the UK’s creative economy is growing much faster than its European neighbours. Employment in the UK’s creative industries has risen three times faster than in the EU as a whole, according to Nesta. The UK accounts for 14% of the total EU workforce, but 21% of all creative industry jobs. Clearly, the EU is doing very little to hold back the UK creativity.
In fact, having access to a single market of over 500m people has been a boon. The EU is the largest export market for the UK’s creative industries, totalling 56% of all overseas trade in the sector, according to the Creative Industries Federation. Pact figures, meanwhile, show that Europe accounts for 31% of UK television exports, just behind the lucrative North American market.
Creative industry executives say it is vital that the UK stays in the EU so it can influence regulatory decisions which may have a bearing on future trading. Others point out that EU funding has supported films like The King’s Speech or development organisations like Screen Yorkshire.
Most importantly, though, the UK’s status as a creative hub is enhanced hugely by the free movement of talent, capital and cultural exchange within the EU. The UK is by far the biggest recipient of foreign investment in the EU. We are a bridge to Europe for Hollywood studios, many of whom base their HQs and their biggest films here.
A vote to leave would be unlikely to change all this overnight. But EU markets would likely become harder to access, which would gradually have an impact on the UK creative sector, harming its current status.
Creative hubs are fragile constructions, and there are many competitors looking to steal the UK’s crown. Why put it all at risk on the 23 June?
IMAX has been taking cinemagoers into space since 1990, with immersive and technically complex films such as Space Station 3D and Hubble 3D. Its latest, A Beautiful Planet 3D, features footage of Earth from space – all shot by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
A Beautiful Planet is notable not just for its stunning representation of our world and the effects that humanity has had on it over time. It also marks a new departure for IMAX in how it makes films in space.
For the first time on an IMAX space production, the filmmakers chose to use digital cameras rather than film. The decision was made partly out of necessity as the space trucks used to transport bulky IMAX cameras and film negative had been taken out of service.
So, when work on the film first began in 2012, one of the first jobs was to test and select the right cameras to send into space. DoP James Neihouse says he drew up a shortlist of top digital cameras that he thought might be suitable: the Canon C300, Red Epic, Arri Alexa M and the Sony F65 and put them up against the IMAX film cameras, shooting the same scenes to test their capabilities. He liked the Arri, but it ‘fell off’ the list because it was a 2K camera. The Sony F65 was also dropped, in part because he thought it would be difficult for astronauts to operate.
Neihouse later added Canon’s just launched C500 into the mix. “The uncompressed 4K coming out of the C500 was definitely the clear, hands down winner compared to the 5K uncompressed coming out of the Red,” he says. The C500 was selected, alongside the Canon EOS 1D-C digital SLR cameras, and Canon Cinema Zoom and Prime lenses.
To capture 4K images, the filmmakers paired the C500 with Codex Onboard S Plus Recorders, which hold half a terabyte of data – allowing 30 minutes of recording time on a data pack the size of an iPhone.
This was a vast improvement on previous IMAX space productions. One film reel might weigh 10 pounds and had three minutes of record time. “The most we ever had was eight rolls in a shuttle mission,” says director Toni Myers. “There was no take two with film; the astronauts really had to get it right first time.”
Neihouse and Myers spent about 25 hours over the course of nine months to a year training each astronaut how to use the kit at the Johnson Flight Centre in Houston. The astronauts were quick to master the particular filmmaking techniques needed for IMAX and 3D, particularly around framing, composition and shot length. Says Myers: “They are astronauts! They are very talented and work it out for themselves.”
The longer recording capabilities of the digital cameras meant that the pressure was off astronauts to deliver ‘performances’ needed in the time-limited days of film. The old IMAX film cameras were also incredibly noisy, and distracting to astronauts. “They sounded like a lawnmower,” says Myers.
The digital footage, adds Neihouse, is a lot more natural and relaxed – like a fly on the wall documentary. “It gives you a better look into what life is like on the Space Station,” he says. The better light sensitivity of the digital cameras also allowed the crew to capture nighttime scenes that were hard to shoot on film. “It totally opened up that night world to us, with stars, cities at night, lightning and other phenomena you see at night like Aurora,” says Myers.
Before the launch, Myers and Neihouse provided the astronauts with a shot list of 100 to 150 targets, and they were also given the freedom to shoot what they saw. They could downlink footage to Earth via the Space Station’s satellite communications system, allowing Myers and Neihouse to review it – and provide direction. Says Myers: “I could then do a PowerPoint and take screen grabs, put arrows all over it, and say, ‘Don’t do this, do that,’ and send it back to them.” One common mistake that needed ironing out was the tendency of the astronauts to shoot their images upright, as if on Earth, and not to take advantage of zero gravity – which viewers want to experience for themselves on screen.
The cameras spent some 15 months on board the ISS. The astronauts had a busy schedule of experiments and maintenance to carry out, so the majority of footage and still photography was shot during their personal time on nights and weekends. In total, they captured 250,000 still photos and between 10 and 12 terabytes of footage.
This was digitally remastered for IMAX screens, where A Beautiful Planet should play for many years to come, says Neihouse. “The reason IMAX films stay around so long in theatres is people go back and they see new things in the frame…I saw A Beautiful Planet about fifteen times before I realized there were two orange space-alien stuffed toys in one scene.”
Presented in IMAX 3D, A Beautiful Planet was filmed by astronauts on the International Space Station, and depicts the impact humans have had on Earth over time - from the bright lights of big cities to the deforestation of Madagascar and the oil and gas flares in the Gulf of New Mexico. “I wanted to reach a new generation of school kids with an appreciation of how complex, beautiful and fragile the planet really is,” says producer and director Toni Myers.
Producer, director, editor and writer
Toni Myers DoP and astronaut trainer
James Neihouse Executive producer
Graeme Ferguson Co-producer
Judy Carroll Space operations consultant
Marsha Ivins Music Micky Erbe Sound design
Peter Thillaye Cameras
Canon C500, Canon EOS 1D-C Lenses
Canon Cinema Zoom and Primes Media recorders
Codex Onboard S Plus
A health scare prompted Steph Keelan to realise a long-delayed ambition of making a documentary. Directed and produced with Emma Harpin, Swim the Channel was entirely self funded - and has just been picked up by BBC4.
Here Keelan (pictured left), who is the director of hire and crewing firm S+O Media, explains how she and Harpin (right) made the film.
Tell us about Swim the Channel?
It’s about the swimmers and volunteers found along the Kent coastline from May to September working together to attempt their dream of swimming the English Channel. It’s about what pushes ordinary people to exceed their limits. Everyone on that coast is searching for something within. There’s an appeal to that. More people have climbed Everest than have swum from England and France.
Where did the idea come from?
I was training in Morocco on my fortieth birthday for the London Marathon (a mid life crisis). Mike Oram, the pilot in the film, was staying in the same hotel. He gave me a grilling every morning about my training methods, and how I was putting physical fitness above mental strength. We got talking and I couldn’t shake the visual image of him navigating the swimmers to France barking their truth at them along the way. The line he said that hooked me was, ‘It’s as hard for me as it is for the swimmer but I do it with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich’. When running the marathon the only voice in my head was Mike’s and I nailed it! He tells it how it is - spending a season filming a community of Oram’s suddenly became appealing.
Why did you self fund?
I had always wanted to work in documentaries but with two children and a cameraman husband it didn’t seem a feasible work/life balance. So I worked at facilitating the TV gold of others until a health scare prompted me to get off my arse and make the film I’d always wanted to. Emma is a photographer, fellow mother and friend who was keen to share the journey with us and so off we went.
What was the budget?
There was no budget plan. We knew we had to immerse ourselves into the swimming community to gain their trust so we had to film every weekend and at every swimming event. As a result the costs spiralled but the access was priceless. We were incredibly lucky to have S+O’s shelves of kit and amazing crew who gave their time and talent so generously. Envy Post were also amazing; they got behind the project and supported us seeing the film through to the finish.
Damon Albarn contributed the music. How did he get involved?
Emma had been a friend of Damon and his partner Suzi for fifteen years. Emma got talking to Damon about the film and he offered his musical services. Still can’t quite believe it really. He worked alongside Suzi Winstanley and Michael Smith. We can’t thank them enough for their time and creative input.
What kit did you use?
We used the Canon C300. Olly Wiggins, the DoP, wanted to create a strong cinematic look so we shot primarily with a fixed 35mm lens. The camera was light, robust, and shot in C Log, the footage graded beautifully.
Coming from a hire background, what did you learn about reality of producing and directing?
I had a background in production prior to setting up S+O with Olly and I love my job. But it was great to reconnect to a story from start to finish. As a TV facilities house we are very aware that every day we shoot is the culmination of months of hard work and prep for our clients. It was nice not to hand the baby back for a change! The edit was an incredible experience, we worked with Alex Fry and the process was dynamic and frustrating in equal measure - a form of alchemy.
Greatest challenge of making the film?
Resources, juggling childcare and the day job, and up to twenty hours at a time without sleep on a boat. Luckily most filming was at weekends but it did escalate to seven day weeks pretty quickly.
What do you wish you’d known when you started out - and what did you learn along the way?
We learned that syncing sound is everything! And never stop the flow of what is happening in front of camera as you can forgive the odd sound glitch or camera wobble but you can never recreate what happens before your eyes.
Tips for somebody wanting to self fund their own film?
Make sure you are clear from the onset of what you’re trying to achieve to avoid costly mistakes, and where possible shoot a taster and get funding to test the idea works. Be fiercely passionate about your subject as there will be challenges along the way that will break you. Without a true love for the story you’re trying to tell you’re going to suffer.
How did you sell it to BBC4?
We contacted Storyville and they were gracious enough to watch it and offer us a slot with BBC4. We’re delighted and can’t wait for TX.
A prolific writer with credits including Stormbreaker and Foyle’s War, Anthony Horowitz tells Tim Dams about his latest New Blood
New Blood is your first BBC drama – how did it come about? I have been an ITV writer for a very, very long time. About 80% of my work has been for ITV. But I began conversations with [former BBC head of drama] Ben Stephenson and mentioned to him that I had a new crime format. He was very interested, particularly as he was looking for material that would play younger, for an audience in their twenties and thirties. I sent Ben the first script on Monday for New Blood, and by Friday he had commissioned it.
Why didn’t you take it to ITV? For a long time I have argued that the three breaks in an hour of ITV drama makes it extremely difficult for a writer to maintain any degree of emotional honesty. Or just to keep the narrative rolling. I have long wanted the purity of the BBC1 hour.
What spurred you to write New Blood? My interest is what it is like to be 20 - 25 years old in London. And that is what gives this show its freshness. The leads are not those slow middle-aged problem-carrying detectives you see so often on TV. They get drunk, they bicycle everywhere, they are always asking for a pay rise, they cling to their jobs by their fingernails. The show has got that smile to it, which I think has been missing from British television.
So it’s not a dark, grungy show? I am slightly wary of more battered women, more chopped up women, more kidnapped children – all that stuff. I want something that makes me smile but which has the same danger, and the same excitement.
What kind of shows would you compare it to? People have talked about Spooks, Starsky and Hutch. I often mention Lethal Weapon because that gives you an idea of the bromance at the heart of it, and the banter and the fun – in a dangerous and quite violent world. The action is a little heightened. At the end of episode three, the two boys are chased through a London hotel by two chamber maids with AK-47 machine guns. They get to the roof and realise the only way out is to jump off the roof down into the swimming pool below.
Tell us about the casting? It’s brave of the BBC to launch a major 9pm show with two unknowns who are carrying the whole thing on their shoulders. I wanted the boys to be outsiders. I didn’t want them to be British – Anglo-Saxon white British. That puts them into too much of a mould: what school they went too, what class their parents were. So I thought I would go Eastern European and Iranian.
And it’s in London? We shot a lot in East London. London is very much a third character. The London you see is cosmopolitan and multinational. It is very now – London with all its energy.
What’s the climate like for TV writers now? The atmosphere has changed while I have been a writer. It is now a fantastic time to be a TV writer. If I asked someone in the street five years ago to name half a dozen TV writers, they wouldn’t be able to name one. But now names like Sally Wainwright, Jed Mercurio or Vince Gilligan are household names because television has become authored.
Television has become what literature was 20 years ago – it’s a hotbed of new ideas and people trying to do original things rather than making tired formats. Now you can watch shows like Breaking Bad, The Good Wife or The Night Manager. 20 years ago it wasn’t like that – TV has come of age.
You’ve written over 40 novels as well as plays and TV screenplays. How do you fit it all in? It boils down to no social life! That’s not true entirely. But I love writing – I adore storytelling – I love the whole business. I work very, very long hours. So does Jill. Sometimes we will sit together in our Clerkenwell home and it will be 11.30 on a Friday night and we are both at our desks doing stuff.. I think being married to the producer creates an environment where work comes first. It always does. My children know this as well. Work comes first – that is the rule in the family.
Which medium do you enjoy most – plays, TV or novels? Probably TV – I love the collaboration, the excitement, the speed. I love the fact that a TV page has got fewer words on it than a page of a novel. There’s more white space, so less to do! What excites me is that Ben and Mark are going to be stars in six months time. And they are so nice, and they have been such fun to work with. You don’t get that with a book.
Newcomers Mark Strepan (The Mill) and Ben Tavassoli (No Offence) star in Horowitz’s new BBC1 investigative drama, New Blood.
The 7x60-series is produced by Eleventh Hour Films (Safe House, Foyle’s War, Vexed), which is run by Horowitz’s wife Jill Green.
Directed by Anthony Philipson (Cuffs, Our Girl) New Blood portrays modern London through the eyes of two outsiders – one Polish/British and the other Iranian/British.
Strepan and Tavassoli play the roles of junior investigators working at the Serious Fraud Office and the police. Brought together by two seemingly unrelated cases, they come up against the uber rich and powerful – corporations, individuals, governments and the new breed of criminals who hide behind legitimate facades and are guarded by lawyers.
The series producer is Eve Gutierrez.
New Blood is available on the iPlayer now and airs on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday 9th June