Exec producer John Griffin tells Jon Creamer about turning Bruges into 15th century England and wrestling one narrative from three of Philippa Gregory’s Wars of the Roses novels
The White Queen is BBC1’s 10-part adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s series of historical novels that tell the stories of the influential women involved in the Wars of the Roses.
Company Pictures’ adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s historical novels set amidst the upheaval of the Wars of the Roses seemed at first like a straightforward task.
But Company’s then joint md George Faber secured the rights to the six books before five had even had their treatments written. The obvious plan, to create a TV series from each of the six books as they emerged, was soon blown out of the water. “When I saw the treatments for the next book and the book after I realised that [Gregory] was playing the same piece of history from a different woman’s point of view each time,” says the show’s exec producer, John Griffin. “I soon had the stories of three books and realised it wasn’t going to work doing each series as one story.”
The Write way
Lead writer Emma Frost then came on board and she and Griffin tried various ways of structuring the narrative. “We tried lots of different ways. At one point we thought we could do half hour episodes with one told from one woman’s point of view and the next from another and play them against each other.” The eventual decision was to take just two books, The Red Queen and The White Queen, the stories of Lancastrian Lady Margaret Beaufort and Yorkist Elizabeth Woodville, and run them together, showing both stories concurrently throughout the series. The BBC’s Polly Hill liked the idea and Frost then spent the next the three months working on a bible for the series. The show was greenlit and ready to go.
But at that point, the next book in the series, The Kingmakers Daughter, which covers the same slice of history as the first two books but from the perspective of Anne Neville, was handed to Griffin. “I read half of it and thought ‘this changes everything. Now I’ve got a proper 360-degree view of the history.’ I got in touch with George [Faber] and Polly [Hill] and said ‘sorry to put a spanner in the works but I think we need to do another book.’” The answer was unsurprisingly negative, but both agreed to read the new book and mull over the idea. “Polly Hill called me four days before the meeting and said ‘we have to do this one.’”
And that meant another month of rewriting to feed the new book into the bible. The series was also starting to expand, bulging to 15 episodes at one point. “That’s good in terms of getting an American broadcaster on board, but what George kept saying was ‘don’t think how many episodes anybody wants, just do what’s right for the story.” And Griffin and Frost did realise the script was becoming bloated. “We didn’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot down the line with a horribly empty episode with nothing to tell in it.” So the series was cut to a more streamlined 10. But this was now February 2012 “and we were due to start shooting in August. It was getting a little bit tense.”
The entire production was shot in and around the tourist haven of Bruges, but Belgium hadn’t even occurred to Griffin when the hunt started for locations. “My starting point was the West Country. You’ve got Wells Cathedral, Welsh castles not far away, fantastic 15th century manor houses and lovely countryside.”
But even though the location was perfect, it lacked the crucial element of a tax break at that time. A trip to Ireland was in many ways promising, but Ireland’s castles do tend be a bit on the ruined side and “that’s a real problem. People didn’t live in ruined castles, they lived in brand spanking new ones.” Even South Africa was considered “but not for very long. There aren’t many castles in the Southern Cape.”
Then Griffin was told about the new Belgian TV tax break that Parade’s End had used. But Belgium as a location wasn’t initially enticing. “My initial reaction was to laugh.” But a short recce later “I came back with my tail between my legs. Bruges is an almost perfectly preserved 15th century city.”
And the architecture couldn’t be more film friendly, says Griffin. “They’ve got old castles like ours but they like to repoint them and put the wooden bits back on.” Which is maybe not so pleasing from a tourist’s point of view but much better from a filmmaker’s. “So Warwick Castle was a genuine old castle that’s been so tarted up that it looks brand new, which is perfect because Warwick lived in a great big, brand new, chavvy castle. He’s the richest man in Britain.”
The abundance of 15th Century architecture also changed the production’s initial thoughts about the use of CGI. “Because we had these real locations we thought ‘let’s avoid the big CGI numbers.” And aside from a small amount of crowd replication and a couple of matte paintings it was “actually an incredibly small amount. It makes the show feel different to all those CGI shows” with matte paintings of old London and overused cg shots of London Bridge and the Tower. Instead, street shots of Bruges (with shots of the Tower comped in above) were the order of the day. “It gives it an honesty which I really like,” he says.
Company Pictures Executive producers
John Griffin, George Faber, Charles Pattinson, Philippa Gregory, Polly Hill (BBC)Producer Gina Cronk Lead writer
Emma Frost Writers Lisa McGee,
Malcolm Campbell, Nicole Taylor Lead director
James Kent Directors
Colin Teague Line Producer
Christine Healy Editors
Ben Lester, Jamie Trevill, Ben Yeates DoPs
Jean Philippe Gossart, David Luther, Fabian Wagner Production designer
Martyn John Composer
John Lunn Sound recordist
Jan Deca Location manager
Wim De Waegenaere Post
The Farm Colourist
Aidan Farrell Dubbing mixer
Nigel Edwards Online editor
Clyde Kellett Camera
Skins creator Bryan Elsley’s latest project is a series of stripped back, actor led films focussing on nothing more that two people on their first date. Jon Creamer reports
Dates is a series of nine half hour films each focussing solely on the interaction between two people on a first date. The episodes play out seperately but some of the characters come back in later episodes for another first time. The series is produced by Balloon Entertainment, the indie set up by Skins creator Bryan Elsley and comedian Harry Enfield
What led you to the idea of dramatising a series of first dates?
The idea first came maybe 18 months ago. The idea was to create an actor led drama and a date seemed to me the simplest way of having two actors really explore performance and get everything back to basics. It’s a very stripped back idea. It’s two actors and a very good director. That’s basically the format. But a date is a very complex and grown up interaction between two people. It’s a complex language that everyone understands. Everyone knows the difficulty of spending an hour or so in someone’s company that you haven’t met before. It seemed to be that there was an almost infinite range of possibilities that could flow from that. So dramatically it became very attractive
There’s a lot of subtext to explore during a date?
They’re not quite saying what they mean and not quite revealing themselves as who they actually are. And in a television drama about that you can add a third element, which is what the audience knows about them. As the characters recur in later episodes the audience carry its foreknowledge about the character to the table, but the character is not necessarily offering that across the table to the other character. There’s a complicity with the audience, which is interesting as well.
Beyond the dates, do you show any of the characters’ back stories?
Occasionally we might see them hurrying to their date or in the moment before the date starts but there’s no back-story on screen. That emerges from the interaction of the characters. But with some of the recurring characters the audience may have seen them before. It should be possible to watch one episode and enjoy it but there is a subtle and complex pattern of overlaps, which emerges if you watch all the episodes.
Did you have actors in mind when writing?
We didn’t have people in mind as we started to write. I never think that’s a particularly good idea. We wrote the scripts and we started sending them around and there was really quite a strong response from some of the actors and directors. The directors are a very high quality set of directors. Some of them, for example Charles Sturridge who’s directed two of the episodes, brings a very high quality cast of people who are very keen to work with him. We were lucky in those respects.
Was the show team written?
There was a group of writers but I wouldn’t describe it as team writing because they all wrote their own individual episodes. But we do spend a lot of time together discussing and helping create the energy to link our stories up with each other. So there’s a lot of collaboration but each of the stories are authored very clearly by the individual writers.
How did that writing process begin?
We created many characters together and then we started whittling it down or perhaps amalgamating a couple of the characters and eventually a writer would put up their hand and say ‘that’s the one I feel a real affinity for. Could I write that one?’ By a slightly hit and miss process we arrived at an allocation of episodes against the writers.
Was there a long rehearsal process?
We rehearsed quite thoroughly which is unusual in television drama. The actors, who were all very eloquent articulate people, had their thoughts about the scripts and the writers were there in the rehearsals and so it was an evolutionary process. It was very interesting and something we don’t do enough of in TV, which is just to give everyone a chance to say what they think about the character they’re playing, about what they might or might not say or, from a director’s point of view, what the tone of it was going to be. It was very enjoyable to sit together and work this stuff out.
Was the shooting time tight?
The episodes were shot over three to four days so it was quite intense but I wouldn’t say we shot quickly. We had around about enough time to do it. We weren’t dashing around in trucks, moving from location to location. That was one of the advantages – we could sit on a location for two or three days at a time and really work out how we were going to use the environment. From the outside it might seem the episodes were shot quite quickly but inside the process there was a lot of relaxation about how we were going about it. Dates TXs in June on Channel 4
Channel 4 Commissioned by
Piers Wenger Production
Balloon Entertainment Executive producers
Bryan Elsley, Chris Clough, Harry Enfield Producer
Bradley Adams Directors
John Maybury, Eps 1, 3, 9; Charles Sturridge, Eps 2, 8; Philippa Langdale, Eps 4, 6; Sarah Walker, Ep 5; Paul Andrew Williams, Ep 7 DOPs
Jonathan Freeman, Eps 1, 3, 9; Maja Zamojda, Eps 2,4,6,8; Sarah Bartles-Smith, Ep 5; Carlos Catalan, Ep 7 Post
Deluxe London. Camera
Kudos is riding high after the success of ITV’s Broadchurch and was just voted best indie in the Televisual Bulldog Awards. Jane Featherstone and Dan Isaacs talk drama with Jon Creamer
From the outside, there almost seems to be two eras to Kudos’ output. One as a major BBC1 supplier with ten series of Spooks and eight of Hustle alongside Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. More recently as a supplier across all the channels from BBC2’s The Hour to Channel 4’s Utopia, ITV’s Broadchurch and the upcoming Anglo/French Sky Atlantic co pro The Tunnel and fire brigade drama The Smoke for Sky One.
It seems like a well thought out move, avoiding over reliance on one channel and creating shows for many. “It always looks brilliantly strategic from the outside but the truth is it’s a bit of an accident,” says chief exec, Jane Featherstone. The company has always tried to get more shows away on the other broadcasters “but the opportunities come where they come,” adds chief operating officer, Dan Isaacs.
Much is down to circumstance. Broadchurch itself came about when an earlier Kudos project with ITV for a “big scale crime thriller with one murder” hit the skids, and ITV’s Laura Mackie sent Chris Chibnall and his spec script over to Kudos for further development (Chibnall has now signed a first look deal with Kudos).
But it’s also down to sheer hard work. A Kudos speciality has been keeping long running dramas fresh, while forging ahead with the next crop. “Maintaining quality over ten years of Spooks and eight years of Hustle was not an accident,” says Featherstone. “There was a lot of time, effort and energy invested. And it is difficult to simultaneously spend similar time and energy on new things.”
It was partly the experience of Spooks, with its constantly changing cast, that helped drive Kudos’ constant creative renewal. “The reason Spooks worked for ten years was because we kept killing off the main characters,” says Featherstone. That was partly down to big names being unwilling to sign long contracts which “brought about the necessity to keep reinventing and that was what kept the show fresh.” And similarly, the killing off of those long running shows themselves brings new impetus. “Your creative energies are renewed,” says Featherstone.
And new hits breed more hits. A show like Broadchurch “helps with relationships with other writers and talent because fundamentally that’s all we are,” says Featherstone. “Utopia has the same effect. It’s loved by the creative community. That’s opened doors to writers and talent I’ve always wanted to work with.”
But when it comes to finding and developing new ideas, the pair insist that cold calculation is removed from the mix. “I’m not that strategic about what we develop apart from believing in the projects,” says Featherstone. “I tend to go for things that feel authentic and true and ahead of their time.” Isaacs concurs: “We’ve always been very pure. We don’t develop for a particular brief. If there’s a passion within our team of executives and they really want to do it, even if it’s going to be a difficult one to sell, we’ll do it.” And that even goes for singles and mini series. “They don’t really make sense financially,” says Isaacs. “But creatively they do. They attract talent, we build relationships off the back of them and they’re fun to do.” And they’re also “a good way of working with new talent,” says Featherstone. “High end shows need experience. On the lower budget things you can try people out.”
But it’s high-end series that Kudos gains most kudos for and now those high-end series have been given a boost from the new UK tax credit system. The company’s already accessing it on two or three shows. “It will allow us to push the editorial even further,” says Isaacs. “But it’s just another useful tool to have in your financing arsenal. People are still going to do co-productions for financial reasons. We’ll still be moaning we haven’t got enough money.” And in one sense it will just redress an imbalance in the system. “A lot of our crews have not been paid reasonable rates,” he says. “The economy has been squeezed and now it will flex back up again. Hopefully that will bring a lot of people back into the industry in certain grades.” And it will hopefully allow the industry to get back to sensible hours, says Featherstone. “On long runs we need to do five day weeks or you don’t get the best out of people. The money helps with that.”
The danger of the tax breaks, they say, could come from a fast influx of US productions. “We’re all conscious that the system can only take so much production here,” says Isaacs. “Two or three Games of Thrones in London would hoover up a huge number of people.” Featherstone agrees that certain grades of crew are in short supply already. “I am a bit of a doom monger on this,” she admits. “But my life is talent. I spend every day at the sharp end looking at lists of writers, directors and actors and if they’re all working for other people it makes it really hard.”
CV Jane Featherstone began her career at Hat Trick before producing the first two series of Paul Abbot’s ITV thriller Touching Evil, BBC2’s Sex ‘n’ Death and BBC1’s Glasgow Kiss for Wall to Wall. She joined Kudos in 2000. Dan Isaacs started out as a dentist, became an actor and then moved into the indie world becoming commercial director of Hewland International. He joined Kudos in 2003. Kudos hits include Spooks, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Hustle for BBC1, Lip Service for BBC3, Moving Wallpaper, Echo Beach and Occupation for ITV1, The Hour for BBC2 and, most recently, Broadchurch for ITV and Utopia for C4