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Channel 4 ponders its big move

Three cities are still in the running for the new out-of-london Channel 4 HQ and three for the 
two creative hubs. the indies in those cities say the potential prize is immense. Jon Creamer reports

Autumn is when Channel 4 promises it will finally announce the names of the three cities that have won the beauty contest to become homes to its new non-London HQ and two creative pied a terres.

Birmingham, Greater Manchester and Leeds are all still in the running to be the home of the new HQ with Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow the remaining potential bases for one of the two ‘creative hubs’.

And it’s not been easy to get this far in the competition. To get on the initial long list, Channel 4 set out a series of conditions, some practical – travel time to London, size of working population, office space that could offer “cutting edge connectivity and technology”  - and some literally a beauty contest - “quality of life and the general attractiveness of any new location” was considered “paramount.”

To get to the final six, cities had to make it through a pitch process in June and July in which teams from Channel 4, including chief exec Alex Mahon, chief commercial officer Jonathan Allan and chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brooke, visited 13 shortlisted cities and regions for “presentations and discussions.”

For those that didn’t make the grade, there was much disappointment. Municipal councils and their creative communities fought hard to be one of the chosen. The official prize is a chunk of the 300 jobs Channel 4 is to base outside London with the National HQ also including a “state-of-the-art studio” that will be used to produce Channel 4 programmes and events and broadcast live daily programmes including Channel 4 News which will be co-anchored from outside the London studio every night.

But it was a hard-fought battle because for the indies and facilities in those cities, the benefits stretch far beyond those 300 new taxpayers.

Part of it is simply a psychological boost. “For Glasgow it would be another vote of confidence” in the city, says David Strachan, director of strategy at Tern TV. Laura Marshall, md at Bristol’s Icon Films, says a C4 move to her city “would be a substantive acknowledgement of the wealth of creativity, innovation and ability to deliver.” Rollem md Kay Mellor also argues that a C4 move to Leeds would not just “hugely benefit our economy and community” it would “put Leeds firmly on the map as a visitor destination.” Back in Glasgow, IWC creative director, Mark Downie, reckons “it would underline Glasgow’s growing reputation as a winning city when it comes to culture, bolstering its civic self-confidence” in the same way that hosting the European Championships and Commonwealth Games and “being named a UNESCO City of Music and producing five Turner Prize-winners” did.

Creative director and founder at Leeds based True North, Andrew Sheldon, says that even before the final decision,  “the bid process itself has already had a positive effect - the enthusiasm for bringing Channel 4 to Leeds is tangible. It isn’t simply what it means to the television and digital industries here – it’s about what it says about the region as a whole. Channel 4 would really enhance Leeds’ reputation as a forward looking European city.”

But it’s important to remember that the entire process has been one that was forced upon Channel 4. The Conservative’s election pledge to move Channel 4 lock stock and barrel out of London was resisted strongly by the broadcaster and led to it negotiating that pledge down. That negotiation ended with the government agreeing that Channel 4 could keep a substantial base at its Horseferry Road building in London but would spread its staff and spend further afield. Channel 4 has pledged that commissioning editors overseeing significant budget and with responsibility for some of its biggest shows will be based across the three new creative hubs – alongside a variety of other creative and business functions. Indies in the potential cities believe that it will keep to its word and real decisions will now be made outside London. And that is a major prize.

For IWC’s Downie “There’s a long history of commissioners based in London having a piecemeal relationship with producers in Glasgow. By committing to a permanent presence in the city that era will be brought to an end. It will raise Channel 4’s connectivity by improving the sharing of information, promoting better and more frequent dialogue with the city’s creative community; and existing relationships will be deepened.”

For Tern’s David Strachan, ending that “piecemeal relationship” is central. “Regular dialogue is the key to building trust which commissioning needs. Proximity makes dialogue more possible. The communities of Scotland and Northern Ireland need that umbilical connection to the heart of Channel 4.”

Rollem’s Mellor too says that being around the corner from commissioners “would allow our production company to develop a proper working relationship with them.” Icon’s Marshall echoes that saying “it would give west of England indies and freelancers easier access to commissioning.” That’s something that indies beyond London envy about their counterparts based full time in the capital. “We’ll look forward to having commissioners as part of the daily routine – the kind of contact that London producers take for granted in reception at Horseferry Road, but which is really important to building a long term creative and commercial relationship,“ says True North’s Sheldon.

Getting Channel 4 to set up shop in your city will inevitably give the local creative sector significant heft too. If Channel 4 build it, they will come, is the outlook for one big Manchester based facility. “Wherever Channel 4 move to, the commissioners will follow along with the production companies, this is the true value to any city that Channel 4 chooses.”

Any chosen city will see an influx of indies and new home-grown indies getting the confidence to set up shop long term. For Tern’s Strachan, “A growing production and commissioning community will create stability, continuity of employment, more confident pitches of greater scale.” Rollem’s Mellor says that “long-term I would hope that Channel 4 being in Leeds would encourage more production companies to make the city their home, and to enable us to grow and invest in proper studio space and post-production facilities in our city.”

A Channel 4 move means a city achieving critical mass in its production community. “There will be an influx of talent who have been considering where next to move to,” says Icon’s Marshall. “There will be economic investment in the city, one of the best places to live, through house purchasing, and of course the actual bricks and mortar of the hub.”

And that will also draw in talent, always a significant headache for non-London indies. “Channel 4’s presence will have an immediate impact on our greatest challenge, which is staffing. Their presence will help make Yorkshire somewhere that doesn’t just nurture talent but retains it,” says True North’s Sheldon.

That’s the prize for the winners. For the losers, it will be business as usual, back on the train and the plane to London and now with another destination to visit for those much-prized commissions.

Posted 07 September 2018 by Jon Creamer

Vanity Fair director James Strong on making a period drama with attitude

Putting Thackeray’s Vanity Fair on screen is far from untrodden ground. There have been around 13 adaptations of the story of Becky Sharp, Emma Sedley and their friends and families so far, all the way from a 1911 silent movie to a 1998 BBC version.

But the director of Mammoth Screen’s upcoming ITV/Amazon take on the novel, James Strong, hasn’t seen any of them.

In fact, says the director, whose credits include Broadchurch and Liar, he’s not really a big fan of period drama. “As a viewer, I sometimes find certain period dramas, particularly of this period, can be quite distancing - a little unrelatable to a modern audience.” And that made him the ideal fit for this adaptation that aims from the outset to be a contemporary drama in a period setting. That tone begins with Gwyneth Hughes’ scripts, says Strong. “They immediately have a modernity to them in the way they’re paced.”

And Strong was determined that the direction had to capture that tone. “I was very clear I wanted to approach it in the same way I’d approach a contemporary drama.” But, he says, “that’s an easy thing to say” and a little harder to get right in practice.

Initial thoughts were for a “mad, Trainspotting Baz Luhrmann mash up” but that was soon dropped. “The danger with that is it would tire after 20 minutes” leaving audiences dazzled but exhausted and missing the drama. “To have too stylised an aesthetic could risk detracting from the believability of the story,” he says.

The show needed to have “an attitude and swagger and fun to it” with the pace of contemporary drama, but had to keep the story real. Rehearsals with the cast steered clear of the text itself to keep performances fresh. “You have to catch lightning in the bottle a bit. On set we try to get the cameras up and running very quickly so we’re rehearsing as we’re shooting” so “you can often catch instinctive emotional reaction” - a technique used on Broadchurch and Liar. And the cameras were kept fluid so the actors aren’t restrained.

But alongside that contemporary feel, the show also needed to keep all that is good about period drama. Historical accuracy was not up for discussion, “it’s as forensically accurate as possible. The costumes, the etiquette, the houses, the décor, the military operations are all as accurate as you can be.” That extended to the decision to shoot much of the drama in the London, the novel’s main setting, despite the capital being “a nightmare to film in. It’s really expensive. The permissions are a nightmare, they take forever.” There was also extensive vfx clean up by Technicolor of out-of-period architectural details.

The series just “played around the edges with the format, the look, the music. It had a modern veneer,” says Strong. But at the same time the drama is shot in a “beautiful appropriate way,” he says. “There is handheld, there’s Steadicam, there’s movement but there are also beautiful graphic wides that allow you to enjoy our locations and sumptuous settings and scale. It’s a big story - you’ve got the politics of war, the battle of Waterloo. Its both epic and intimate so we had a to find a style that fitted those two things.”

Part of that came from the use of zoom lenses throughout the series  “There’s no tracking, there’s no unmotivated camera work. If there’s something going on the camera will be drawn to it. I told the operators that if there’s something interesting going on in the scene, then take me to it.” It was, says Strong, a way of using the set piece of a big composition but then using a zoom “to isolate characters in a more immediate way than that slow gentle tracking or the American power push.”

DoP Ed Rutherford shot on the Red Epic with a 6K Dragon sensor, another departure from traditional period drama production. “I love that Alexa look with the Cooke lenses where you’re trying to chuck everything out of focus and the shallow depth of field,” says Strong. But “I wanted this to be visceral. I didn’t want a soft-focus view of the past.”

Colours and lenses also help tell the story, says Strong. “As Becky rises there is literally more colour in her life” and as the Sedleys lose their money “the colour drains out of Amelia.” The lenses tell the same story, Amelia initially shot wider with the family she fits into “then as things go wrong, slightly longer lenses as she becomes more alienated.” There’s the reverse for Becky, long lenses while she’s different and separated from her environment and shorter wider lenses as she makes her way in society.

References for the look of the series spanned Kate Moss in her Britpop pomp, the photography of Saul Leiter and Gregory Crewdson, Blade Runner 2049’s colours, The Shape of Water “Del Toro does period and doesn’t feel stuck in the past.” A balancing act that Vanity Fair also manages to pull off.

Gwyneth Hughes’ seven part adaptation of Thackeray’s classic novel is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows heroine Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English Society.

Production co Mammoth Screen
Cast Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Simon Russell Beale, Martin Clunes
Writer/exec producer Gwyneth Hughes
Director/ exec producer James Strong
Exec producers Damien Timmer, Tom Mullens
Producer Julia Stannard
DP Ed Rutherford
Director episode 6 Jonathan Entwhistle
Line Producer Paula McBreen
Casting Theo Park
Costume designers Suzie Harman, Lucinda Wright
Production designer Anna Pritchard
Art director Henry Jaworski
Editor Steve Worsley
Camera Red Epic 6K Dragon sensor
VFX Technicolor

Posted 03 September 2018 by Jon Creamer
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