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Is television a director's medium?

Earlier this month, broadcaster and columnist Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian on why he thinks television will never be a director's medium.

Here a group of directors (and members of Directors UK) give their response.

Gillies MacKinnon
The Village, Inspector George Gently, Above Suspicion, Hideous Kinky
If you have worked with actors whose early careers overlapped with Alan Clarke you will find the most passionate loyalty towards the director. To these actors he represents the best of original and inspiring British directors, one who defined and changed television drama. Mark Lawson would be correct in saying that the role of director is almost institutionally watered down in contemporary television, but he would be wrong to maintain it has to be like that.

When I started making films, television was a great place to begin. There was BBC Screen 2, where many actors, writers, producers and directors working today began, making distinctive and often unlikely single dramas. For my own part, a story like The Grass Arena from John Healy's novel, featuring the first film role for Mark Rylance, who was a complete unknown at the time, playing opposite the wonderful now deceased Pete Posthelwaite, was a perfect opportunity to make a director led film- sadly a single drama which would have a bat's chance in hell of being made today. A single drama based upon an obscure story with no TV stars in it? And yet this film won awards wherever it was shown. These Screen 2 TV single dramas were made because they seemed a good idea, out of passion, not as a commodity, and not as a deal done between the network and the production company, considered a product designed to attract an audience.

The attitude towards the TV director was very different then. My first outing was on Jimmy McGovern's first single drama, Needle, produced by an up and coming young producer, George Faber. The exec was Michael Wearing. He met us and invited us to contact him if we had problems. As executive producer it was his job to decide upon the subject of the film, the producer, writer and director. After that he left us to get on with it. There were no other voices at large beyond George, Jimmy and myself. The point is that this older and simpler television culture gave every opportunity to young directors to dig deep, really test themselves and create something unexpected, not be assigned as illustrator of the grand plan.

We hear the claim that this is a golden age of British film, but check back 20 years to the UK Sunday reviews and you will find most films were British. This is certainly not true now, despite the legions of young people who are encouraged to choose film making as their career. I have spoken to young filmmakers who have been refused on the basis that they have not done enough workshops and I wonder if film in the UK has become institutionalised. I do wonder how many filmmakers of the originality of David Lynch, Lyndsey Anderson, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky or our own Shane Meadows would have emerged from this recent preoccupation with workshops.

After years of making feature films, I have been working in television again in recent years, largely because of the collapse of the middle budget film in the UK. As a director, you can either spend your life going to meetings about films, which are not happening, or continue to work in TV. Television single drama hardly exists now and a very different culture has taken over. There is now an obsession with viewing figures, which results in a far more commercial mentality. From what I hear, directors are often regarded as someone to do the awkward bit- working on set, looking after the visuals, getting the film in on time, working with actors - but these are only the most basic skills and what is missing now is the expectation that the director is more than a competent facilitator. The idea that the director is there to bring a special and perhaps unpredictable mind to the story seems to have been elbowed aside.

For my own part I would not complain, as I have been fortunate enough to work mainly with people who still respect and understand the director's role in the process. But I do recognise that drama as a commodity is the thing now, a culture that is not likely to produce many surprises. Some years ago a TV executive was constantly blocking our decisions and vital work on set had ground to a halt for want of his approval. Time was running out. When I explained to the executive the dire need for his co-operation, (he was back in London in his office) he said- "If I listened to you that would be the tail wagging the dog." I was astonished to hear that he, a person who had no awareness of the state of the production, considered himself the dog and the rest of us the tail. That was my first insight into a change in the mentality of some TV executives- thankfully not all of them I may add, and it needs to be stated that a good, responsible, communicating producer is a gift to a director.

British television was once considered a leading spirit but has more recently been relegated to imitator of America and even Scandinavia. I do wish television would create space for something completely innovative, free of so many conditions, free of knitting patterns, formulas, tried and tested theories and safe ideas spiced up to titillate and excite. An American producer once said that the American public doesn’t want to see something new. They want to see the same great drama they saw last week, but with different actors in it. I hope that hasn't happened here too.

Kay Patrick
Coronation Street, Holby City, In Suspicious Circumstances
Mark Lawson’s article makes two points.  It contrasts the significance of the role of the TV director as opposed to that of the director in film, and comments on the advent of the American style “show runner” in British TV, particularly the emergence of the writer/director/producer, which he implies diminishes the central role of the director.

It’s a mistake to believe that the methods used by the publicity machine to sell a TV drama in this now crowded market place truly reflects the reality of the director’s role in television.  Danny Boyle’s name was used to promote Babylon in order to immediately grab attention. It’s a selling point, in the same way that a Hollywood actor appearing as a lead in the West End is used to gain publicity and sell seats. If that actor were to be replaced by a less well-known artist, the role would still be the lead role, the success of the play would still depend on the effectiveness of his/her performance, it just wouldn’t be acknowledged in the promotion.  Danny Boyle is a great director and after the Olympics a name the general public recognise, but ‘his replacement’ Jon S Baird played the same pivotal role. The fact that his episode was less about spot the shot (which I doubt the general public are concerned about anyway) and more about the episode itself doesn’t diminish his role. It’s just the publicity machine’s exploitation of a name and the critic’s response to it.  As mentioned in the article, Danny Boyle had earlier directed Morse using the same skills, carrying the same responsibilities, expressing the same creative drive; it’s just that the publicity machine sold it on the success of John Thaw.

It’s true that there are attempts in the UK to adopt the American style show runner, with varying degrees of success. We’ve also attempted the American style of team-writing for series and are in the process of trying to do without scripts entirely and simply improvise. For me, coming as I do from acting, through to directing on radio, theatre and television, the most creative relationship is the one between writer and director followed closely by that between director and actor. This is a tradition that has evolved in this country through theatre and radio.  The writer’s role is crucial but a director is an objective eye, an added discipline. Discussions between writer and director can bring out subtexts the writer hadn’t even envisaged.  The director is the person who is going to make sure that subtext comes through visually and in performance.  Directors are the eyes through which the audience will experience the work whether or not that role is recognised by the publicity department or the audience or the critics. Sometimes a writer may feel their work has been misrepresented by a particular director and want to have a go themselves just as some directors have worked on weak scripts and taken to writing their own, both with varying degrees of success. But the director has spent their professional life honing their creative skills, analysing scripts, learning to convey them through the work of crews and actors. Even film uses this collaborative process.

Television may not be acknowledged as a director’s medium - in recent years I have become keenly aware of just how undervalued the significance of their role is becoming - but the high standard of television in one-off dramas, series and soaps, will be the poorer if the importance of their contribution is denigrated and ultimately ignored.

Toby Haynes
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Musketeers, Wallander, Sherlock, Doctor Who, Five Days, Being Human

Dear Mark,
I was fascinated to read your blog on "Why television will never be a director's medium'. It is something that I have wrestled with in my career for some time, but I do feel times are changing.

My name is Toby Haynes and I have been directing television drama for the last ten years. I started out on Hollyoaks, before progressing through MI:High (a successful CBBC show running for 9 series), Being Human (directing the first two episodes), Doctor Who (5 consecutive episodes including a Christmas Special), Sherlock (The Reichenbach Fall) and an episode of Wallander. More recently, I've had the pleasure of developing and directing all seven episodes of an adaptation of Susannah Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the BBC. I am also serving as Executive Producer on the series.

When JS&MN was first commissioned I think I was the first director in a long time to be trusted with directing a whole series. I remember my executives at the BBC talking about David Yates being the last to do so with State of Play. Producing such an ambitious period fantasy drama has taken several years and in the meantime I believe a positive trend has developed towards single directors taking on whole series - directors such as Hugo Blick, Yann Demange and Tom Shankland. I think the BBC in particular is beginning to trust shows to a singular vision, which is hugely exciting after years of slogging away at 'blocks' of drama.

It is gratifying to read your blog as the British media in general have been slow to pick up on this. The director is rarely mentioned in articles, reviews or blogs. As you point out, a show is usually publicised on its star or writer. I feel directors in TV are seen in the eyes of the media - and thus a large proportion of our audience - as technicians as opposed to artistic contributors.

However, with advances in technology there is very little to differentiate what we do in television with our counterparts working in film - quite often we have comparable budgets, bigger audiences and these days more complex storylines and character arcs. Thanks to the influence of American drama and other foreign imports, our TV shows have bigger and bigger ambitions and the audience's expectation of what quality drama looks and feels like is much higher than it used to be.

Indeed, I find myself more excited about television offers than I do about film.  It feels from my perspective that sadly, cinema is in a creative recession right now, whilst TV is enjoying a renaissance - the place you go if you want to tell ambitious, intelligent stories, develop rich three-dimensional characters and still have your work seen by a large audience. Artistically, television has caught up with cinema and in some cases surpassed it. It is interesting how many film directors are turning to television, as well as film actors.

Right now, television is an extremely exciting medium for directors, as it is for writers and actors alike. The industry is beginning to recognise the artistic contribution directors can make from a project's very inception. We are working hard to achieve equality with our better known and better paid collaborators, both individually and collectively (through Directors UK). What we need is greater awareness of our role. This is somewhere the media can help us perhaps: speaking of us in the same breath as writers will help audiences understand our artistic contribution and ultimately help us shake off our artistic anonymity.

Robin Sheppard

The Last Witch, The Café, New Tricks, Kingdom, Lucky Jim
To follow on from Alan Parker there is another French word for a director - a 'realisateur' and this term more accurately encapsulates the unique contribution TV directors make - the ability to realise the script from page to screen. With flair and vision. To elicit the best performances with their knowledge and experience of working with actors. To communicate the look and feel of the show to the crew, shot by shot, and bring all the talent on set together to create and rich and authentic world.

Directors have a unique set of skills to make the transition from script to screen ideally collaborating with the writer and the producer to render the story in precise and compelling detail, making it compelling viewing for the audience.

The director's credit is up front, along with the writer and producer. It is this creative triangle that is the heart of brilliant TV drama. Ask any actor and they will tell you they are in the director's hands during the shoot - the director calls the shots on set.

So why are directors not given acknowledgement for their creative contribution off the set? Why is it the exception rather than the rule? What can we do to rectify this imbalance? We should be celebrating the unique vision the director brings, not ignoring it.

Simon Phillips (of Tools of Directing)

I agree with Robin Sheppard's comment [on the Guardian's website], as this is not just about celebration of individual directors, or if a director's name is used in either; pitching a proposed project or marketing the finished product. One of the reasons we are starting to see the true creative role of the director being eroded is because few people understand the nature of the work we do. That is evident in the article comments - but also of the whole industry. Partly that is because it is shrouded in terms such as “ flair and vision”. The intuitive talent basis of the director's contribution are part of why the real professional requirements to doing a good job, such as; scheduled time for planning, rehearsal etc. are being cut more and more.  

Posted 26 November 2014 by Jon Creamer

Life Story: The NHU's Mike Gunton on the BBC's new wildlife spectacular

The NHU’s Mike Gunton tells Jon Creamer how his latest show, Life Story, lets viewers get involved in the action like never before

25 years ago, Mike Gunton was producing his first show for the BBC Natural History Unit.

That programme, The Trials of Life, was a series that showed the cyclical nature of life and the challenges each creature faces to be born, to survive and to give birth to the next generation.

But it’s not just life that has a cyclical nature, TV often does too. A quarter of a century later, Gunton is now the NHU’s creative director and is producing the latest attempt to tell that same “fantastically strong story.”

It is the ultimate narrative and though natural history has sometimes faced criticism for relying on beautiful imagery at the expense of story, that charge can’t be laid at the door of this show, says Gunton. The series has “three levels of story.” With each sequence “a mini drama for that individual animal,” and each episode the story of a particular stage in every creature’s life. “Then there’s a stage three story, the biggest story of all which is to create the next generation.”

The show will focus on particular characters throughout the series. “There’s a bit of soapiness about it,” he says. The idea is that “unlike most series with an episode on mountains and then one on rivers that can be in any order, this is very much a serial.”

That focus on individuals rather than taking the “God’s eye view, observed and epic” will hopefully create “a very intense watch, it doesn’t wash over you, you get gripped by it.”

But it’s advances in camera technology that have made that personal perspective possible, says Gunton. “25 years ago, we said the best way of telling this story is to take an individual perspective. As technology has developed, we’re perhaps visually able to do that more intensely.”

Life Story was the first blue chip NHU series to take on 4K, and that’s been a revelation, says Gunton. “We’re obsessed with picture quality here but that wasn’t really the driver,” he says. You do get more physical detail “but it’s actually much more interesting than that.” 4K gives an “intensity of detail” that has allowed the directors to concentrate on “the parts of the animal that give you a window into their decisions, their eyes and reactions are very much part of how it’s been constructed and edited. The sensors we’ve used give a particularly shallow depth of field” and that means the characters focused on are pulled out of the landscape. And, as with drama, that gives the audience the ability to focus on, and empathise with, the main star of the show.

The other driver on the series has been to get the camera in amongst the action and keep it “fluid.” “In more observed films the camera is quite static and you’re a long way away on the end of a telephoto lens. We’ve tried to get the camera closer and off the tripod on things like Steadicams and gyro-stabilised mounts so we can move the camera with the animals.” And that aids that “intense sense of being with them. We’re not the only people to have done that but I think it’s something we’ve taken to the next stage.” In a wild dog hunt sequence, for instance, “we were able to put a camera in a helicopter and fly alongside the hunt very low. It’s not even a bird’s eye view, you almost feel like you’re running with them. It’s like watching Ben Hur.”

But despite the drive to immerse the viewer, 3D has not featured in this latest series. “I’m personally quite a fan of 3D,” says Gunton. “It does add that extra level of involvement.” The trouble is “it’s very expensive, the cameras are quite cumbersome and that does limit you. What you get in intensity of involvement you lose by often not being able to get the cameras close and to be able to move them and respond quickly.”
But there are other nascent technologies that will move natural history filmmaking on, says Gunton. “We’re messing about with thermal imaging cameras, which give quite a nice detailed aesthetic picture” in extremely low light. “It’s coming but it’s not quite there yet.”

Drone technology is a hope too. “We used it a bit on Life Story but there are limits,” for natural history, he says. “The top operators are very expensive” and “it is noisy and animals don’t like big things buzzing over them. They think it’s a predator. We’re experimenting to see what situations you can deploy it and get good natural results.”

He says the next important thing is developing camera stabilisation. “Finding cheaper, more robust, easily deployable, stabilised cameras” will prove a big leap forward. “With the next big series I’m doing, Dynasty” which will follow some of the Life Story animals “we’re trying to take that stabilised, fluid camera technology to the next level.”

Innovation is key. There are only a few box office animals and natural history filmmakers must capture them in new ways. “I give a talk about innovation,” says Gunton. “And one of the things I say right up front is today’s innovation is tomorrow’s cliché. Inevitably if something’s successful it gets taken up by everybody else. So you have to try to stay a step ahead.”

Mike Gunton is the creative director of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the executive producer of the new David Attenborough fronted Life Story. He has served as executive producer on NHU series including Hidden Kingdoms (2014), Africa (2013), Life (2009), Galapagos (2006), Life in the Undergrowth (2005), Life on Air (2002) and as producer on The Trials of Life (1990). He joined the NHU in 1987 to work on The Trials of Life after working on various BBC OU and science shows.He also set up indie Green Umbrella in the early 90s.

Posted 20 October 2014 by Jon Creamer

Director Tom Shankland on shooting James Nesbitt drama The Missing

Director Tom Shankland explains how he kept his thriller taut and tense while retaining its emotional depth. Jon Creamer reports

Director Tom Shankland helmed all eight of the episodes of the upcoming Harry and Jack Williams drama The Missing. The series is about a small boy abducted during a French holiday and the emotional fallout for his family. The series is told simultaneously across two timelines.

What stage was the series at when you signed on?
There were four very tight, brilliant scripts to read when I first came in contact with the project. They had resisted the temptation to go into greenlight mode too early. They wanted it to be a very precisely told, eight-hour epic. And you can only do that if you’ve shown a lot of love to everything.

What struck you about the script?
It’s a very emotional story but what I responded to was its intriguing structure. I thought this should play as a fantastic thriller but also as a puzzle for the audience.

How did that inform the camera style?
I thought it would be good if the camera had a slightly objective approach so I wouldn’t move it often or, if it moved, it would have to be for a very good reason. I wouldn’t cut very much and try to let things breathe and invite the audience to lean in a bit to the story to participate in solving the mystery.

What else informed the style?
Ole [the DoP] and I found a great book of photographs by Wim Wenders of these empty spaces – absence became a bit of a theme. We also wanted the sense of being abroad through British eyes. I wanted that slightly exotic, slightly other, sometimes alienating, sometimes enticing setting that this couple would find themselves in while they’re having the worst experience of their life. It was fantastic thinking of this in more filmic terms with wider shots and textural ideas like using sound to give the audience this experience of being a fish out of water.

Did the locations affect the script at all?
We fell in love with the hero town when we found it [the drama was shot in Belgium but set in France]. It felt perfect. It wasn’t a hideous place for this family to break down in but equally it’s not a tourist place. It’s a real working town with great locations and it threw up ideas I could feed back to Jack and Harry so they could rework scenes. It was an organic, collaborative process. It’s the perfect way to work.
How did you work with the actors? We were lucky as we did have some good rehearsal time with Jimmy [Nesbitt] and Frances [O’Connor]. Even though we were going to shoot the present day scenes first I wanted to focus on 2006 [when the son is abducted] so when we went back to it, and the more immediate, harrowing, emotional scenes, there was a sense memory from that rehearsal week. It also meant Jimmy and Frances had got to know each other really well by that time.

Is there a danger of going over the top with the harrowing post abduction scenes?
I never wanted this to feel like emotional pornography. There’s a fine line where the audience just don’t want to go there. It was vital we manage that and were respectful of the emotional sense but equally we didn’t want to make this a harrowing experience for the audience.

You’ve shot horrors and thrillers before. Did that experience come into play here?
Having done a lot of work in those sub genres you develop a sense of how to structure suspense and how to manipulate the rhythm – when you want to play a Hitchcock trick on the audience. They are genres that I love but with this I wanted to treat it differently. I didn’t want to play the games we’d seen before. We do have our genre moments but I was always looking to find a different approach to these beats and trying to stay within our quite composed style.

What films influenced the style?
I’m a big fan of 70s conspiracy thrillers and lot of things shot by Gordon Willis. The DoP and myself felt that there was something about a film like The Godfather where there’s a lot of tension but not a lot of camera movement or cutting. We were trying to get back to a slower burning cinematic style where you didn’t lead the audience with a manipulative visual language. I was keen that this felt like a grown up watching experience where you’re not going to be spoon-fed. I didn’t want loads of music telling you what to feel all the time. Dominik [the composer) has done an amazing job and I’m delighted we haven’t got loads of droaning suspense all over the place. That was all part of trying to achieve a sparer style. Because I was so confident in the tension inherent in the script, I didn’t feel we didn’t need to over cook the thriller dimension.

The Missing tells the story of a child abducted during a family holiday and his family’s desperate search for him. The story is told across two timelines and two countries simultaneously
Broadcaster BBC1
TX October
Exec producers Willow Grylls, Charlie Pattinson, Elaine Pyke (New Pictures); John Yorke (Company); Harry and Jack Williams (Two Brothers Pictures); Polly Hill (BBC); Colin Callender (Playground);  Eurydice Gysel (Czar TV)
Producer Chris Clough
Director Tom Shankland
Writers Harry and Jack Williams
Cast James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor , Tcheky Karyo, Jason Flemyng, Emilie Dequenne, Said Taghmaoui, Ken Stott
Line producer Letitia Knight
Production manager Koen Fransen
Production designer Paul Cripps
1st AD Simon Hedges
DoP Ole Bratt Birkeland
Editors Una Ni Dhonghaile, Fiona Colbeck, Danielle Palmer
Composer Dominik Scherrer
Post supervisor Phil Brown
Camera Red Epic-X

Posted 15 October 2014 by Jon Creamer

Best of the month in vfx animation and motion graphics

From the Storyboard pages this month, beastly behaviour from Glassworks; Lola blasts into space and Picasso crosses dimensions

X-Pollination films
Glassworks’ senior 3D artist and in-house director Dan Hope created a series of films for X-Pollination, a bi-annual event in Amsterdam that aims to bring creative professionals from different backgrounds together to cross pollinate ideas. To illustrate this, the films show animals of different species...cross pollinating.

X-Pollination Jungle from GLASSWORKS VFX on Vimeo.

X-Pollination Alaska from GLASSWORKS VFX on Vimeo.

How the universe works
After Lola completed the visual effects for both series one and two of Pioneer’s How the Universe Works for Discovery, it was again called in to supply vfx for series three across nine cg-heavy episodes. Each episode focuses on a different planet and Lola also had to recreate The Milky Way and a starship travelling through space.

How The Universe Works - Season 3 from Lola Post on Vimeo.

Jaime Pardo
Dolman promo
This is Jaime Pardo’s promo for Dolman track Monobrow. It’s described as a “playful blend of stark geometrics, tattoo imagery and vibrating skulls.” Pardo says, “stylistically I wanted to create something quite trippy
and menacing to match the track. I used a lot of 3D cg effects but in a way that hopefully looks more natural and not too digital.”

One of a kind
Trunk director Rok Predin’s latest film is One of a Kind. The film is described as “a contemplation about all the people who had to meet, all the tiny acts of fate and chance that had to come together, in order for you to sit here right now.” The producer was Richard Barnett and costumes for the 70 characters were created by Sara Savelj. The composer was Daniel Pemberton.

One Of A Kind - TRAILER from Trunk Animation on Vimeo.

Citizen spot
This spot for Japanese watchmaker Citizen was shot by John Kramer and looks back through the history of the brand. Filmed using the respective camera for the era portrayed – from a 1930’s hand cranked 35mm to a 1980’s VHS camera, MPC enhanced or degraded the shots to fit with the era as well as animating many of the older watches.

Rabbit and Deer
Rabbit and Deer, a film by Picasso Pictures director Péter Vácz, is getting its London premiere this month after a successful run through the international festival circuit. Mixing 2D, 3D and stop motion, the film is about the friendship between two characters who live happily in a 2D world and how they learn to live together when one becomes 3D.

Rabbit & Deer - excerpt from Picasso Pictures on Vimeo.

Cream Tease
Cream Tease, a steamy short set on a hot beach during an 80s summer, is the first film from Seed Animation’s  Seed Home Videos strand.

Cream Tease from Seed Animation Studio on Vimeo.

Deki spot
This is Aardman’s ad for Bristol microfinance charity Deki. The spot shows how small loans transform lives in developing countries. 

How we got to now
Peepshow Collective created the animated graphic sequences for Nutopia’s six part series How We Got To Now for PBS.

The Corner
Back to the 90s
The Corner London created this nostalgic spot to promote Nat Geo’s series The ‘90s: The Decade That Connected Us.

Posted 17 September 2014 by Jon Creamer

Matt Rudge on All Creatures Great and Stuffed

A catcopter, a sharkjet, a radio controlled flying rat: Matt Rudge’s new doc on modern taxidermy, All Creatures Great and Stuffed, features some unusual hybrids.

But as both a Bafta-nominated doc maker with credits like The Autistic Me and House of Surrogates to his name and also a regular on the stand up circuit, he’s an unusual hybrid himself. It’s not a career mix that many combine. “Although someone told me Morgan Spurlock once tried stand up.” But, he says, the two jobs are “closer than you’d imagine. When you write a stand up show it’s an hour-long narrative weaving themes in and out. It’s not that dissimilar to a documentary.”

Except stand up places all the focus on the storyteller, whereas Rudge is rarely in the camera’s glare on his documentaries. “On the projects I’ve done so far, I would have got in the way. It would have to be required by the film instead of me being plonked in front of the screen to present.”

And there’s more than enough to focus on visually in Get Stuffed. The modern resurgence of taxidermy made it an obvious subject for documentary. “People don’t know how to react to it. Perhaps that speaks about our attitude to death. Also, I’m not going to lie, there were things like a radio controlled helicopter cat!” And there was bound to be a rich seam of characters, he says. “I don’t think the average person looks at a dead lamb and thinks, ‘I could do something with that.’”

And it’s those characters that are ultimately the focus. “When I was toying with the original concept I thought ‘could we invent the scalpel camera? or use a mini rig above where the taxidermists work like a camera in a mortuary?” But more kit and crew “would have reduced the time I could spend with each character.” And that’s key. “I self shoot as it’s all about the relationship with the contributor. When you get to know these people they open up. There’s a back-story that is quite sensitive. It’s difficult to get that relationship if you turn up and say the crew is just unloading.”

All Creatures Great and Stuffed, Mentorn for Channel 4: Wednesday 10th September

Posted 10 September 2014 by Jon Creamer

Writer Jack Thorne on Glue (E4)

Jack Thorne’s writing covers theatre, radio, film and TV. His latest project, Glue, is a rural murder mystery for E4. Jon Creamer reports

Jack Thorne’s writing career is nothing if not varied, taking in theatre (Bunny, Let the Right One In), radio (People Snogging in Public Places), film (The Scouting Book for Boys, War Book, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down) and, of course, TV with Skins, Cast Offs, This is England and the decommissioned-before-its-time, The Fades.

“My big worry is I’ll end up telling the same story over and over again,” he says. And by working in different genres “you’re constantly exposing yourself” to new challenges. “I took two years away from theatre at one point. Then when I tried to come back and write something new I found it impossible. You have to keep in practice.”

Each genre also allows you to tackle vastly different subjects, he says. “I’m doing a play at the Royal Court in December and the plot is a local council working through a budget settlement. You couldn’t do that for E4. But then you couldn’t tell Glue on the Royal Court stage.”

The aforementioned Glue (pictured) is his latest series for E4. In essence, a rural crime drama based around the world of riding stables. The initial impetus for the series came from Thorne’s own rural upbringing in Newbury and a feeling there weren’t “quite enough stories being told about the countryside” and certainly not crime dramas. Although that’s not so much the case now. “Two years in to the development process we heard about this show called Broadchurch. Then about a year after that we hear about a show called Happy Valley...”

So, no pressure then. “You always worry about the shows you’re going to be compared to.” But, he says, Glue is based specifically around rural young people. “Young people in this country tend to be represented as urban young people.” And the crime element in Glue is not front and centre. “Genre allows you to tell stories and it allows you to put people in crisis and that is always a quite interesting way to discover the truth about them.” But the push was to “not worry too much about the police element of it. Hopefully we use genre rather than get controlled by it.”

Channel 4 will have high hopes that Glue, like Thorne’s previous E4 show Skins, can return for series after series. “Certainly now we’ve reached the end we don’t want to say goodbye to these characters,” he says. Although “you don’t want to be stuck in a situation where it’s Midsomer Murders” with a new killing every five minutes.

But bringing a series back needn’t mean it must stick rigidly to its previous incarnation. Drama formats are changing in an exciting way, he says. “True Detective is returning without any of the central characters, just with the promise that the world that was set up would be repeated in some way. If you get it right people will want more so you just try to get it right.”

And planning series two during series one is just not healthy. “We were concentrating on getting the first series right and not worrying too much about the future until the future comes along.” Because Thorne has bitter experience of making assumptions about recommissions. His originated BBC3 supernatural series, The Fades, found itself in the curious position of both winning a Bafta and getting cancelled after series one. “On The Fades, I knew from quite an early stage what I wanted to happen in series two and three, and then I had my heart broken. With this I didn’t want to think about the future, just how we nail this one.”

Like Skins, Glue is a collaborative writing affair with Thorne as the lead. And it’s the collaborative element that makes scriptwriting interesting, he says. “The great thing about having other writers involved is you’re in the middle of writing episode five and suddenly episode three turns up and takes a character in a totally different direction and you see things in a whole new way.” It’s also defined and “led by the actors and what the actors do” as well as other crew: “The location manager can be the best storyteller on the crew. On The Fades we rewrote the opening sequence on the basis of the location the location manager found.”

And whether it’s TV, film or theatre, the writing experience is largely defined by your collaborators, he says. “Working on This is England was very different from working on Glue. My job was to work on the story with Shane [Meadows] then when it’s right my job is done. That’s the way that works and that’s what makes him brilliant. Glue, by its nature, was a lot more constant which is great but has its difficulties. You can walk in from a day on set and you’ve got three hours of writing to do and four cuts to watch.”

As to the future, that is largely defined by collaborators too, he says. “You just hope that the people you want to work with still want to work with you.”

Theatre: When You Cure Me, Fanny and Faggot, Stacy, Burying Your Brother in the Pavement, Bunny, The Physicists, Let The Right One In.
Television: Skins, Shameless. Co-creator of Cast-offs, co writer of This Is England ‘86 and This Is England ‘88 with Shane Meadows.The Fades, Glue
Radio: When You Cure Me Left at the Angel, an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, People Snogging in Public Places, A Summer Night
Film: The Scouting Book For Boys, A Long Way Down, War Book

Posted 03 September 2014 by Jon Creamer

Writer and producer Jeff Pope

Jeff Pope has carved a career from TV drama honed from real life, and now on the big screen too. Jon Creamer reports

He’s built a career on writing and producing TV dramas based on real life stories with surprising twists.

But Jeff Pope is unsure right now which way his own story will lead.

After 18 years running ITV’s ‘factual drama’ department in which he’s produced and written a long line of successful TV dramas based on famous figures or infamous crimes, he co wrote Philomena with Steve Coogan, picking up Oscar nominations and international acclaim in the process.

Philomena’s profile has inevitably produced a fair few movie based offers, but he’s content to play things by ear for now: “I’m not looking too far forward, you can trip yourself up,” he says.

What he’s sure of is he’d like to “keep going on both fronts” of TV and film and to stick to what he can do and not drift into what he can’t. “I’m 52 so this level of success has come to me later in life. So I know what I’m good at. I think if I’d had that success at 32 I would have jumped on the first big thing that came my way. There are people who can do a new Batman movie better than me.”

On Philomena Pope simply took a writing role. His modus operandi until now has always been to act more as ‘showrunner’, producing and writing or often just producing. And he’s been doing that long before the phrase was coined.

But Pope’s showrunning role was originally borne of necessity, he says. “As a young producer one of the biggest problems you face is getting a writer. I was ambitious. I wanted to go for good writers but at any given time they’re six months to a year away from being free to write anything for you. So I was impatient and I thought I know a writer available, which was me.”

He found he had an “aptitude.”  “It was just something I found I was able to do.” But writing and producing is where the showrunning ends, he says. “I’ve never been a frustrated director or actor. I’ve always enjoyed working with brilliant directors and them bringing another level to my work. The most exciting thing for me is to watch something back and not even remember the lines. There are very few brilliant writer/directors. Sometimes it can be a curse. You’re not going to ask questions of it because you’ve written it. Someone else needs to be in that process.”

But despite being a producer/writer ahead of his time, his work has been focused heavily on single films and short serials, very different from the current vogue for long running returning series.

That’s not been a conscious choice though. “I would dearly love to do series,” he says. “The nearest I came to it was City Lights and Northern Lights and Bob Martin. I would happily still be writing those now.” And he’s currently writing a comedy series with Danny Baker for BBC2 based on the broadcaster’s memoirs but, he admits, “my mind probably works in a slightly different way. I love the turnover of a different situation and story and people.”

And ITV and its viewers seem to as well. “I’ve been very lucky. ITV has supported the films that I make ever since I started doing them. And that kind of piece has never really gone out of fashion.” The recent The Widower, Appropriate Adult (written by Neil McKay), Lucan, Mrs Biggs and plenty more generate both audience numbers and column inches. “The public appetite has never dimmed. Though it takes some courage. Appropriate Adult was expensive to make and there was no guarantee that you were going to get a big audience. It’s a safer bet with Doc Martin. But if you get it right, it’s something talked about and the perception of the channel is raised.”

What’s crucial, says Pope is he always makes drama that is “accessible to a mass audience. I’ve never really been interested in narrow gauge pieces.” And that means telling a story and not hiding “behind the factual element of a factual drama. It has to work as a drama with a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to have plot and a narrative.”

But that doesn’t mean skipping around the facts. Pope began his career as a journalist  “and those disciplines never leave you.” All his films begin with a long period of research and interviews. “The skill is finding the line through it.” And the detail is crucial “In a true story the deeper you go into the minutiae of that story the more fascinating it is. The more material you uncover the more unique the story becomes. That is my impulse.”

Although absolute accuracy is impractical. “You have to be true to the essence of what happened rather than the undiscoverable literal detail.” And factual dramas, particularly those based on a crime, are kept honest by one detail. “I always have in the back of my mind that I’m going to be showing this to perhaps the relatives of a murder victim or the actual police officer in the case. That’s a great discipline.”

Jeff Pope will be speaking at the Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival in August

Jeff Pope has been head of ITV’s factual drama department since 1996.
He began his career as a journalist, first for the Ealing Gazette then for LWT’s Six O’clock Show before moving into factual drama by producing Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brinks Mat Robbery.
Since then he has been producer, writer or writer/producer on TV dramas including the upcoming Cilla, The Widower, Lucan, Mrs Biggs, City Lights, Pierrepoint, Dirty Filthy Love, Bob Martin and the Oscar nominated movie  Philomena that he wrote with Steve Coogan.

Posted 12 August 2014 by Jon Creamer

Kids TV genre report

It’s a year on since the UK animation tax break came into force, but the fight is now on to give live action children’s television the same lifeline. Jon Creamer reports

Children’s TV has always been the poor relation when it comes to dishing out commissioning cash.

But over the last eight years or so, while other genres were being squeezed, children’s TV budgets were being violently throttled.

Many broadcasters pulled back from commissioning local original content and the broadcasters that stayed in the game started paying a smaller and smaller percentage of the show’s production costs, leaving producers to scour the world for the shortfall.

That isn’t going to change any time soon. Even at the BBC, the mainstay of original kids TV commissioning in the UK, times are tight. Children’s TV was not ring-fenced after recent BBC cutbacks and CBBC and CBeebies have cut back accordingly.

Break time
But there has been a little sunshine peaking over the horizon of late. A year ago tax breaks were brought in for high-end drama and, crucially for the kids TV industry, animation.

After just a year with animation tax breaks in force, the advantages are now clear. “There is a real feeling of renewed optimism,” says Phil Chalk, whose indie Factory TM makes CBBC’s Strange Hill High and is in production on the updated Clangers series. “We’re looking now to the end of 2016 and beyond in terms of our production slate. It feels like we’re able to build a business now rather than lurch from the end of one production to the start of another. There’s some longevity now so we can invest in our people.”

The birth of the animation tax credit has already seen a whole host of shows finally get into production after being in stall mode for a long time. “It’s a game changer for the industry,” says Colin Williams, creative director of Northern Ireland based kids indie Sixteen South, whose animated pre school show, Lily’s Driftwood Bay has just been greenlit for season two on Nick Jr. “It made a second series possible. Without it, we couldn’t make the show here.”

With the UK now on a more level playing field with other countries, producers are getting to produce their shows in the UK rather than send production abroad, good for UK animators but also good for the finished product. “You almost can’t put a price on that it’s so important,” says Ben Butterworth of Q Pootle 5 producer, Snapper Productions. “It doesn’t make sense to me the idea that you can be the other side of the world working in different time zones, sometimes in different languages.”

Production houses are also attracting foreign IP owners to make their shows here too. “We’re looked on more favourably now,” says Factory TM’s Phil Chalk. “In the past people have bypassed us and gone straight to Ireland or France. But if we buddy with an Irish or French studio we can often times have 50% of the funding in place. We’re part of that equation now.”

Live TV
But while animation is a mainstay of kids TV, live action shows haven’t been given the same opportunity yet. A campaign, led by Pact, is now on to change that. The success that not just animation, but high-end drama, movies and games have garnered from tax credits means that hopefully, the campaign will be pushing at an open door.

“There is a lot of traction” behind the campaign, says Kindle’s Anne Brogan. “For the first time a lot of people from a lot of different areas are really focussed on it – from production and Pact to the government. I hope it will get somewhere. It would have a huge impact, providing licence fees don’t go down or even stay the same as a result.”

For Billy Macqueen, co founder of Darrall Macqueen, “It’s a no brainer to do it. You’re keeping production in the UK, keeping IP.” Darrall Macqueen’s Topsy and Tim, a live action drama for CBeebies has proved a big hit, but a second series still has a 20% gap to fill before it can go into production. If a live action tax break were in existence “it would be a goer. We have brilliant technicians and great IP creators in this country but frankly, when you’re up against Australia, Canada, France who are offering almost 80% grants to their productions, you tend to get separated from the IP.”

Under pressure
And, for children’s drama, there’s an increased pressure now as an unintended consequence of the high-end drama tax breaks brought in last year. “Costs have gone up really significantly” in drama, says Brogan. “Ironically one of the drivers for cost is the fact there is a high-end drama tax break, which is terrific, but in certain crew areas it means those people who have got that expertise can command their price. In the past people were almost always prepared to take a lower fee for kids shows because they understood that the licence fee was that much lower. That’s no longer the case. We’re really in a complete crunch.”

For many producers of live action kids TV, it almost feels as though within the next few years, without a tax credit, the funding jigsaw will go from being very difficult to impossible. “There’s a lot more pressure now. You can’t just put your production fee in. If you’ve done that once or twice you’ve got nowhere else to go,” says Billy Macqueen. “The banks aren’t lending like they used to. In the old days you used to have a Programme Production Agreement from the BBC and a distributor’s contract and that was enough. Now it’s not. You’ve got to prove projections of how the series is going to sell and how the 50 or so funding elements are going to contribute. You’ve really got to give a guarantee.”

Puzzle pieces
To add to that, other traditional sources of revenue have almost died away. “The animation tax credits are a huge advantage,” says Michael Rose of Gruffalo producer Magic Light Pictures. “But on the other side of the equation, we’re seeing continually declining DVD revenues and no real substitute income for them. Digital downloads are helping a bit but that’s a big issue for the industry. In the half hour specials we do we still have the advantage of a gifting market, but there’s still quite a heavy year on year decline.” And although “it’s a relief that suddenly you’re getting new players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in to the market,” says Billy Macqueen, it’s far from being a replacement yet.

Kids producers are increasingly scrabbling around for smaller pots of money. “You have to look for every little piece of financing that is possible,” says Kindle’s Anne Brogan. “If you’re shooting in the UK there are regional incentives or you look to shoot elsewhere where there is a tax or cash incentive. We’ve shot in South Africa and we’re currently looking at shooting in Malaysia, India, South Africa again – partly for the sunshine but mainly for the money.”

More and more time and money is spent finding financing rather than dreaming up new IP. And while you’re finding financing, time is ticking away. Pre animation tax break, Sixteen South’s Driftwood Bay had orders from broadcasters, but had yet to plug the finance gap. The date those broadcasters wanted the show was fixed and “the longer it took us to finance it, the less time we had to make it,” says Sixteen South’s Williams. “The sooner you can get into production the more effective you can be with your budget.”

But the main argument for the live action kids TV tax break is one of competition. With other countries offering so many benefits, the UK production market will only last so long if it can’t match them. “Everybody else is bringing 20, 30, 40, 50, 80 per cent of the budget,” says Macqueen. “We’ve got away with it for a few years with our outstanding creative, but we’ve spent a decade saying ‘our creative is so amazing you can’t do without it’” but if it continues, they undoubtedly will find a way.

Posted 30 July 2014 by Jon Creamer
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