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Two Screen TV for Tots

Is second screen something children want or even need? Four experts give their view ahead of a debate at this week’s Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield

Jennifer Wilson
Director, The Project Factory

Rather than second screen, we think more broadly of ‘alternate screens’ that kids might want to engage with. Second screen usually presumes that the on-lap screen links to content being watched on TV. Some younger children will immerse themselves in one screen completely but as they get older, why should we divide their attention? We should focus on allowing content from one screen, character, show or story world, to link to another to extend the experience, allowing content to be more deeply and interactively explored upon demand. If we can capture the essence of our story in a meaningful way, we can create a second screen experience, whether concurrently or not.

Marc Goodchild
Creative director, IpDipSkyBlue and co-founder

Children’s TV has been a bit slow off the mark when it comes to second screen. Some of that is because commercial broadcasters are reluctant to invest in it, but in some quarters there’s also an innate prejudice that seems to be that if one screen is bad enough then two must be double-trouble. Yet there’s no evidence to prove this either way. In fact children are probably much better multi-taskers than we give them credit for. It might be that they’re the first audience who can actually make sense of the two screens simultaneously and spawn a whole new genre of exciting experiences that bridge the passive and interactive worlds.

Donnie Kerrigan
Md, Chunk

When I was wee I’d watch Tarzan while dressed in leopard print Y-fronts and stabbing crocodiles (cushions) with a plastic orange peeler. Other (normal) kids watched telly with a cuddly toy by their side. Digital companions can be alternatives to physical toys if we can change behaviours; kids go and pull out the Peppa Pig doll from their room, but it’s not instinctive to grab a tablet or phone yet. And if we understand behaviours, a doll or a cushion is just there for small interactions like a cuddle (or a stab!). If we get it right it can work.

Angharad Garlick
Head of Boom Kids

Belly-vision is here! The fear that new technology would make TV redundant simply hasn’t happened. The reverse in fact is true. It supports, it regenerates and it extends the service. The most engaged audiences are the ones who interact, who play along, share their opinions and vote for their favourites. This is true for the younger audience too, they are keen to participate and interact. The challenge is to offer straightforward, engaging and entertaining second screen content which helps them immerse themselves in the programme as opposed to distracting them from it.

Posted 03 July 2013 by Jon Creamer

Flower Power

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.”

In Bruges
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
Jamie Payne
Colin Teague
Line Producer
Christine Healy
Ben Lester, Jamie Trevill, Ben Yeates
Jean Philippe Gossart, David Luther, Fabian Wagner
Production designer
Martyn John
John Lunn
Sound recordist
Jan Deca
Location manager

Wim De Waegenaere
The Farm
Aidan Farrell
Dubbing mixer
Nigel Edwards
Online editor
Clyde Kellett
Arri Alexa

Posted 17 June 2013 by Jon Creamer

Bryan Elsley on Channel 4's Dates

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
Balloon Entertainment
Executive producers
Bryan Elsley, Chris Clough, Harry Enfield
Bradley Adams
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
Jonathan Freeman, Eps 1, 3, 9; Maja Zamojda, Eps 2,4,6,8; Sarah Bartles-Smith, Ep 5; Carlos Catalan, Ep 7
Deluxe London.
Arri Alexa

Posted 10 June 2013 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Kudos' Jane Featherstone and Dan Isaacs

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.”

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

Posted 05 June 2013 by Jon Creamer

The art of the budget

Ahead of her Bafta masterclass on line producing this month, film producer Anita Overland explains the often tortuous process of creating a production budget, and sticking to it       

Anita Overland (pictured below on the set of Rush with Ron Howard) began her producing career in promos, moved on to commercials and then went on to big budget movies and high end TV dramas including A Mighty Heart, A Cock and Bull Story, Red Riding, The Young Victoria, The Iron Lady and, most recently, Rush.

When does the budgeting process start?
Early on the producers or financiers will send you a script and ask you to budget and schedule it. There’s usually a number that people are aiming for. The script has a value in the market and that’s down to who’s in it, who’s directing it and what the subject matter is. Quite often the producers or financiers will tell you what they want the budget to be. I listen to what they want the budget to be and then slightly ignore that and budget the cost of the script. That’s because the script usually costs more than what they want to make the film for. You need to tell people what the real cost of their script is first of all and then give them ideas of how they can bring the budget down to the number they want.

What’s the first step?
I don’t like doing a budget without doing a schedule first. You take the script and you enter every scene into a schedule. You push in the cast, the extras, the location, the vehicles, the special effects, the vfx… You put every single detail into the schedule on a scene-by-scene basis then you organise the schedule into a shooting schedule. You then work out an overall production schedule including prep and post. You put in any special requirements. For example, the last project I did was [Formula 1 biopic] Rush and we had to build some replica race cars. You do a schedule for those, which has to happen a lot before prep starts. On Far From the Madding Crowd they needed lambs and they were filming in September so you have to look at mating ewes out of season. There’s a lot of detail. I like to be careful because in six months time you will be held to make the film for that number and you don’t want to be standing on the set and have everyone looking at you saying ‘well, you said it could be done for this amount.’

What if the script cost exceeds the budget they have?
If the script costs $15m and they’ve only got $10m then I give them a list of ways they could get $5m off the script. You do need to be quite strong and stand your ground and say ‘we really need to look at the script and come up with some ways of making some changes.’ It doesn’t need to be destructive.

How do you know what every individual item will cost?
Experience. But there’s always something new in every single film you do. With Rush, I have never had anything to do with Formula 1 cars before so you become a mini expert in lots of different areas. And you call upon your contemporaries a lot. We all call each other a lot and exchange information but sometimes you just have to jump in at the deep end.

What happens when that process ends?
Once you’ve handed them the budget and schedule there tends to be a lot of work over a period of months as this cast member drops out and this cast member is available but only for these shoot dates so you rejig the schedule. Or the director changes or they can’t get as much money as they’d hoped. Then that leads into pre-production when you start to pull the crew together and negotiate salaries. Then the budget becomes a fluid thing. You move money from one area to another to adapt to what actually happens as opposed to what you thought might happen six months ago when you budgeted it.

What about when production starts?
You have weekly costs report meetings with each department that is managing a budget. They report to you and the accountant and then we report to the producers and the financiers. You take people’s word for where they say they are but there’s also a very thorough paperwork trail. It’s strictly managed but it still can go wrong. The big problem mostly is there’s never quite enough money to make the film that everybody wants to make. You’re always trying to keep the vision but not go over budget.

Do you build in a contingency?
You either build contingency into the budget or you have a 10% contingency. If you’re spending that in a controlled way, then people are relaxed. Ideally you don’t spend more than 60% of the contingency during the shoot and keep the remainder for post. If you had less than that then people start involving themselves in the detail of the film a lot more and start questioning decisions and getting rid of people.

What about the post process?
The stresses in post tend to be around the cut. If financiers don’t like it, then there’s talk of pick-ups and reshoots. Other than that though post is a pretty pleasant time. Once you’re in post it’s more relaxed. Unless you’ve run out of money.

The production management masterclass takes place on May 22 at FACT, Liverpool
See for details

Posted 15 May 2013 by Jon Creamer

The making of Strange Hill High

New CBBC kids comedy Strange Hill High takes no shortcuts with its mix of puppetry, stop frame, CG, multiple sets and thousands of intricate props. Jon Creamer reports

Strange Hill High  is CBBC’s 13x22-minute animated comedy show led by showrunner Josh Weinstein (Simpsons, Futurama). It combines Japanese toy style vinyl puppets (created by Mackinnon and Saunders) with elements of stop frame animation and cg. Producer Phil Chalk and the show's creator Kat Van Henderson explain the production process.

How complex has the project been?
PC:    The brief was to make 13 half hour episodes. Each one was to be a mini movie in its own right. There haven’t been any taboos – we’ve tackled feast, famine, flood, schools exploding, time travel… We’ve built 35 sets, including the library set that was 16 ft long, 14 ft high with 13,000 books molded into the fabric of it. We’ve made 4000 individual props. We’ve made 60 puppets and a cast comparable to a high-end animated feature. There’s nothing spared in its ambition and scale.
KVH:    Each episode is like its own genre movie so there’s an enormous amount of work. The brief from Josh [Weinstein] the show runner has been let rip. Whatever is brilliant, let’s do that.

Does the mix of techniques add a lot of work?
KVH: It’s a live action shoot with a film crew – a room full of 30 people plus puppeteers but then once that’s done every single frame has cg added to it to create all the characters’ blinks and mouth movements. Then anything that can’t be encompassed in the live action is done in stop frame. It’s literally the worst of all worlds but that’s why it doesn’t look like anything else.

What do puppets bring to the party?
PC: The great thing with shooting live is you can get that extra nuance of performance. If the puppeteers feel they want to create a certain look and feel they’ve got the freedom to do it. That’s very difficult in strict animation when its been storyboarded to the nth degree, frame by frame.
KVH: In animation, if a character was to get knocked over there would be some humour in that but there’s nothing as funny as a physical character getting knocked over. That translates all the way through the show. It’s restricted by using puppets but it’s also incredibly free. You get this really dynamic look.

How much movement do you get from the puppets?
PC: With rod puppets, providing you’ve got the linkages right and the angles right you get quite a degree of freedom. There are five rods per puppet – a central rod stuck up the centre with a gimble joint with a trigger so you can pitch and yaw and rotate the head and then a rod per arm and per foot.

The characters’ mouth movements are made in cg?
PC: The original concept was that we’d just use facial performance recognition software where we can just play the voice track and we’ll get perfect animation curves that will apply to each character and that will be semi automated. How wrong we were. In reality when we key framed it in post we got more believable performances. We thought we could semi automate at least 50% of the post processes but the reality is that’s been no substitute for great animation.

Why use stop frame at all?
KVH: The initial brief was to do everything live in camera but there are some things that are not physically possible live. Rather than resorting to cg, Phil said let’s do them in camera but in another technique. It’s about sticking with what you set out to do, which is to point the camera at something and film it.
PC: In the second season, one of the episodes has a Wereteacher. To create the character’s transformation we’re going to make replacement sections of his arm and physically see all the hairs sprouting from it. So we’ll do that stop frame rather than in cg. We want to keep a symmetry between the live action puppet stuff and the effects, so we’ve kept as much in camera as is physically possible. Though we’ve counted the number of effects shots we’ve done in post so far and there are still 13,000.

What was the thinking behind the character design?
KVH: Really stylised simple shapes. It’s taking the simplistic geometric art of collectible toys and applying it to puppets. On our noticeboard we’ve got a picture of an orange with a Toblerone shoved through the middle. That’s our brief – geometry.

How has the team reacted to working outside of their usual disciplines?
PC: When we started the journey I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into. We come from a traditional animation background and this is a hybrid between stop frame and live action. It is a live action shoot but with many of the disciplines of animation. On a stop frame shoot you have six individual sets, and the animator will work alone and the director will come and set up shots once or twice a day and then they produce their 11 seconds. But we need 12 people under the set and in terms of setting up each shot we could be looking at two hours per shot and getting 20 seconds maximum on that one set up.
KVH: Everyone has a massive amount of experience but on this everyone is out of their comfort zone. It’s pushed everybody slightly out of their little genre. It’s definitely given the project a real energy.

Co-produced by CBBC, FremantleMedia Kids and Factory Transmedia
Creator Yoshimi & Katoi
Executive producers Bob Higgins, Sander Schwartz, Sarah Muller, Kat Van Henderson
Producer Phil Chalk
Showrunner Josh Weinstein
Voices include Emma Kennedy, Richard Ayoade, Caroline Aherne,
John Thomson
Senior puppeteersVictoria Bovingdon, Michael Brett, Lesa Gillespie, Tim Jones
DoP Martin Kelly
Production designer Andrew Farago
Art director Barbara Biddulph
Character designYoshimi & Katoi
Lead designer Gaz Roberts
Puppets Mackinnon & Saunders
Sets TAKE 1
Head of vfx Gary Noden

Posted 08 May 2013 by Jon Creamer

Commissioning report: Entertainment TV

The big Saturday night entertainment hits return year after year and, although they often show signs 
of ill health, producers have become adept at returning them to match fitness. Jon Creamer reports

Stories that one big Saturday night entertainment format 
or another is finally on the wain are becoming almost 
a standard newspaper think piece. But still those shows return again and again, clawing back the ratings after having been refreshed with a new lick of paint, a few format tweaks 
and the ruthless sacking of a once essential star presenter.

Plus Ça Change...
Fremantle’s Britain’s Got Talent returns to ITV1 this month, 
and though its ratings held well last time out, changes will still be afoot, says its executive producer Richard Holloway. “Every single year we look at it very carefully in terms of what we can do differently the following year. One of the reasons it’s been the success that it’s been is we’ve never once rested on our laurels. We’ve always wanted to make it bigger, better, more interesting, more diverse.”

And it’s that drive in the entertainment genre that’s kept so many big hitting formats coming back year after year. “It’s all about how they are slightly reinvented,” says the BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey. “Strictly was tailing off about three years ago and people were saying the writing’s on the wall” but with some tweaks “last year was its best ever year.” This month’s launch of the second series of The Voice though will have gone through major changes, keeping the aspects of the show the viewers responded to, and taking an axe to those format points that failed to connect.

The secret is to “make sure you’re constantly refreshing and you’re looking at every aspect of these shows to make sure they’re on their toes, performing the best they can,” says ITV’s director of entertainment and comedy, Elaine Bedell. Not that the refresh has to be fundamental. “For Britain’s Got Talent last year we introduced David Walliams and Alesha Dixon. That gave that series a breath of fresh air and brought a new kind of energy to it,” It’s all about having a light touch. The X Factor lost some of its viewers on its last run out but that doesn’t require a whole scale panic, says Bedell. “It was still averaging nine million viewers last year so there is something in that show that people respond to. You’d be mad to throw the whole thing up and come back with 
a completely different show. What you hope to do is take a broom to it.”

Attention to reinvention
And that’s crucial because the audience has a lot of big entertainment shows to choose from now. “What the audience will not forgive in a highly competitive market is resting on your laurels,” says Bedell. “You can’t take anything for granted. If you expect to get big audiences you have to fight for their attention.”

Producers have learned that constant reinvention, rather than sticking strictly to the format is the key to longevity. “There’s a change in the way formats work,” says Remarkable’s md, David Flynn. “In the past there was a tendency to feel we have to deliver it in exactly the same way year on year as that’s what works.” But the lessons of reality TV have changed all that. “Those lessons have come to other areas now. The audience wants you to surprise them. Where there would be a worry about confusing them in the past, actually there’s a realisation that surprising audiences is all the better. They’re smarter than people sometimes give them credit for.”

And it’s necessary too. Because launching new primetime shows is no easy feat. Due to DQF cuts, the BBC’s Mark Linsey 
is soon to have to take on board a 20% drop in his budget. “When that kicks in it is going to be a big challenge for us in finding creative headroom for new ideas and the opportunities to try new ideas out,” he says. “It’s a hard area to land new ideas and a lot of my money is spent already on very successful brands – The    Apprentice, Top Gear, Strictly, Graham Norton. It’s not as if I’m complaining but the creative headroom is going to be more challenging.”

Risky Business
But even without budget cuts, big entertainment shows are 
a high-risk option for broadcasters and indies alike. It’s also 
a very expensive development prospect. “Entertainment is a difficult genre so some people shy away from it so the pool of ideas and the people out there making it is not as massive as on the factual side,” says Channel 4 head of entertainment, Justin Gorman. “It’s high risk but the rewards can be massive. If you get a Million Pound Drop and it goes to 35 territories then you’re laughing.”

But that’s a tough call for all but the big indie groups with the finances to spend a lot of time and money in development for something that may or may not come off. “It’s a very labour intensive development process so you need to have a resource to fund that,” says Remarkable’s Flynn. “We’ll run through a game show six or seven times before we’ll even show it to a channel. Sometimes we’ll end up not showing it because it doesn’t work.” And even if the commission is landed,  the indie’s then spending, and risking, a large chunk of a channel’s money, a terrifying prospect for a nascent company.

Keep it subtle
Because big entertainment shows are such a major gamble, with failure always an option, they don’t tend to change all that much. Most entertainment shows are a subtle twist on what’s come before, because what’s come before is usually what works. “You can learn new things from either your personal history or the history of what’s been on television for the last 40 years,” says entertainment TV veteran, Holloway.  “That’s not to say one should always be looking at the past but you should consider one’s history and the history of the genre.” The trick is not to jump too far from what audiences are proven to like. “It needs to feel like a traditional Saturday night affair,” says Linsey. The newness can be as subtle as “who’s presenting or the environment you put it in. It doesn’t take much of a twist to make it feel contemporary and fresh. With the chairs on The    Voice there’s a different dimension to a singing talent show. With [upcoming panel show] I Love My Country, it’s a game show with captains and two teams. That’s very traditional and we all get it very easily but what will make it slightly different is the team captains are Micky Flanagan and Frank Skinner who are new to BBC1 Saturday night.”

ITV’s Elaine Bedell, who’s just seen ratings success with Saturday teatime shows Splash and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, says they are subtly different versions of traditional ideas. “Both those shows felt different and fresh. Even though Takeaway is a revival of a show that used to be on five years ago, the show has come back with a lot of new ideas in it. It feels like old fashioned, almost 1970s entertainment but with a delicious modern twist.” Splash may have been critically savaged, but its audiences grew healthily across its run. And that was, says Bedell, because its swimming pool setting gave it that subtle point of difference. “We’d got away from the shiny floor even though 
it had a lot of shiny floor qualities and values about it. There’s 
not much that’s new in television but what television is brilliant 
at is constantly reinventing itself. That’s what you’re looking for 
all the time – the fresh original takes on shows and 
on the genre and the mixing of genre and all sorts different ways of coming at things. That’s what both those shows have done 
in their way.”

That conservatism also means that quite often new shows are literally reworkings of old shows. ITV is bringing both Surprise Surprise and Catchphrase back this year, keeping the essentials of the formats but refreshing them with various modern tweaks. “Surprise Surprise is obviously built around the personality of the person who’s hosting it,” says Bedell. “Holly Willoughby brought a different style to it, and the content is different as a lot of the elements of Surprise    Surprise exist in other shows now. You have to think of new ideas and news ways of doing it.”

But new shows do punch through, says Remarkable’s Flynn. And, he says, his quiz show Pointless is a case in point. The show has climbed from daytime to primetime while eschewing the high drama, noise and jeopardy that most major entertainment shows of the last decade have relied on. “The event entertainment shows are great but if you can get a kind of club atmosphere and create a warm place the viewer wants to be, they’ll come back time and time again” as long as those shows can grow organically in daytime before facing the fire of primetime. “We’ve been looking at those shows that are absolutely modern in their conception but have that return 
to the traditional, warm, clubby atmosphere that many shows used to have.”

The truth is, great ideas will still find a way through, says Holloway. “I always say to all the development people and producers here, ‘if you have a must-have, really good original idea, broadcasters will buy it straight away.’ There’s no question about it.”

Mark Linsey: BBC controller of entertainment commissioning
Where’s your commissioning focus? Most of our spend is on BBC1 Saturday night. That’s always an area we want to hear ideas on, particularly in peak. We don’t get enough new ideas in that area. And comedy entertainment on BBC3 is something we’re keen to hear new ideas on. People have to be aware of Saturday night across the year. There’s Strictly and Let’s Dance and we’ve got a singing talent show so people should steer away from those areas. We want to be trying new things in peak on Saturday night. We want people to come to us with ideas that challenge us and make us a bit apprehensive. And we have some teatime shows coming down the line like Reflex with Shane Ritchie. We will be thinking in the middle of this year what other teatime shows we should be developing for Saturday night on BBC1. It has to have humour and  purpose – a game that has a beginning, middle and end. The key thing is it’s easy to watch and you can can dip in and out of it. And we want to pilot at least one new Lottery show this year. We will be briefing our needs on that.

Elaine Bedell: ITV director 
of entertainment and comedy
What slots are you looking for ideas for right now?
One slot that we’re returning to entertainment, that used to be an entertainment slot on ITV1 years ago, is Wednesday at 8 o’clock. Since the move of Coronation Street that’s provided us with the opportunity to try new things there. We’re looking for ideas to play there which are heart of the week, heart of the schedule and pre watershed. We’ve done some shiny floor studio shows like All Star Mr and Mrs and we’ve tried factual entertainment but we’re pretty open minded about what could play there. That’s a good place for producers to have a look at and to think quite imaginatively about. It’s an hour long slot and it could be anything as long as it’s in the right price bracket.
What about Saturday night entertainment?
We’re doing well but we have a lot of entertainment on Saturday night. We don’t play any drama on Saturday night, we have one show after another so we need a variety of entertainment shows across our Saturday night schedules. We’re making quite a push in comedy entertainment. On ITV2 we’ve got Juice and we’re looking for more comedy formats to play on the main channel perhaps later on Saturday night. We’re looking at a number of formats to play there. It’s not a sitcom slot. We are making a big push in sitcom elsewhere, but this could be a format for comedians.

Justin Gorman: 
Channel 4 head of entertainment
What’s the tone you’re after?
A lot of what we’re doing is naughty, big and noisy but at its heart it’s quite warm. It’s stuff you want to spend time with not stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable because it’s a bit snidey. There’s a bigger heart in what we do now in entertainment and that’s because it’s what people want. We still get into trouble, look at the Big Fat Quiz. But that is still quite warm. So it’s naughty but not nasty.
What are you looking for right now?
We’re excited about what we could do to kick off the New Year again. We’re always looking for something that can be stripped and make a bit of a splash. We’ve been talking to indies about getting back in the world of reality. The Bank Job was a weird quiz/reality hybrid and that feels interesting for us. Big events are still something were very excited about. Last year we did Stand Up For Cancer. And then shiny floor stuff. Our Friday nights now are great but we want more shiny floor stuff that’s talent led essentially, 
with a light format.

Posted 24 April 2013 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Passion Pictures' John Battsek and Andrew Ruhemann

Fresh from another Oscar win, Passion Pictures' John Battsek and Andrew Ruhemann tell Jon Creamer about their extraordinary run of success in producing feature documentaries

It’s 14 years now since the film arm of animation house Passion Pictures launched its first feature doc, Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September, that went on 
to win them an Academy Award. Since then, the company’s produced and exec produced a string of movies that have picked up Oscar, Bafta and Grierson nominations and wins from The Age of Stupid, to Restrepo, The Tillman Story and, along with Simon Chinn’s Red Box Films, Project Nim, Raw Films’ Bafta winner The Imposter and this year’s Bafta and Oscar success Searching for Sugar Man.

It’s an incredible hit rate, and all kick started by that first Oscar success. When One Day in September, won the Academy Award “doors flew open left right and centre,” says head of Passion’s film arm, John Battsek. “As a first timer it put us in a position where we could be making big budget feature docs immediately.” 
But even now “people don’t throw money at you...”

Because it’s still about finding the stories and directors that can make it on the big screen. And part of that is the “scale of the story,” says Andrew Ruhemann, head of the Passion Group. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a big multiple cast epic, it’s about the scale of the drama.” It’s also often about finding stories that “fit a feature genre quite well. It’s no surprise with Sugar    Man that there are people hovering around saying they want to make it into a drama. And The Imposter too. They’re films where fact really is stranger than fiction.”

They’re stories that are “greater than the sum of their parts” too, says Battsek. “The story transcends itself and resonates above and beyond the core story.” And that means a film can appeal to a wider audience beyond the one interested in the headline subject.

For the producer, it’s then a case of bringing in elements that can help turn that story into a big screen event. “What kind of archive, what kind of music could you use? Audiences traditionally find archive in feature docs completely captivating,” says Battsek. “We think about how many of those ingredients can we bring to elevate the story to the point it feels like cinema.”

And that’s often where a feature doc sized budget comes in. “Sometimes there’s a film you can elevate because you’ve brought cash to it,” says Battsek. “Money can buy you great music and more archive and you can do all sorts of fancy stuff. Often, though, what the money does is buy people who thought they were going to cut a film in 16 weeks the next 16 weeks they need to actually cut the film.”
Because with docs, it’s not always obvious what the story is from the outset, says Battsek. “You don’t really know until it slaps you in the face and that’s normally week 20 of the edit. These films reveal themselves through the edit, there’s always a question mark over whether it’s going to make it as proper cinema.”

The other element that can turn a story into a cinematic experience is, of course, the skill of the filmmaker. “Bart Layton [The    Imposter], James Marsh [Man on Wire], Kevin MacDonald. They’re very powerful, talented filmmakers and the extra ingredient that helps give it the legs to make it into a piece of cinema,” says Battsek. And those directors come from all angles. “Some have tons of time on TV, some have made movies and want to do docs, some come out of nowhere. It’s one of the exciting things about it.”

Another exciting thing is that there is a decent amount of money around to make theatrical docs now. “It’s pretty healthy,” says Battsek. “Finance and broadcasters have got a real appetite for it.” And there are plenty of people around looking to invest. “We get our films, for the most part, financed quite significantly out of America – HBO, A&E, ShowTime… There are a bunch of people in the business of financing feature docs. A&E and HBO will fully fund a feature doc to the tune of anywhere between $1m and $1.5m, maybe more. And there’s BBC Films, Film4, Channel 4, BBC and there’s Sky now, NBC Universal. There are ways of combining all these people. Then there are all sorts of different little equity companies. Feature docs in the last decade have become something people are very interested in putting their money into."

And they’ve found an established, and burgeoning route to distribution too. “Our traditional pattern is to make a film, platform it at a big festival - more often than not Sundance  - and sell it there,” says Battsek. And that route is getting easier, he says. “Five years ago, you’d probably only sell the US out of Sundance, maybe the UK and maybe Australia too. Now more 
and more international buyers are picking up films 
at Sundance and for proper proper money.”

After that, it’s in the hands of the gods. “We try to make the very best possible film and do the best possible deal and work with the distributor to do the best possible campaign. Then when it’s out there, at a certain point you’ve got to let it happen or not happen.”

Company CV
Starting with Oscar winner One Day In September in 1999, Passion Pictures has been responsible for over 25 theatrical docs including Greg Barker’s Sergio (Oscar shortlisted 2010); Oscar nominated Restrepo; and The Tillman Story (Oscar Shortlisted, 2011). Recently, Passion has been involved with 2013 Bafta Outstanding Debut winner, Bart Layton’s The Imposter, and Malik Bendjelloul’s directorial debut, the Oscar, Sundance and Bafta winning Searching For Sugar Man and the soon to be released Manhunt about the CIA’s long war with Al Qaeda.

Posted 17 April 2013 by Jon Creamer
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