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Interview: Ralph Lee, C4's head of factual

As the dust settles after a few months of hiring, firing and resigning at Channel 4, new factual boss Ralph Lee tells Jon Creamer about his plans for docs and specialist factual

The last few months have seen a headspinning round of arrivals and departures within C4’s commissioning team.

Among those through the revolving doors at Horseferry Road following Jay Hunt's restructure have been head of factual and features Sue Murphy who left for Optomen, head of daytime Helen Warner who went off to be a writer and CBBC's Damian Kavanagh who took over both their responsibilities. Both Camilla Campbell and Robert Wulff-Cochrane exited the drama department and Darren Smith and Dominique Walker left the entertainment department.

There have been entries and exits within the specialist factual and documentary teams too. The merger of the two departments saw docs head Hamish Mykura leave for Nat Geo and Ralph Lee ensconced as the head of a new factual department, looking after both specialist factual and documentaries.

One of the drivers of those changes is to break down barriers between departments and genres, says Lee. And it's bringing creative benefits. "It used to be the case that there was quite a lot of delineation between departments and now we're trying to work together in creating more cross genre programming." He points to a "specialist factual/entertainment/adventure hybrid" he's working on with entertainment head, Justin Gorman. He's also recently ordered an historical clip show/comedy panel show from Twofour.

To this end, former specialist factual commissioner David Glover has been given a new remit "to look for events and specials, invent new hybrids and go on adventures right across the factual department," says Lee. "That could be Werner Herzog's new documentary about death row inmates, it could be an experimental documentary format which he's just commissioned, and it could be Drugs Live - all different forms of telly."

The race is on to find genre busting shows of real scale, he says. "What we get too little of are ideas that are game changing for a broadcaster. That's The Apprentice and Big Brother but also The 1900 House. What indies find hardest to do is to generate ideas that are broadcaster size rather than indie size and they're the most exciting things for us."

For much of the last decade, Lee has been a specialist factual commissioner (apart from a brief sojourn at Channel 5 as head of factual), so will looking after the C4's docs output be a stretch? "There's obviously a big crossover between specialist factual and documentaries. It's a creative challenge to try to understand the slightly different culture that exists in the documentary world but there’s still a lot of suppliers, directors and talent in common so it's not like a complete switch of genre."

He says he's happy with the direction Channel 4's docs are taking. "Documentaries is going through a really exciting boom at the moment," he says. And that's largely been driven by technology on rig shows like One Born Every Minute and Educating Essex. "There's a unifying tone of voice that those documentaries find - it's contemporary, accessible, entertaining." He's keen to stress though that he's not just about rig shows. "They've been a great technological innovation and allowed us to tell different stories in familiar places but we're not asking 'where do we put the rig next?' We're asking what do we want to say next and what's the best way of capturing it."

He'll be assisted in that by Wonderland series editor Nick Mirsky who joins as deputy head of factual this month and who'll have an overall view of the docs output. The documentary strands remain but may shift subtly. "When Nick joins he'll bring a new thinking to all the strands and will work with the strand commissioners to keep them fighting fit." A minimum of 10 True Stories a year will run on Channel 4 and new director strand First Cut stays. "Cutting Edge remains a key part of our plan and I'm working with Emma [Cooper] and Nick on how more clearly to define what Cutting Edge is, but people pitching documentaries shouldn't preoccupy themselves too much with that. We'll brand them as Cutting Edge if we think they live up to the brand."

The other big push, as always, is for talent. "In specialist factual that's progressing really well this year," he says. Jimmy Docherty, Guy Martin, Hugh Hunt and Mark Evans are, or will soon be, faces of the channel. "Jill Fullerton Smith has commissioned three talent driven science things in the last month. There's real momentum."

And he wants that momentum to continue in docs. Katie Piper and Sharon Horgan are two documentary faces that have emerged recently and "it would be interesting to see more. One of the misconceptions people have about the documentary team is all they want is a rig show or a Cutting Edge. But we've commissioned three new formats already this year. Let's not forget this is the place where Wife Swap, Supernanny and Faking It emerged. People don't often think of it as a space where you can book around talent but if you do find a doc talent, that's of huge value to the channel."

C4 Factual department structure

Head of factual Ralph Lee
Deputy head of factual Nick Mirsky
Arts Tabitha Jackson
History Julia Harrington
Science Jill Fullerton Smith
Talent, adventure, 8pm spec fact Sara Ramsden
Factual events David Glover
Doc series Mark Raphael
First Cut, doc series tbc
Cutting Edge Emma Cooper
True Stories Anna Miralis
Seasons, 4thought Lina Prestwood
Cross platform Kate Quilton
Docs editor Madonna Benjamin

- this article first appeared in Televisual's April issue

Posted 19 April 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes of Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy

The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and animator Nigel Coan have turned the weirdometer up to 11 on their new show with the liberal use of poster paint, cardboard and green screen animation

Taking a break from filming The Mighty Boosh, Noel Fielding and animation director/Boosh collaborator/old college friend Nigel Coan took some time out to mess about with some comedy and animation ideas in their front rooms. The result is the upcoming E4 sketch show, Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, a home made series featuring stunt riding lychees and talkative stingrays all held together by cling film, bacofoil, poster paints and felt tips. Nigel Coan tells Jon Creamer about the show’s DIY surrealism.

How did the series come about?
Two or three years ago we had a couple of months spare to make something ourselves but we didn’t know we were going to make a show at the time. We literally filmed it in our flats and there were just two of us doing it but we managed to get 23 minutes of stuff and thought ‘there’s a show in this.’

Was that starting point where the homemade aesthetic of the show comes from?
Yes, the limitations we had when there were only two of us led to how we made the series. When we made the series we tried to keep to that way of making things rather than expand outwards.

What was the inspiration for the show’s look?
There are a lot of painted elements. The main thread of the show is that Noel’s in a psychedelic jungle tree house and all that is painted. It’s inspired by Henri Rousseau and painters like that. That’s because Noel paints as well as doing comedy, and we thought it’s a nice texture and it reflects him. It’s also an extension of the animations we do on Boosh. It was a conscious decision to keep the painted elements in and a deliberate reaction against slick cg stuff.

What was the writing process?

The way Noel writes is by performing it so he’ll rattle it off word for word and then we’ll talk about it and I’ll tell him if it’s possible or not [in terms of the animation]. So we made decisions quite quickly about what we were going to do. Anything I wasn’t sure about I’d go away and do a quick test and come back and say ‘Yes, we can do that.’

Did the finished show change a lot from the 
initial scripts?
Often if you’re doing a character for the first time you sometimes discover what’s really funny about it after the performance because Noel improvises so much. Obviously we’d start with the script but it’s often that improvised stuff that we used because it’s just fresh. When it happens in that moment, you know it’s funny straight away so it often supersedes scripted stuff.

The animation’s mostly based on green screen performances, why?
We shot some stuff against painted sets but in the end we preferred working on green screen because you concentrate on the performance and it gives you options afterwards. You can then decide what the world is going to look like after – if it’s going to be collagey or if it’s going to be painted. We’d always start with an idea in our heads but it gives you options. When you shoot on a set it is what it is on the day and it’s not going to change.

Why did you form your own production company, Secret Peter, to make Luxury Comedy?
Because we made what we made on our own just in our kitchens and with green screen, it gives you the power to do that because you can create all these worlds without big sets. We thought if we can do that why not have our own production company, get a producer and expand outwards. It’s quite stressful because it’s all on us but I’m glad we did it that way.

There’s an enormous amount of animation overall, did you know it would be possible to make in the time you had?
When we started it we didn’t know. It was a big learning curve because we weren’t sure what we were trying to do was possible within the budget. But now we know what’s doable and what’s not.

Noel Fielding’s 
Luxury Comedy
“A psychedelic character based comedy show half filmed and half animated. The show is like biting into an aurora borealis Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger recreating The Jungle Book using toast... Warm and strange and packed 
with jokes.”
Broadcaster E4
TX January 2012
Production company Secret Peter
Exec producer Derrin Schlesinger
Producer Isibeal Ballance
Director and lead animator Nigel Coan
Music Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno
Editor Mark Everson

Posted 10 January 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes of BBC3's upcoming Young Soldiers

It's one of the most dangerous times to be a British soldier since the Second World War, particularly if you’re in the infantry. BBC3 and Lion’s new access doc gets close to the raw recruits signing up to fight for their country in Afghanistan

With the 10-year anniversary of the Afghan war approaching, there are plenty of docs about the British soldiers at the sharp end. But while many focus on life on the frontline, Lion TV's new BBC3 doc series takes a look at new recruits as they prepare for battle.

Access was, of course, key to the doc and particularly access to Catterick, the infantry's basic training centre where all new recruits spend their first six months. "Lion had been working on the access quite heavily for nine or 10 months before it got the greenlight," says the show's director and series producer, Dov Freedman. And the indie's "reputation helped. They'd done a lot of access documentaries with the MOD in the past" including ITV series Guarding the Queen and the MOD were happy with that. The BBC3 audience demographic helped too, says Freedman. "The age to join the infantry is 17 to 32 which is pretty much BBC3's target audience so all that made it appealing" to the army.

The show focuses on four main characters joining The Rifles regiment and casting began as the slew of recruits arrived on their first day at Catterick. “We didn’t know anyone before they pitched up for their first day so we were casting as we went along." Each of the characters was there for a different reason. "There's a guy whose brother had been blown up in Afghanistan and suffered some quite bad injuries, another who'd been in the TA before but was struggling to find a job and an out of work tiler trying to support his son." Through those stories "we're trying to paint a picture of Britain," says Freedman. And also ask why, when it's such a dangerous time to join the army, recruitment is still high.

Even though much of the focus is on the training process, the series would be incomplete without following the characters to Afghanistan's Camp Bastion and the front line. This meant a hostile environment training course for Freedman and a shock to the system. "The heat and the dust is unbelievable" especially when you're dragging body armour and camera kit too. "It's pretty challenging but not as challenging as what the soldiers have to do." For his trips to the frontline, Freedman hired an ex soldier turned DV director. "He's been filming out there for the last four or five years and had been in the army for a long time. He knew what to look out for and what to do and what not to do."

Although the UK footage was shot on a Sony DSR 450, Freedland took the decision not to take that camera to Afghanistan. "I was keen to because I knew there was going to be a fantastic light." But at the same time "you've got to be able to carry your own kit. I didn't want to take the DSR because you've got the Peli cases and batteries and stuff. The last thing the soldiers want to see is you schlepping around with loads of boxes."

In the end he took the Sony Z7 body with a Canon J22 lens. "We got a converter and retro fitted the Z7 with a big lens and the results were pretty good." He also shot on tape, despite the heat and dust of Afghanistan. "If I went again I would shoot tapeless but we started on tape and I didn't want to take a fresh camera out. You just had to change tape when you were inside to try and keep the dust out of it and just really mother it."

Young Soldiers A 5x60-minute observational documentary that follows a group of new infantry recruits from basic training at Catterick through to the front line in Afghanistan
TX September 2011
Production company Lion TV
Broadcaster BBC3
Exec producers 
Donna Clark 
and Jeremy Mills
Director and series producer Dov Freedman
Commissioned by BBC3 commissioning editor of factual, formats and specialist factual, Harry Lansdown
Cameras Sony DSR 450, Sony Z7
Post  In-house at Lion with final audio post at Rapid Pictures

Posted 05 September 2011 by Jon Creamer

Cometh The Hour

With Abi Morgan writing the script, a cast that includes Ben Wishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai and comparisons with Mad Men, The Hour has a lot to live up to. Jon Creamer reports

There's a lot to pack in to The Hour, Kudos' new Abi Morgan-penned series for BBC2.
Set in a TV newsroom in the mid 50s, it's part period drama, part suspense thriller and part love triangle. It takes in the birth of television news and the beginning of the end of deference. It’s also a show about transition - as the Suez Crisis tips Britain from broken post-imperial dinosaur and turns the country towards a bright new technological future.

The media chatter surrounding the show has so far been about the possible birth of a British Mad Men. But, says exec producer Jane Featherstone, that’s a strange comparison. "I love and adore Mad Men but that is about ad men in New York, this is a political thriller. They’re nine years apart and not even in the same country. Tonally it couldn't be more different."

The show begins, after all, in a London still suffering the effects of the second world war – filled with bomb damage and rationing - a world away from the glitz of Madison Avenue. But the show is also about how Britain was changing in the mid 50s. Along with its thriller elements, the theme of transition runs through the series, even within the first episode as the TV journalist characters move from the old fashioned Alexandra Palace and take up residence in the bright new Lime Grove Studios. The drama begins "claustrophobic and shadowy and steeped in the patina of age," says director Coky Giedroyc. "Through the first episode as the journalists fight to get out of Alexandra Palace, I let the light in. At the end of episode one, they're in Lime Grove Studios and it's the vision of the future - shiny floors and ceilings and big windows and new technology."

The show is faithful to its 50s setting, with all the attention to detail that entails but the production team were determined not to be stymied by the conventions of period drama. "Recent period has to feel real but contemporary," says exec producer Jane Featherstone. "It's not a historical piece in the sense it was trying to be an absolute replication of that time. What the design and photography team did was absolutely accurate in every way, but it was very much about creating a world that felt real to us today as well."

Despite the period setting, the script demanded the show had the pace of contemporary drama. "I wanted something richly textured and lush and period but with a motor and energy that are really contemporary," says Giedroyc, who took influences from 50s movies like Touch of Evil "for the heavy rich, smoky sense of the period" but also Michael Mann thrillers like The Insider "for the energy and the motor." It is, after all, a political thriller too. "In a way, sod the period," says Giedroyc. "An audience won't be bothered with something that's incredibly beautifully constructed but a bit boring."

And that need for pace informed the camera work. "Coky in particular was adamant she didn't want a very typical period, staid, solid look," says DoP Chris Seager. "We wanted something a bit more vibrant, not in the sense of being handheld because we didn't want people aware of the camera." Instead the camera "was asked to be inquiring, looking and going with the action rather than watching" which led to "a lot of POV stuff, a lot of over-shoulder stuff and Steadicam shots going down corridors and going up stairs and people going in and out of light and dark. It's an exuberant style."

A major aid to that pace and exuberance was the early find of Hornsey Town Hall, a listed 1930s building packed with period features. "We found it early on and it was the most creatively exciting thing I've done in a long time," says Giedroyc. "It's one of those really important breakthroughs on a production that if you don't get, you're stuck." The production team were able to have the run of the whole building and could even use buildings to the rear to create the Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove sets. 

Finding the building informed the writing too. With so much period detail in situ, characters could be followed through corridors and down staircases and that meant Morgan could write some real pace and movement into the script without needing more set builds. It meant "our world had scale," says Featherstone. "Which we probably wouldn't have been able to afford without it." It also meant director Giedroyc could concentrate on the performances. "It freed me up," she says. "I could go on long journeys with characters. I didn't have to go from one poky set to another. I had four flights of stairs, I had six corridors so we could create a camera style that was incredibly fluid. And it's very rare to be able to do that in a period drama."

Recreating Lime Grove
Eve Stewart, production designer: "We wanted to make the difference between Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove really clear because it says something about society at the time. There was a massive surge in technology in those few years. It went from post war utility and make do and mend and then suddenly space travel was starting to be talked about." To research the period Stewart watched contemporary movies and took references from the Geffrye Museum and The Museum of London. "And we met a lot of people who'd worked at Lime Grove in the period. They managed to come up with original footage of the building." As for props, "we make an awful lot ourselves. For the television equipment we found Dicky from Golden Age Television Recreations who has two big cameras and a big boom in his garage. Then if you're charming and friendly to these people it then leads on to their friend who leads on the their friend. There's an enormous wealth of mad English people who collect things."

The Hour
A 6x60-minute drama series that centres on the early days of British television news in 1956. Part period drama, part love triangle and part thriller
TX: July 2011
Production company: Kudos
Broadcaster: BBC2
Writer: Abi Morgan
Director: Coky Giedroyc
Producer: Ruth Kenley-Letts
DoP: Chris Seager
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Exec producers: Jane Featherstone and Derek Wax for Kudos, Lucy Richer for the BBC and Abi Morgan
Commissioned by: BBC2 controller, Janice Hadlow and BBC controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson
Cast: Romola Garai, Dominic West, Ben Whishaw, Tim Pigott-Smith, Juliet Stevenson, Anton Lesser, Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Oona Chaplin
Cameras: Arriflex D21
Grade: Molinare
Locations: The majority of the series was shot at Hornsey Town Hall which doubled for almost everything including Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove Studios

Posted 05 July 2011 by Jon Creamer

Getting Kids' TV connected

At next month's Children's Media Conference, a panel session about  the 'connected living room' will discuss how connected TV will affect kids' television. Here the speakers preview their thoughts

Marc Goodchild
Independent digital strategist and former editorial lead, BBC IPTV
With the new(ish) phenomenon of 'media stacking' - where kids are watching, playing, reading, chatting, voting, contributing on various devices at the same time, is TV becoming more ambient? Many see connected TVs as an opportunity to reverse that trend. The killer application has to be new TV formats that enable social interaction, incorporate play-along and are as immersive as games consoles. And once the TV is connected you can then tie in all the other connected devices too. Traditional TV may get squeezed out but this technology opens up the opportunity for a new breed of 'tele-centric experiences' for the 21st century.

Matt Locke
There are two key questions about the connected living room. What products will people buy in the current economic climate? And what will people actually 'do' with them? For most of us, the second is a lot more important than the first. In the last few years, social technology has grown exponentially, so we are starting to see new patterns of behaviour that are maturing and becoming mainstream. Kids are leading these changes and broadcasters will not always be the first movers to take advantage, and make money, from these new behaviours, so it's up to content creators to do the innovation themselves, and in return, reap the rewards.

Hamish McPharlin
Director of research, Decipher Consultancy Ltd
Connected TV has been around for years - we call it Red Button, but it's hindered by the constraints of the delivery mechanism, something which connected TVs and devices potentially overcome. A major influence in all this will be the pay platforms. Our research suggests a pay TV box trumps a connected TV in pay homes, and Sky et al will always innovate to keep it this way. So connected TVs will see more usage in non-pay homes. It will be a slow process to get good kids interactivity as current apps are slow and clunky and need to be developed for each manufacturer. Getting apps to work hand in hand with broadcast is still looking some way off.

Richard Kastelein
CEO, Agora Media Innovation
Connected devices will radically change the living room over the next few years as not only connected TVs enter homes, but also consumer pick-up of both smart phones and tablets will allow for dual screen interaction - providing a much more ergonomic and practical tool over the traditional TV remote. Though most TV remotes shipped by 2015 will likely be touch screen. TV apps on connected TV and companion devices are going to rattle the TV broadcast industry - the traditional value chain of brand/agency/broadcaster/consumer will drastically change. Some call it democratisation, others scream disruption. But for indie producers of kids' TV, there are going to be new paths to the consumer that fall outside of the norm.

Posted 15 June 2011 by Jon Creamer

Genre report: entertainment

There’s no sign of the ratings juggernauts of entertainment TV losing any of their popularity. And buoyed up by that success, commissioners and producers are now on the hunt for the next big genre-busting hit. Jon Creamer reports

The explosion in big budget entertainment TV that kicked off several years ago seems to be a boom with no bust in sight.

Many of the huge Saturday night shows are now several years old and there’s no sign of audiences, or channels, tiring of them.

The X Factor reached its seventh season last year with over 16m viewers tuning in for the final, the last Strictly Come Dancing series picked up over 14m for its final show. Britain’s Got Talent reaches series five this spring, Dancing on Ice’s sixth season has just ended and Got to Dance on Sky 1 brought in double the slot average. And although Channel 5 has now stepped out of the game with entertainment fan Richard Woolfe off to pastures new and the Don’t Stop Believing experiment consigned to the graveyard, Channel 4 has emerged as a big new entertainment player since Justin Gorman took the head of entertainment job and got his hands on a pot of post Big Brother cash.
For all broadcasters, entertainment shows, and particularly the talent show juggernauts, just keep on rewarding them with huge ratings and returnable brands. Far from moving through a natural TV lifecycle that would have seen them wane in popularity after so long at the top, they seem to get bigger and bigger, “which goes to prove that the old school values of singing and dancing and performance and jeopardy and competition are still as valid now as they’ve always been,” says Nick Samwell-Smith, creative director of Total Wipeout producer Initial.

It also goes to prove that those same channels have had the foresight to constantly reinvent them while also constantly upping their production values. “It needs to feel familiar to the audience, but at the same time you need to move it forward,” says BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey. “The shifts can be subtle but quite significant.”

And the door isn’t completely closed to new talent shows either. “When The X Factor or Idol juggernaut was a bit younger there might have been a feeling that you can’t pitch a singing show or a dancing show,” says Initial’s Samwell-Smith. “But you feel, in the current climate, that even though those massive shows are still delivering huge numbers, if you get it right and have the right twists on it, there may well be room for more in that area.” Because it’s looked like the genre has reached saturation point before, and then one more talent show comes along and turns into a hit. “I remember at ITV thinking there couldn't possibly be another talent show and then Britain's Got Talent pops up, so you never say never,” says Sky One head of entertainment, Duncan Gray.

But for all channels, a new talent show would have to have some very original twists to it. “If it is a talent show the important thing is it has a real point of difference so we’re offering something that has a different flavour or attitude,” says BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey. “That’s very key, not to ape something that already exists.”

“If we do it we’d have to invert it. It’s very difficult to go up against the wonderful X Factor. And our price point isn’t the same, so we would have to come at it from a very Channel 4 angle,” says Channel 4’s head of entertainment Justin Gorman. “We piloted something a while back and we’re still looking at how we touch in that area. It’s a tricky place to inhabit but I’d never say never because it obviously has a great audience but it’s tonally a tricky thing to achieve.”

Outside of the terrestrials, original commissions need to offer a point of difference, not a slightly less opulent copy, says UKTV’s commissioning editor for entertainment, Tess Cuming. “We tend to shy away from talent competitions. Our budgets are very healthy. They’re on a level with, if not more than, Channel 5, but our business model is based on something we can repeat to amortise costs.” And repeatability is not one of the major features of a talent show. “We don’t want to look like we’re aping the terrestrial channels and look like we’re doing a paler version. It’s difficult to sail into a similar area with a fraction of the budget.”
So the door may be open still at some broadcasters, but the idea would have to be very surprising to be welcomed in to the room. And with those ratings bankers still doing the business, the channels are on the lookout for the next generation of entertainment shows.

“I look at reality game shows and at the reality fusion going on in The Only Way is Essex and admire them and wonder what Sky’s bigger, better version would be,” says Sky One's Duncan Gray. “There are a couple of crossover genre shows that are just about to hit in the international marketplace that I’m very interested in. I’m very interested in the next generation of talk shows and who those performers may be, not in a pluggy way, but in a performance based way.”

BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey, says the success of the big returning shows gives commissioners the leeway “to take risks and back producer’s hunches and try new things and new territories which we’ve got to do to move the genre on.”

Initial’s Samwell-Smith, whose new BBC1 show Don’t Scare the Hare features a four-foot tall animatronic hare, reckons the time is ripe to pitch the weird and wonderful “There’s room for coming up with an idea which is a bit out there, a bit mad. You can sometimes almost surprise a commissioner into being interested in your show. That it’s so left of field they can’t say no to it.”

For Channel 4’s head of entertainment Justin Gorman, “creating hybrids is a really interesting way of moving things forward - combining an event with a gamseshow with live show with a stripped thing with a studio thing attached to it – that sort of bonkers stuff as a starting point is good. It’s easy to get stuck with ‘that worked quite well, what can we do that’s a bit similar to that again’. If we’d done that there’s no way we would have done Ten O’clock Live or The Million Pound Drop.”

But just as broadcasters may be on the lookout for new forms and hybrids of existing formats, entertainment TV’s cyclical nature, and its willingness to dust off ideas from the past and give them a new shine, means it’s not always the brand new that’s given a chance. “We are looking at single player, high value, gameshows and quiz shows,” says Samwell-Smith of Endemol's development efforts. Could this be a new Who Wants to be a Millionaire? before the original show’s even left the airwaves?

Posted 04 May 2011 by Jon Creamer

Period drama with attitude

It's a costume drama, but it’s a world away from the warm bath experience of most TV period pieces. Jon Creamer reports on Origin Pictures' graphic and disturbing tale of Victorian vice - The Crimson Petal and the White

Although the adaptation of Michel Faber's sweeping and highly detailed novel The Crimson Petal and the White will come to the screen as a four-part BBC2 drama, it was originally to be made as a Hollywood movie starring Kirsten Dunst.

At least it was when ex-BBC films and now Origin Pictures' David Thompson first went after the rights and found that Sony Pictures had got there first. Luckily for him, the movie was never to be and Origin grabbed the rights when Sony backed off. "What I loved about it was its epic sweep," says Thompson. "I didn't see it as a movie. It was too big a book. Too many great books are destroyed when turned into a single movie."
The book is certainly epic, but it's also a very different proposition to what's usually expected from a period drama. Though set in the Victorian era, it's a modern novel and one that's keen to turn over stones to see what comes crawling out from underneath. "I've not done much period drama but I'd always been interested in doing it in a different way," says Thompson. "The book's full of smell and sex and opulence and poverty. It strips the layers off Victorian society and takes you behind the green baize door."

For such a proposition, it was obvious that the look of the film had to be very different to that of a typical costume drama. Says producer Steve Lightfoot: "It's a dark book. In a way it's a sort of riposte to Dickens and the idea that people might be poor but they're happy. Marc [Munden, the director] was keen to get that darkness" referencing third world slums rather than "cheerful chimney sweeps and market stalls."

The epic nature of the book also cried out for a series that could portray a sense of scale. Origin Pictures managed to tie up its BBC2 commission with help from Fremantlemedia (with whom it has a first look deal), Lipsync Post and a Canadian co pro agreement with Cite-Amerique (which meant three weeks of studio shooting in Canada) but, even so, the production needed some ingenuity to achieve that sense of scale. "In a world of diminishing budgets what tends to happen is [shows] get more interior," says producer Steve Lightfoot. "We tried hard to keep the sense of scale and show the world as it would have been at the time."

And to achieve that, the team needed to think beyond London for locations. "Trying to find big Victorian streets in London that are remotely filmable on," is difficult, says Lightfoot. And on a TV budget you can't close them. So the street scenes were done in Liverpool "which gave the piece some real scope." A lot of grand Victorian architecture in London is also a little too perfect, says production designer Grant Montgomery. "The buildings [in the period] were black because of the chimneys and fires. If you're trying to do a decayed kind of Victorian world, London's all cleaned up and very expensive to shoot in."

The locations also took in Somerset House, Waddesdon Manor, Disraeli’s house Hughenden Manor, and a building in Rochester that once served as a brothel. The filming also required the team to take over a private Georgian house that served as the Rackham family home where they repainted and furnished the place while the residents moved into a back room for the duration.

The main location required a lot too. Sugar lives in the Rookery, a slum world of three storey wooden shacks and dirt floors that crouched beneath the Victorian architecture that surrounded it in the St Giles area of London - a tall order to recreate in central London but perfect for Manchester Town Hall. "It's built around an internal courtyard so what you end up with is a more or less triangular inner space that's walled at all sides," says Lightfoot. "We built our stuff into it and it gave us this 360 degree set that we could walk round and shoot in any direction."

The location's closed off nature also meant there were "no problems with controlling traffic," says Montgomery. We could just let loose in there." It also meant the production could dump several tons of earth in there too as well as recreating a traditional Victorian open sewer. "The mud was a big issue," says Montgomery. "It looked like a First World War battle scene, but it gave it the atmosphere that you really didn't want to live down there."

Adapted from Michel Faber's sprawling novel, the drama tells the story of Sugar (Romola Garai), a young prostitute in 1870s London who yearns for a better life. She meets a wealthy businessman, William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) who feels hemmed in by the strictures of his life and sets Sugar up as his mistress. Although set in the Victorian era, the language and tone of the book and the film are not. Graphic, visceral and disturbing, it is described as the sort of book Dickens would have written if he'd been allowed to.

Director Marc Munden and DoP Lol Crawley felt the script demanded the photography should avoid costume drama cliche and reflect the claustrophobic and unsettling tone: "We tested Canon K35 lenses, which are these old 70s lenses that had an interesting fall off in terms of their focus," says Crawley. "As soon as we started to get physically close to a subject, it was like crawling over them with a microscope. When we had a two shot I would be a foot away pulling focus from a veil to the eyes and back over the skin. So you're really examining the textures and the faces as the woozy, crawling camera wanders around these different textures. Then for the wide shots you jump out to a very low angle. The heads and conversations were played very low in the frame with a lot of negative space so you've got these low, wide angles intercut with these very intense close up, crawling cameras shots."

Although staying faithful to the era was crucial to production designer Grant Montgomery, so was reflecting the story's disturbing tone which meant "bringing in a lot of influences" from outside the period. The brothel was influenced by South America. And we wanted it to be slightly 'voodoo princess' and a really disturbing experience. The walls were painted with deep reds and we patterned Mary Magdalene pictures with Victorian photographic pornography and candles so it becomes sort of shrine. It's definitely not straight period."

TX DATE: March 2011
LENGTH: 4x60-minutes
ON SCREEN TALENT: Romola Garai (Emma, Atonement), Chris O'Dowd (IT Crowd), Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant, Shirley Henderson, Amanda Hale, Mark Gatiss
CAMERAS: Red One with Canon K35 lenses
LOCATIONS: Various including Manchester Town Hall, Somerset House, Waddesdon Manor

Commissioning editors: BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson and head of BBC2 Janice Hadlow
Exec producer, BBC: Lucy Richer
Producer: David Thompson
Producer: Steven Lightfoot
Director: Marc Munden
DoP: Lol Crawley
Writer: Lucinda Coxon adapted the script from the Michel Faber novel
Production designer: Grant Montgomery
Casting director: Nina Gold

Posted 16 February 2011 by Jon Creamer

Product placement - who wins?

With the new rules for paid for product placement within UK television shows due to kick in this month, Televisual asked who will product placement benefit most; broadcasters or indies?

Vicky Kell
Business manager, sponsorship, placement, funded content, C4

We are hoping that the answer will be "both". Given Channel 4's unique position as publisher-broadcaster and supporter of the indie sector, we're pleased to be working hand in hand with indies to establish and execute the opportunities around this new revenue stream, and are in the process of negotiating how those revenues will be split. In order to run successful product placement campaigns, it is imperative that this is a close working relationship, and we’re looking forward to presenting our first PP opportunities with Hollyoaks to the market, fully in conjunction with Lime later in February.

John McVay
Chief executive, Pact

The new rules surrounding the relaxation of product placement have to perform a balancing act between providing much-needed revenue streams for programmes (which are no longer fully funded by the broadcaster) and maintaining the audience's faith in the content. Pact was very involved in helping to frame the guidelines and this was the principle which underpinned all of our meetings. Going forward, for product placement to work it has to address funding concerns for both independent producers and broadcasters and there needs to be real benefits for both. In the end we need to ensure that product placement produces new revenue.

Sean Marley
Md, Lime Pictures

There's a real opportunity for indies and broadcasters to work together on mutually beneficial projects. Although I understand broadcast commercial teams may want to lead on the majority of deals, it must be true to say that agencies or clients spending the money will want to look the person in the eye who will be responsible for delivery i.e. the producer. It is equally obvious that your average indie won't have as many agency contacts or as much industry intelligence as the sales teams. So, two interlinked, equally important teams playing to their strengths, with a share of revenue that reflects that combined approach and we'll all be happy - as long as both parties act with creative integrity taking priority over commercial opportunity.

Caroline Reik
Sponsorship and brand content specialist, Pulse Films

Product placement will, over time, create a crucial new revenue stream for broadcasters and indies. Indies must keep a firm eye on the way in which products will be used - editorial integrity and clever creative must win through for everyone to benefit. In the short term, ITV is best placed to manage product placement as they work with many in-house producers. Coronation Street and Emmerdale (from the pub to the corner shop) are often cited as perfect opportunities, however commercial broadcasters must demonstrate that product placement can drive additional revenue and not take significant money away from spot advertising and sponsorship.

Posted 11 February 2011 by Jon Creamer
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