“The writer is absolutely essential to everything we do,” says Nicola Shindler right at the outset of this interview. Certainly, her relationship with writers helps explain the emergence of her indie, Red Production, into one of the UK’s most singular drama production companies over the past 15 years.
The Manchester-based outfit has worked with leading writers such as Russell T Davies, Bill Gallagher, Sally Wainwright, Danny Brocklehurst, Paul Abbott, Tony Marchant and Matt Greenhalgh to produce acclaimed shows such as Queer as Folk, Clocking Off, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey.
Shindler says her most important role to work as a script editor with writers, and to fight for their vision. “My job is to enable those people to do their job well – to protect them,” she says.
And one can easily imagine her doing this very well. Determined, charming and level-headed, you sense very quickly that Shindler knows what she wants and how best to achieve it. She says she shares the same tastes with many of the writers she works with. Tellingly, she works with many of them again and again – notably Sally Wainwright, whose recent credits through Red include ITV’s Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, new BBC1 series Happy Valley and Sky Living’s one-off Last Witch.
From the outside, Red seems to have moved from producing edgy, cult drama like Queer as Folk towards much broader, popular pieces – often with a distinct northern voice and setting. But Shindler says there’s no such thing as a typical Red show, even though many people outside the company might see it that way. “We inherently go with what we think we would like, and I am naturally drawn to certain kinds of material.”
And what kind of material is that? She says it’s good drama or comedy that’s powerful, slightly provocative, not shy or retiring, cheeky and that has a point of view. “But mostly, it’s truthful and funny,” she emphasises.
Red had something of a fallow period a few years ago – something Shindler puts down to the timing of scripts and a difficult commissioning market.
But now the indie is busier than it has ever been. Last year saw six Red projects on screen, and it’s won four new commissions this year – Wainwright’s Happy Valley, Danny Brocklehurst’s Ordinary Lies, Prey starring John Simm for ITV and a fourth series of Scott & Bailey. It also produced comedies Pat and Cabbage for ITV and Heading Out for BBC2. And last week, Channel 4 revealed that Red was teaming with Russell T Davies on a Queer as Folk follow-up project that comprises two drama series, Cucumber and Banana and one online factual series, Tofu, that between them explore gay life in the 21st century.
Red shows have picked up plenty of awards too: Last Tango in Halifax won two Baftas this year for best drama and best writer (a second series is now in the pipeline).
This success is reflected in Red’s business, which turned over £22m in 2012 – up from £10m two years before. Shindler runs Red with md Andrew Critchley. While he very much takes care of the business side, Shindler looks after creative production. It’s a lean operation with just 17 staff in all. And, unusually, it’s heavily weighted towards creating new projects, with eight of its team working in development. “We are really just a bunch of developers and accountants,” she says.
Shindler says she was interested in writing from a young age, reading widely, going to the theatre and watching TV. But she admits she is not a writer herself. Earlier this year she told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “I absolutely think that writers are born. You know that thing that everyone has a story in them. I don’t think that is true and I have read enough bad scripts to know. Writers just are writers…I’m not very good with a blank piece of paper, but talk to me about an idea and where it should go and I can start talking straight away.”
She set up Red in Manchester “because I lived here and I wanted to work around here,” adding that there was a strong crew base and drama tradition to draw on. Fifteen years on, Shindler says she is now planning the next stage in the company’s development. It’s been known for a while that the company is effectively up for sale. Shindler says there is nothing specific to report yet, only that “we are talking to people.” Shindler says she is looking for a corporate partner who can help bring money to the table to fund dramas at a time of falling budgets, and who also can help take Red shows and formats into international markets.
In the meantime, she thinks that the future looks promising for drama production. She welcomes the new drama tax credit, although Red hasn’t yet applied as none of its shows have hit the £1m an hour budget market that triggers the tax relief.
And she plays down concerns that have been aired by some producers that the tax credit will put a strain on the base of craft skills in the UK, meaning there will not be enough trained talent to meet rising demand. Instead, she thinks that producers will have to take risks on new, upcoming talent. “It means that the next generation will come up – and that can only be a good thing,” she says.
Beginnings: Shindler’s career began in the theatre at the Royal Court. After two years she moved into TV, and things took off almost immediately: she was script editor on the awards laden Cracker in 1993 and then on Our Friends in the North.
Producing: She earned her first full producer credit on Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in 1996, learning on the job, and using the experience to set up Red in 1998, aged just 29. She was, she acknowledges, incredibly young. “But the younger you are, the more foolish you are.”
Founding Red: Almost immediately Red found huge success with Russell T Davies’ cult hit Queer as Folk and then Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off. Since then Red credits include: Bob and Rose (ITV), Burn It (BBC3), Unforgiven (ITV), Scott & Bailey (ITV), Hit and Miss (Sky Atlantic) and Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1). Shindler was awarded an RTS Fellowship last month for outstanding contribution to TV drama.
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