Like the spies and detectives whose stories he has brought to the small screen, Stephen Garrett has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
The Kudos co-founder sold his company to Shine for £35m in December 2006 – shortly before the financial crisis of 2007/8 – on the back of hits like Spooks and Life on Mars. Since leaving in 2014, Garrett has executive produced the most talked about UK drama of the year, The Night Manager, with The Ink Factory.
In February he also launched his new production company, Character Seven. He’s now readying another John le Carre TV adaptation with The Ink Factory, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which will be scripted by Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy.
Garrett was approached by Simon Cornwell, one of Le Carre’s sons and co-founder of The Ink Factory, about working on The Night Manager on the day he announced his departure from Kudos. The Ink Factory was then in the early stages of developing the series. Primarily focused on film, it wanted a lead executive with a strong TV drama background to steer the project.
“It was a thrilling conversation in so many different ways,” says Garrett over the phone from Los Angeles, where he now has a home with his Californian wife. “Le Carre had been my inspiration for Spooks.”
Under Garrett’s watch, the script departed significantly from the novel, particularly in the final two episodes. He also brought in director Susanne Bier. “Le Carre’s stories are very British and very male. So it just seemed interesting if one was going to refresh and update a novel written over 20 years ago to have a director who was both not British and not male.”
Bier shot The Night Manager like ‘a six hour movie’, working out of sequence across all six episodes and stitching it together in the edit suite. “When it works it looks effortless, but it requires huge, huge effort, concentration and clarity of vision,” says Garrett.
Garrett says it is too early to announce on and off screen talent for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. After all, Beaufoy hasn’t yet started writing it. But the same filmic principles employed on The Night Manager will apply: Beaufoy will adapt all of it, and there will be one director across the series.
He also stresses that its setting in Cold War-era East Germany means that it is far removed from the aspirational glamour of its predecessor. “The Night Manager was international travel you wanted to go on yourself, whereas this one will be international travel you will be happy that others have gone on on your behalf.” But, like all Le Carre’s work, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is more than just a spy story or thriller. “It really is a Trojan horse for an exploration of character, human frailty and moral ambiguity,” explains Garrett.
And it is also incredibly difficult to adapt for television. “Spies tend to be loners. When they do talk to people they are not telling the truth to their loved ones or the people they are working with. So it is really challenging storytelling to communicate what someone is really saying or what they intend to do.”
The Cold War setting does make it easier though. Technical advances like smart phones and the internet make modern storytelling difficult, says Garrett. “Think of how many movies or TV shows you’ve seen where someone’s cell battery has gone or they have lost their phone. You need to recreate a world where there is no technology to generate suspense and isolation.”
Beyond Le Carre, Character Seven has a small slate of projects which Garrett says he is about to start pitching. He has already gone public with one of them: a London set supernatural series called The Rook which he is making with Lionsgate and Twilight author Stephenie Mayer’s indie Fickle Fish for Hulu.
“Essentially, the idea is to try to tell stories that organically have transatlantic appeal,” says Garrett of Character Seven’s slate. “So inevitably those are bigger scale stories.”
Like many recently launched drama indies, Character Seven is hoping to tap into the huge demand for scripted content from broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic as well as global digital players like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu.
Garrett reckons there are now 450 scripted shows broadcast in the US alone. “What that means is everyone is looking for ideas that are distinctive.” He picks out Amazon hit Transparent. “It is now lauded as one of the great pieces of scripted drama and explores a subject that was considered untouchable within very recent memory.”
For now, Character Seven comprises Garrett and one head of development in LA. “We will expand according to what happens and when it happens. But for the moment, it is liberating to be working in a very nimble fashion.”
Education Westminster School; Merton College, Oxford
1978 Granada trainee
1987 Channel 4 commissioning editor for youth programmes
1992 Co-founds Kudos, overseeing programmes such as Spooks, Life on Mars and Law & Order: UK
2006 Kudos is acquired by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for £35m
2014 Leaves Kudos
2016 Launches new indie Character Seven. Executive producer on The Night Manager, in collaboration with The Ink Factory
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