Drama report: 2016 is the first year for Carnival Films without its global hit Downton Abbey. Md Gareth Neame tells Tim Dams what his indie has been up to

Under managing director Gareth Neame, Carnival Films has established itself as one of the UK’s elite drama production companies. With backing from owner NBC Universal, it has taken full advantage of the spectacular growth in demand for British-made drama from UK and international broadcasters. 

Carnival’s global hit Downton Abbey bowed out on its sixth series on ITV last Christmas. “It is the first time in six or seven years we haven’t been producing Downton, so it has been quite a different year,” says Neame, reflecting on 2016. Nevertheless, Carnival has been busy. It won re-commissions for BBC2’s The Last Kingdom and Sky1 series Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. Carnival has also produced Sky’s upcoming Jamestown. 
Set in 1619, the eight-part drama charts the early days of the first British settlers in America.

Carnival’s full order book and the legacy of Downton helped it to generate £110m in revenues in the year to June 2016, making it the biggest drama producer in the UK (its nearest rival Left Bank, producer of The Crown, turned over £101m).

Such success no doubt contributed to Neame, a former head of BBC indie drama commissioning who joined Carnival in 2004, being appointed an OBE earlier this year for services to drama.

Despite this track record, Neame maintains that it is “still quite difficult” to sell ideas into broadcasters. He does admit, though, that seismic changes in the television market mean there are many more opportunities for drama producers than there were at the turn of the millennium.

He remembers the late 1990s as a “dark time” for British drama, and recalls watching the premiere of Survivor in 2000 which, along with Big Brother, ushered in the boom in reality TV. The production values, he remembers, were amazing. “Everyone at that point thought that drama was too expensive for the number of people that watched it, and that its days were numbered.”

However, Neame was subsequently credited with playing a key role in the renaissance of BBC TV drama, working with drama controller Jane Tranter. His credits included Spooks, Hustle, State of Play and Bodies. “I always had a vision for making classy, commercial, transatlantic shows.”

Since then, technology – specifically the launch of platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu – has helped to globalise the TV market, bringing UK drama to a worldwide audience. Neame points out that all of the key US buyers now have a presence in London, and know all about the latest UK shows and upcoming talent. “The Americans see the Anglophone world as one market, which they did not ten years ago.”

And they specifically like British drama serials, such as Downton Abbey, which played on PBS in the US and is understood to be Amazon’s most successful second run acquisition of all time.

International demand for drama serials, says Neame, plays to the strengths of the British authorial system, which has produced writers like Andrew Davies, Peter Moffat or Jed Mercurio. “We were always weaker at trying to do episodic, story of the week type things,” 
he explains.

He also says there are lots of benefits for UK producers like Carnival working with US-led global distributors such as NBC Universal. “Their rate card is very different,” he says, explaining that “they start from a different place” when it comes to financing shows. “A well made British show is as valuable to them as a well made US network show. There used to be a fundamental difference between the two, and there isn’t really now.”

Does that mean he always has to think of the international market when developing shows? “We are part of a very marketing and sales led company. So I suppose you are always thinking of distribution right from the beginning.”

But, says Neame, “I think I am just hoping to find an idea that travels.” He cites Jamestown, which he describes as a community drama about a group of people trying to get by in a particular (albeit very dangerous) precinct.

It’s during his description of the show that one starts to realise why he is such an effective advocate for his dramas. First he compares it to Downton. “The rules of engagement and context are different from Downton, but you still have a gang of characters who are trying to find romance, get on in their careers, make a name for themselves, make their fortune or survive.”

Then, he gets right to the heart of Jamestown’s likely appeal in both the UK and the US. “It’s about how the first Brits became the first Americans. As a show, it’s almost like a Western but with English actors.”

Education Seaford College, West Sussex; Birmingham University (English and Drama)
1988 Joins BBC drama production
2000 Head of BBC indpendent drama commissioning, responsible for shows such as Spooks, Hustle and Tipping the Velvet
2004 Joins Carnival Films as managing director
2008 Sells Carnival to NBC Universal
2010 Executive producer of Downton Abbey, winner of 15 Emmys and a Special BAFTA Award
2016 Appointed an OBE in 2016 Birthday Honours

Tim Dams

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