Television drama is currently experiencing a purple patch with a tax credit boost, a truly international market and big name talent flocking in. Jon Creamer reports

The following is based on a true story: the UK drama industry is currently experiencing a genuine, 100%, honest to goodness boom.

An unprecedented planetary alignment of factors including the rise of the box set, the fall of the mid budget movie and the healthy injection of tax incentives has led to a new golden era for TV drama. 

Continental shift
Chris Chibnall, the writer of Broadchurch, one of the biggest UK drama hits of the past year, is in no doubt that this is a remarkable time for the genre. “I feel we are absolutely at the most exciting time for television drama ever, full stop,” he says unequivocally. “There are more markets than ever before. Drama is defining channels more so than ever. The world has become much smaller thanks to things like Netflix, I’ve got writer colleagues who will go and pitch in America if they can’t get it away here. The market place is truly, properly global now. If you’ve got a great script, you can get it made.”

The market for drama is anything but parochial now, agrees Channel 4’s head of drama, Piers Wenger. “Across the board there’s a home for UK drama throughout the world now. We’re in a much more connected global marketplace. Drama travels much better than it used to.” And that’s led to greater opportunities to co-produce and get bigger shows on screen at the same time as audiences gain greater access to a wider range of drama through more channels and VOD services. “It’s fed their imagination and allowed them to be much more adventurous and broader in their taste. Now the Channel 4 audience look at a show like Homeland and feel as much ownership of that as many of our domestic dramas. It helps there’s a European sensibility to the filmmaking, it also helps there’s a brilliant British actor in the lead role but the landscape has grown in terms of the sorts of dramas that UK audiences can get behind.”

The BBC’s head of drama, Ben Stephenson describes the British drama audience as “the most sophisticated mainstream audience in the world” that expects a wide range of content, but not just in the arena of the big international co pro. “You can be Jane Campion and tell a story like Top of the Lake or you can be Kay Mellor and tell your stories. Top of the Lake is about as out there as you get on British television but that got an audience of two million. That’s bigger than most shows on cable television in America, which says something about our audiences.”

The international nature of the marketplace, and the demand for television drama in general, has meant UK producers have been pushed into getting ever better in order to succeed. “There’s a lot more opportunity but there’s a lot more competition,” says Kudos’ chief operating officer, Dan Isaacs. “There are a lot of people setting up drama indies, people moving from factual into drama and moving from film into TV and the Americans are coming over here and being a bit more acquisitive.”

Ex Tiger Aspect head of drama and now md of new indie, Drama Republic, Greg Brenman, points to the various new buyers that are moving into drama. “There’s a lot of opportunity. Everyone’s into content whether it’s Sky over here or Netflix or Amazon or Microsoft. There are a lot of people exploring opportunities. It would be foolish to say people are throwing money but original content is potent.”

The vital ingredient
And drama is fast becoming the most potent content to hold. “The game has changed so much in the last few years,” says Red Planet’s head of drama, Belinda Campbell. “The industry is so much more confident. Drama has repositioned itself as the vital genre. When it works it brings in the audience and it’s hugely reputational.”

Just within the UK, the thirst for original drama has increased hugely in the past few years. Into the three horse race between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 came Sky, a broadcaster that massively increased its drama commissioning in a short period of time and now looks set to stay for the long term. Director of entertainment channels, Stuart Murphy says that 2014 “is the year of scripted,” for Sky. “We have got loads of other stuff as well but my main obsession is going to be scripted. Viewers feel that proper broadcasters do scripted.” And without it, it’s hard to define the channel in viewer’s minds. “There’s a recognition across the portfolio of channels that drama can really capture the hearts and minds of the viewers and build a loyalty,” says Sky’s head of drama, Cameron Roach who notes that big shows like Kudos’ Sky Atlantic co pro The Tunnel, which the broadcaster assumed would be viewed as red button content, has become an appointment to view “something traditionally associated with terrestrials which is exciting for us. For Stuart [Murphy] and Sophie [Turner Laing, md, Content] there’s a real recognition that Sky subscribers can really feel a value from scripted entertainment.”

And it’s not just Sky. Broadcasters that had well and truly exited from original drama content are now getting back into the game. UKTV has ordered Legion, a high concept 10-part drama from Red Planet Pictures and Channel 5, now under Ben Frow’s direction, is making Suspects through Newman Street, an improvised police procedural. Further afield, there are other surprising entrants. The US History Channel has one of its biggest hits of recent times in historical drama Hatfields and McCoys, a state of affairs of great interest to historical drama specialists like Hardy Pictures. “We definitely do feel that if we get the right idea the door’s ajar and a big range of American channels are looking to do that work,” says Hardy’s Lucy Bassnett-McGuire.

Credit where it’s due
Of course, back in the UK, a good part of the genre’s confidence stems from the new tax credits system that gives high-end drama made in the UK a welcome cash boost and allows more money to go on screen providing the gloss now expected by audiences. “It has empowered producers in a healthy way,” says Channel 4’s Wenger. “It means that 
series television is now properly resourced and able to compete with the production value that audiences are used to from elsewhere in the world. Domestic television sets have changed so much in the last five or 10 years and that means that audiences can have a very cinematic experience in the home. We have to be able to resource that.”

And apart from putting more money on screen, the tax credit is expected to bring other benefits too. The credit is designed to keep drama production in the UK rather than seeing projects head off abroad to access foreign tax breaks. And that could mean bigger name talent signing on to shows if they’re not going to have to spend weeks away from home. UK centred stories using actual UK locations rather than mocked up ‘Britains’ in Budapest should also have a greater authenticity.

Credit squeeze
But the tax breaks won’t all be positive for UK drama producers, says Kudos’ chief exec Jane Featherstone. Not least because prices will inevitably inflate. “There’s no question there will be an impact,” she says. Although “a lot of prices and rates have been held at a certain level for too long and needed adjusting.” There’s also the worry that as foreign productions locate to the UK to access tax breaks, there could be, at least in the short term, something of a talent and facilities drain. “It’s a problem we have to deal with but it’s a good problem to have,” says Kudos’ Isaacs. “It depends how many big shows come from outside. They use big crews, they have expensive budgets and they use a lot of people.” And before more production staff are trained up, there could be a problem. Facilities could be stretched too. The studios sector is racing to expand and is already faced with turning customers away. “Now we have the tax incentive in place we went from 0 top 60 very quickly indeed,” says Andy Weltman, executive vp, Pinewood USA. “The issue now is Pinewood and Shepperton are pretty full. We want to get productions in there but don’t currently have the capacity.”

Film flight
Tax credits aside, there’s also the sense right now that film’s loss is TV’s gain. Much has been said about the move of writing and acting talent from movies to television. As the mid budget dramatic movie has fallen by the wayside in a film business that increasingly only produces either low budget indie fare or tent pole superhero movies, a lot of writers and actors find that television is offering a creative lifeboat. And good writers mean good actors follow. “TV is a very exciting place for talent to be. There’s a lot of good work going on which lets us be quite adventurous,” says ITV’s head of drama, Steve November, picking out Paddy Considine’s turn in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. “He’s somebody you wouldn’t have thought a few years ago you’d see on ITV as a returning detective, but when the writing’s good, it attracts good talent.” Greg Brenman, who cast Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders and Maggie Gyllenhaal in his lastest production, Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman for BBC2 and Sundance, says that’s a direct result of actors of that calibre not being able to find good roles in film and finding the good writers turning to TV. And those writers are coming because of operators like Netflix encouraging “serial narrative. It’s a cultural shift, it’s the sort of narrative that people like watching. You can tell one story over many hours as opposed to just telling stories within a rigid format. That has encouraged significant writing talent into the TV world, which has encouraged significant acting talent into the TV world.”

And the writing talent also feels it has more control, and respect, in TV. “I love film but why would I go and involve myself in a process that’s going to make me miserable when television makes me really happy and I work with brilliant people,” says Broadchurch writer, Chibnall. “I’ve yet to be convinced that working in film will be a better experience. Process is important because process is your daily life. I don’t want to be in a meeting room where I have written a 120 page script and I’m considered dispensable.”

UK commissioners: what they want

Ben Stephenson, BBC drama controller
“The key refrain I always use about the BBC is it’s all about range. We’re not a niche broadcaster. That doesn’t mean we’re not challenging. We’ve got faith in the audience. On BBC 2 it’s a relatively small channel in terms of the drama we make but very potent and powerful. We want an alternative take on genre pieces. On BBC1 we want the most cutting edge, authored, risk taking, mainstream drama. That’s why we’ll keep working with writers like Pete Bowker or Jimmy McGovern to deliver that. We want to find the next generation of mainstream successes that do what Last Tango or Call the Midwife did. People didn’t think a show about nuns or old people in love would work.

Steve November, ITV director of drama
“Our main aim at the moment is contemporary non-crime. It’s hard to crack – something that has big universal appeal, big story and delivers big characters without the genre narrative driver. It’s what everyone’s looking for and the few writers with a proven track record in it are in extraordinary demand. The most important thing is returning potential. If we can bring people back week on week that’s great but if we can do it year on year that’s when we start to develop loyalty to the channel. We want returning potential but that comes in all sorts of ways. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a returning brand even though they’re single films. There’s always space for single films. We want to give the viewers something unexpected and those shorter runs allow us to bring some talent to ITV who might not want to do six or eight hours.

Piers Wenger, Channel 4 head of drama
“Each of the authors of the shows we have next year have incredibly distinctive voices with a strong point of view. It’s that originality of thought and vision and voice that should define Channel 4 drama. We want something that the audience hasn’t seen before. That can be a new take on a familiar area or it can just be taking the audience into a completely new world. It’s all about an individual’s vision. In the case of [Paul Abbot’s upcoming cop show] No Offence, it’s a completely anarchic take on the cop show with very strong female leads but with a distinctly Paul Abbot twist on it. Each story has a strong emotional heart to it and a huge amount of humanity.

Cameron Roach, Acting head of drama, sky
“We feel we’re well covered for period drama in terms of what we’ve got in development. The BBC and ITV do it so brilliantly we have to make sure we do it differently. On Atlantic we’re looking for really big, ambitious, contemporary pieces like Fortitude that have a British perspective but are also global facing so we can attract international partnerships on them. With Sky One we’ve got The Smoke and Critical and Strike Back. It’s still thinking about adrenalin fuelled drama with emotion and humour but now we’ve got a fire show and a medical show it’s now about perhaps thinking about crime or sci fi. We’ve got projects in development for family drama. The success of Yonderland coming out of the comedy team means that’s definitely an area we would explore, certainly for Sky One.

Jon Creamer

Share this story

Share Televisual stories within your social media posts.
Be inclusive: is open access without the need to register.
Anyone and everyone can access this post with minimum fuss.