Spotlight on UK Television
There can be no doubt that the UK is a world-beater when it comes to today’s TV drama, which is being consumed with a voracious appetite by global audiences. Ask why this is and experts cite a number of factors. Playground Entertainment CEO Colin Callender, whose recent credits include the Golden Globe-winning Wolf Hall, says it begins with “the quality of the writing and acting talent, which is a very powerful combination. And destiny,” says ITV Studios EVP of Global Content and Co productions Ruth Clarke. “They have been incentivised to take a lead creative role in the sector and that has encouraged a diverse range of voices.”
Significantly, too, there seems to be an increased effort on the part of the UK industry to reflect its diverse population. Luther, starring Idris Elba, is a top-selling show overseas while Happy Valley and Doctor Foster have strong Undercover, which stars Adrian much more about high-volume drama series,” he says.
“But the arrival of the SVoD platforms, Netflix and Amazon, are now in demand around the world.” This, in turn, has enabled the Brits to showcase the range and diversity of what they do. “We’re very well known for our period and crime dramas, but the international market is also starting to see how good we are at relationship-based storytelling,” says Keelan. “For me, the international success of Happy Valley felt like a turning point because that show was not a standard crime show. It was set in the north with accents that historically wouldn’t have travelled. It was about the interaction between the characters as much as the plot.”
Keelan’s assessment is backed up by an array of high-profile international distribution deals for UK productions. In the US, PBS has always this is supported by a creative eco-system that has the BBC at the heart of it”. This BBC-anchored environment is boosted by the heavy investment in drama made by commercial broadcaster ITV and pay-TV platform SkyTV. On top of this, there is Channel 4’s ‘dissident’ remit and an indie production sector that has blossomed as a result of favourable rights ownership regulations. “There is no question that indie producers have benefited from being in control of their own female leads. For his part, BBC Worldwide Director of Scripted Content Liam Keelan is excited about Peter Moffat’s political thriller Undercover, which stars Adrian Lester and Sophie Okonedo.
Keelan also believes that shifts in the global market are benefiting the UK. “The international market used to be much more about high-volume drama series,” he says. “But the arrival of the SVoD platforms, Netflix and Amazon, has initiated a shift, so that the four, six and eight-part dramas this country is so good at are now in demand around the world.” This, in turn, has enabled the Brits to showcase the range and diversity of what they do. “We’re very well known for our period and crime dramas, but the international market is also starting to see how good we are at relationship-based storytelling,” says Keelan. “For me, the international success of Happy Valley felt like a turning point because that show was not a standard crime show. It was set in the north with accents that historically wouldn’t have travelled. It was about the interaction between the characters as much as the plot.”
Keelan’s assessment is backed up by an array of high-profile international distribution deals for UK productions. In the US, PBS has always been a loyal partner for UK companies, airing the popular Downton Abbey and acquiring the upcoming ITV series The Halcyon (currently being produced by Left Bank Pictures). Now A&E Networks is also showing interest in UK product, picking up gothic thriller The Frankenstein Chronicles, Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None and Tolstoy adaptation War & Peace for its flagship cable networks. The latter, a complex co-production that was a ratings success for BBC1 in the UK, has sold to more than 20 markets around the world, with Russia’s Channel One an eye-catching customer.
Other high-profile deals include the sale of Sherlock to China and South Korea, where the recent The Abominable Bride special has taken in excess of $10m at the box office. Prior to that, season three of Sherlock aired on video website Youku.com and received 5 million views inside 24 hours. Days later, the figure had accelerated to more than 70 million.
Success in multiple territories is not unusual for UK drama, says Clarke, who cites examples such as Marple, Poirot, Mr Selfridge and Vera from her company’s catalogue. “One thing we have become good at is evolving and supporting our successful franchises,” she says. “Think about the way Lewis and Endeavour grew out of Inspector Morse. Soon we have Tennison, our 1970s-set prequel to Prime Suspect, written and executive produced by Lynda La Plante.”
Jill Green, founder and MD of indie producer Eleventh Hour Films, has seen similar success with Foyle’s War, a crime series created and written by Anthony Horowitz and set during and after the Second World War. “Foyle’s War travels because it is authentic and sophisticated,” says Green. “The show [which is distributed by All3media International] knows its world in the way a show like Mad Men knows its world, and viewers respond to that no matter where they are based.”
The UK success story is not just about the sale of completed shows. As the tectonic plates of the international drama business have shifted, the UK has proved to be very adept at forming innovative international alliances.
Marigo Kehoe, co-founder of leading producer Left Bank Pictures, says: “We’ve made scripted series like DCI Banks that are aimed at the UK market and also have a fanbase internationally. But at the same time, we always felt there was an opportunity to become an international facing production company. We were ahead of the market in that respect.”
Early examples of Left Bank’s international approach were the UK version of Swedish crime franchise Wallander and the Sky/HBO co-production Strike Back, shot in South Africa and Hungary. This has provided a platform for the company to secure some hugely ambitious commissions including Outlander for US premium cable network Starz and The Crown, a $145m (£100m), 20-part epic for Netflix looking at the life of Queen Elizabeth II. The company is also co-developing high-end English- language drama with China’s CITVC, with the resulting shows airing in China and being distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television, the US company that now owns Left Bank.
Left Bank’s international deftness is far from an isolated example. Neal Street’s Penny Dreadful works as well for Showtime in the US as it does for Sky Atlantic in Europe, while Kudos’s Humans is a groundbreaking co-production between Channel 4 and US cable network AMC.
Other landmarks include BBC/AMC co-production The Night Manager and supernatural crime drama Houdini & Doyle; the latter is produced by Big Talk Productions and Shaftesbury in Canada as a UK Canada co-production, and has been picked up by Fox US – a rare commitment from a US broadcast network.
Callender, who is working on a TV adaptation of EM Forster’s Howards End, is part of a growing cadre of UK executives who understand how to make deals like this happen: “I think a lot of Brits were intimidated by the complexity of the US system,” says the executive, who has previously worked with HBO. “But working on both sides of the Atlantic has given me an understanding of how to navigate the difference between audiences and talent and processes.”
Red Planet Pictures founder and CEO Tony Jordan is another home-grown talent who has embraced the opportunities of the international scripted market. New productions for 2016 include Hooten & The Lady, a family adventure series for Sky 1 being shot in South Africa and other locations worldwide, and Stop! In the Name of Love, a musical drama for BBC1 built around Motown tracks.
No less impressive has been the success of Death in Paradise, a BBC and FranceTV co-production that was recently renewed for a sixth season and has sold all over the world. Jordan says indie companies such as his have had to embrace the international market to get things made. “You have to be entrepreneurial to get the budget you need but the good news is that, if you do it right, you can get a better show. Death in Paradise is an example of that.”
A distinctive edge
A risk with co-productions is that conflicting expectations among partners mean they can become deal-led compromises, but UK producers are not allowing the allure of the international market to compromise the creative vision. This approach is underscored by former Kudos CEO Dan Isaacs, who has delivered hit shows including Law and Order: UK, The Tunnel and 2013’s breakout hit Broadchurch. “If you start out thinking you’re making something for the global market, you get in trouble,” he says. “Dramas like Happy Valley and Doctor Foster show that one of our real strengths is the way we protect and nurture our writers.”
One writer who is almost synonymous with the success of UK drama is Andrew Davies, scribe of the new War & Peace, Mr Selfridge and numerous other literary adaptations, who enjoys the international attention his series attract but does not let it influence his storytelling.
“You’re always thinking about how you can make the visual image tell the story, which has a bearing on the way international audiences respond,” he says. “But I generally write to please myself. That’s the best way to make sure you do something that pleases all audiences.” Davies does believe, however, that growth in demand for high-concept international co-productions has allowed writers to become more ambitious. “There are so many platforms hungry for distinctive material that there is real encouragement for writers to think big.”
Alongside co-production, scripted formats is another area in which the UK has enjoyed huge success, with Life on Mars, The Office, Broadchurch, Skins, Prime Suspect, Being Human, Mistresses and Shameless all making it as far as a US series commission. And while landing a show in the US and getting it renewed is notoriously difficult, The Office, Shameless, Mistresses and Being Human have established themselves as long-running franchises. Also not to be overlooked is the fact Doc Martin has been adapted in markets such as France and Spain.
Eleventh Hour Films’ Green believes formats are an important avenue for UK companies because they allow the producer to focus their energy on making a great show for the local market. “You do the show well and the format discussion happens separately,” she says. “There’s less of an issue around trying to secure the kind of high-profile cast you need for an international co-production. It was always difficult to turn a six-part UK show into a 22-part US procedural, but now that US channels are commissioning in shorter runs of 10 or 12, it’s not such a creative stretch.”
Looking ahead, the prevailing view is that UK TV will continue to enjoy international success, with high-profile productions such as ITV’s Victoria sure to attract widespread global attention in 2016. “The Americans are over here looking at UK talent,” says Isaacs. “That causes some inflation in the market and puts pressure on the availability of top writers but it does mean there’s more money, which creates the conditions to expand the UK scripted business.”
The introduction of UK tax reliefs for high-end TV drama is also significant because it protects the country’s craft base, and there are new opportunities emerging from the SVoD space. Keelan points to his company’s new coproduction with Amazon, fashion series The Collection, calling it “the kind of show that may not have got made a few years ago” (see page 77). Former Kudos Chairman Stephen Garrett, meanwhile, is developing a London-based series called The Rook for Hulu in the US.
As Jordan, whose recent production Dickensian featured Wilson Radjou-Pujalte as the Artful Dodger, says of the diversity of, and global appetite for, UK TV content: “Everything we do is about trying to reflect the world in 2016. We prize creative integrity above all else, so it would be silly not to reflect the spirit of the present day in this country.”
Small Screen, Big Success, words by Andy Fry, was originally published in UK in Focus 2016 in association with Screen International.