Spotlight on UK TV

The globalisation of the television drama business has led to a plethora of top scripted content from around the world. But, even in the face of more competition, UK originated drama continues to thrive.

The scale of this achievement is evident in the UK Television Exports Report from independent producer trade body PACT, which shows that UK TV exports were up 10% to $1.6bn (£1.33bn) in 2015-16. While the US remains the UK’s biggest customer, highlights included a 40% increase in Chinese revenues. A particular success was The Ink Factory’s The Night Manager (see sidebar), with 40 million views on online TV platform Youku Tudou.

In terms of distribution, ITV/Mammoth Screen’s Victoria was one of 2016’s best performers, selling to 150 territories including the US. This achievement was mirrored by the international popularity of BBC-commissioned shows including Happy Valley, Doctor Foster and Sherlock. Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBC Worldwide, says these stellar results “put the UK in the premier league of TV distribution”.

Programme sales are not the only positive indicator for UK TV drama. On the awards front, The Night Manager was a big winner at the Emmys, Golden Globes and the Producers Guild Of America Awards. At the Rose d’Or Awards, Big Talk Productions’ Raised By Wolves and the BBC’s River won the comedy and drama prizes.

Yet more evidence of the UK’s impact has been its involvement with SVoD platforms. Left Bank Pictures’ The Crown, for Netflix, has won critical plaudits; The Collection, an Anglo-French co-production, launched on Amazon in autumn 2016; and National Treasure, a Jack Thorne-scripted production for Channel 4, was picked up by Hulu US.

Most UK producers acknowledge they are blessed to be working in English, but several additional factors explain the success of the UK-scripted sector. Laurence Bowen, who recently set up drama indie Dancing Ledge Productions with backing from FremantleMedia, observes the UK benefits from healthy investment in drama by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, which has a robust slate including Hooten And The Lady, Guerrilla and Roman-era epic Britannia. Underlining the point about SVoD, Britannia is a co-production with Amazon.

“Also significant has been the introduction of tax credits,” says Bowen. “That has brought a lot of US projects here and enabled the UK to keep big-budget drama productions in the UK. This has been invaluable in protecting the country’s craft base.”

Deep talent pool

The strength of this financial ecosystem has stimulated investment across the UK. While London and its studios are invariably busy, the nations and regions are also booming, with recent productions including The Fall (Northern Ireland), Decline And Fall (Wales), Trust Me (Scotland), National Treasure (Yorkshire), Close To The Enemy (Liverpool) and Poldark (south-west England).

Money and incentives can only take you so far, stresses Bowen. “UK producers have access to an amazing pool of writers and actors. At Dancing Ledge, we are working with Martin Freeman (Sherlock, Fargo) and Tony Grisoni (Southcliffe) on a project. We’re developing a drama with Tony Marchant, based on an Alistair MacLean novel, and have projects on the go with Guy Hibbert, Dan Sefton, Simon Block, John Donnelly and Mark Gatiss.”

“The UK has a tradition of great storytelling that has stood the test of time,” says Simon Vaughan, founder of indie production company Lookout Point, which delivered one of last year’s big hits, War & Peace. “Writers like Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster) have idiosyncratic, singular voices.”

Lookout Point is now working with War & Peace screenwriter Andrew Davies on an adaptation of Les Miserables, and Bartlett on Press, an exploration of newspaper publishing in the 21st century. But Vaughan stresses that you “also need to look beyond specific shows to see the global impact of UK talent. Our actors have always travelled well, but now you’re seeing international demand for our writers and directors.”

He cites Tom Shankland, who has gone from directing The Missing for the BBC to working on Netflix US projects such as House Of Cards. Equally, he might have mentioned Paula Milne, who wrote Germany-set Cold War drama The Same Sky for UFA Fiction and Beta Film, or Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft, who steered Canal Plus’ epic period drama Versailles towards international success.

Frith Tiplady, joint managing director of Tiger Aspect Drama, echoes Vaughan when she says, “UK producers have found a way to create dramas that appeal to the international market without having to bend them out of shape.”

Her slate includes Steven Knight’s acclaimed period gangland thriller Peaky Blinders, the Evelyn Waugh adaptation Decline And Fall and Good Karma Hospital, a feelgood drama set in India. All are commissioned in short runs, something Tiplady sees as an advantage. “The shift towards eight to 10-part authored shows for SVoD and cable has been good for the UK, which has a lot of experience in auteur-led storytelling. A lot of our writers start in the theatre then come to TV with a distinctive voice. An example is Simon Donald, who wrote Fortitude for Fifty Fathoms [a boutique within Tiger Aspect].”

Knack for collaboration

Viewed more broadly, a notable characteristic of the UK system is the strong collaborative connection between theatre, film, TV and literature. Mike Bartlett started in theatre, as did The Night Manager writer David Farr. Abi Morgan (River, The Hour) has worked across theatre, film and TV, as has Britannia scribe Jez Butterworth. A similar dynamic is at play in Close To The Enemy, written by Stephen Poliakoff, and SS-GB, an adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative history novel by Spectre and Skyfall writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Steven Knight (Taboo) also came to TV from filmmaking.

This joined-up creative approach is evident in upcoming BBC project The Child In Time. Based on the acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan, the oneoff 90-minute drama will star Benedict Cumberbatch, who is producing via his company SunnyMarch TV. Also involved are Pinewood TV, a new division formed by the film studio group; PBS, as co-production partner; and Studiocanal, which will distribute the show internationally.

Strong support for independent producers has also played into the mix, in terms of allowing them to control rights. This has encouraged inward investment by US and European groups, and has placed UK indies such as NBCU-owned Carnival, Studiocanal-owned Red and Endemol Shine-owned Tiger Aspect at the heart of the global scripted business. Proof that this model works is Red Production, which has achieved international success with projects as diverse as Happy Valley and The Five. “Sally Wainwright is a great writer of character and also pays attention to the details of the plot,” says Red CEO Nicola Shindler. “In Happy Valley, she tackled universally recognisable themes — a woman who has lost her child… who is good at her job.”

Support from Studiocanal is evident in The Five which, says Shindler, “was more filmic than most of our previous productions because we worked with a bigger budget. But the thing it shared with Happy Valley is strong writing. Whenever we talk to anyone about international co-productions these days, people always ask us about the availability of UK writers.”

Red is also a classic illustration of the UK’s regional strength. Based in Manchester, it shot Ordinary Lies in Wales, Trust Me in Scotland and The Five in north-west England. Echoing Bowen, Shindler acknowledges “the tax credits have played their part. When you see a show like Games Of Thrones come to Northern Ireland [which it did ahead of the tax credit launch thanks to NI Screen funding but stayed thanks to the tax credit], it gets everyone looking at their skills and trying to improve what they do.”

Empowering indie producers has also encouraged an entrepreneurial, risk-taking culture, says Hakan Kousetta, COO of See-Saw Films, the company behind The King’s Speech, Top Of The Lake and Love, Nina. “Clearly we benefit from having great actors, writers and directors. But what’s exciting about the UK indie sector is that it is so good at giving people things that they don’t know they want.”

While Kousetta acknowledges there is still work to be done on diversity (on and off screen), he says that “UK TV is moving forward in the way it seeks to embrace all voices within British society. And that diversity of voices is one of the things that makes the UK stand out.”

Illustrations of his point included the working- class sensibility of Paul Abbott (No Offence, Shameless) and the groundbreaking depiction of LGBT lifestyles that Russell T Davies has delivered in Queer As Folk and the Cucumber/Banana/ Tofu triumvirate for Channel 4. Idris Elba has also been influential in the diversity debate, both through his onscreen depiction of a troubled cop in Luther and through his indie company Green Door Pictures (Guerrilla). Elba, in partnership with Lionsgate UK, last year launched a writing competition to find the next crop of diverse writers.

Global team-ups

At a time when the UK is wrestling with the implications of leaving the EU, it is worth noting the UK TV sector’s collaborative capabilities have resulted in several international coproductions: The Night Manager, Humans, Taboo, Penny Dreadful, The Missing, Death In Paradise, The White Princess and Guerrilla among others. The latter, a co-production between Sky Atlantic and Showtime, sees Elba portraying a black political activist in 1970s London.

The UK has also had success in securing scripted format deals in the US. Over and above the shows that have been piloted or aired for a single season, bona fide hits include Being Human, House Of Cards, The Office and Shameless.

One indie company that has positioned itself to work across the US, UK and Europe is Big Light Productions, a UK-based outfit set up by showrunner Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, The Man In The High Castle). Katie McAleese, formerly creative director for BBC Drama Production, joined the company with a brief to work on co-productions and pursue opportunities for UK writers in the global market.

“It’s really exciting to join a company that puts writers and producer-writers at the heart of its thinking,” says McAleese, whose credits include the BBC One/BBC America co-production The Living And The Dead. “Our goal is to work in all kinds of ways with the US, Europe and UK, choosing the best approach for every project.”

Like Vaughan, McAleese believes the UK benefits from being “a nation of storytellers”. But she also agrees with Tiplady’s view that the UK ecosystem has enabled creativity to flourish. “Our system has allowed writers to work in so many lengths and formats that they have never had to force what they do into a mould.”

The UK also has a strong track record in creating content for younger audiences. Channel 4’s contribution includes Skins, The Inbetweeners, Raised By Wolves and Gap Year, an Eleven Film production created with the backing of eOne TV. “The writing and storylines in Gap Year are not only clever but highlight universal themes everyone can relate to, such as self-discovery and romance,” says Stuart Baxter, president, international television, at eOne.

Indeed, the future looks incredibly promising for UK drama across the board and around the world, with upcoming high-profile projects including McMafia and Howards End. Spanning the spectrum from multi-location thriller to English literary classic, these forthcoming titles underline the level of UK drama producers’ global ambition.

I spy success

The Ink Factory’s international success with The Night Manager reflects the world-leading high-end TV drama being made in the UK.

Simon Cornwell, co-founder of The Ink Factory, says UK drama producers have “a lot of opportunities because of the opening up of the international co-production market and the range of channels looking for high-quality scripted productions”.

He says of The Night Manager’s success: “An internationally recognisable cast helps, as do strong production values. It was also an example of edge-of-the-seat storytelling that took audiences to places they don’t expect to see on TV.”

Cornwell also notes that one area of the high-end TV drama arena in which the UK is especially strong is the depth of talented crew available. “You go to some places and the available crew can be stretched if there are too many productions. But the UK doesn’t suffer like that.”

One of The Ink Factory’s next TV projects is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold which, like The Night Manager, is adapted from a John Le Carré novel. Once again, the show is a co-production between AMC and the BBC, with Paramount TV handling international distribution. “We haven’t announced the cast yet,” says Cornwell, “but we have an Oscar-winning writer in Simon Beaufoy [Slumdog Millionaire] and great source material. It has great contemporary relevance in this era of rising extremism.”

Television that Travels, words by Andy Fry, was originally published in UK in Focus 2017 in association with Screen International.

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