Fast shows

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Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?

At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)

The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).

As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans – all illuminating about the process.

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Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.

That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.

So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.

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In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.

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The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.

I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?

A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.

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I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.

I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.

Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!

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The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.

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The Odin catalogue

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The Guardian seems a bit stingy about Telly Addict at the moment, rarely leaving the traditional plug for it up on the homepage for longer than a day, which, it seems, reduces traffic to a trickle, thus sealing my longterm fate by their own hand. Boo! I can’t really do much more than provide an alert on Twitter and on this blog. So …

This week, we have two historical dramas, the Game Of Thrones-influenced Vikings on History and Penny Dreadful from Showtime on Sky Atlantic (I won’t ruin it for you, but I much preferred Vikings); also, the return of Showtime/BBC co-prod Episodes, and my highlights of Sunday night’s Bafta TV Awards, which I hope you enjoy.

Wrong on so many levels

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Tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 24, The Wrong Mans explodes onto BBC2, with only its own Hollywood-style trailer to beat. You can hardly have failed to notice that it’s one of many attempts on the popular imagination of Mr James Corden this autumn, which has also included the Toronto Film Festival premieres of imminent Billy Elliot-style Paul Potts biopic One Chance, in which he stars, and an American romcom Can A Song Save A Life?, in which he has a supporting role, plus a seventh run of A League Of Their Own on Sky1 as we speak. Of these, you get the feeling that, for the mutliple-stringed-bow-wielding Corden, The Wrongs Mans has the most riding on it, personally, and for self-evident reasons.

It’s a comedy thriller, in six parts, a feat that’s rarely attempted. A half-hour comedy that comes on like a Hollywood blockbuster – thanks to the resourceful acumen of director Jim Field Smith, and an injection of US cash from the Netflix-like Hulu. It stars Corden and co-writer Horrible Histories’ Mathew Baynton as two lowly Bracknell Council employees (actually, one actually works as a post boy for a company outsourced by the council) who get sucked into a dangerous underworld plot after Baynton picks up a discarded phone after a car crash in the opening minutes of Episode One that was make-or-break for the production. The pair almost talked themselves out of the expensive stage direction, second-guessing that it would prove a barrier to being commissioned. (It’s possible they’re being coy here – my fervent hope is that someone who co-wrote and starred in Gavin & Stacey has a bit of auto-clout in BBC pitch meetings.)

I’ve seen the first two episodes and they work on all of the levels they’re supposed to work on. They’re funny and thrilling. The action and jeopardy are real, the reactions of the clownish lead characters are comedic, but no matter how stupid they are, their decisions drive the plot. It works. When I say I’ve seen the first two episodes, I’ve seen them three times, because I hosted a preview in Edinburgh at the TV Festival last month, and a follow-up at Bafta in London at the start of this month. The pics above and below were taken by official Bafta photographer Jamie Simonds and reflect the grandeur and high cast attendance levels of the latter gig. (James couldn’t get the day off of filming Into The Woods, the Hollywood musical shooting in Pinewood and starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, and sadly missed out on Edinburgh.)

For Bafta, we had Jim Field Smith, co-star Sarah Soleman, Baynton and Corden – with co-stars Nick Moran and Emelia Fox, script editor Jeremy Dyson and urbane BBC exec Mark Freeland in the audience, among other key crew – and it was a fine evening. I’ll give a few highlights of the conversation we had, but your best bet is to download or stream the Bafta podcast, which is available here. (There are plenty of others here on the Bafta Guru mini-site, too, including one from July with the cast and creators of Chickens.)

Corden and Baynton first met on the set of Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (a fine British music industry film, directed by Nick Moran, who challenged the three stars it is awarded in the Radio Times when I met him in the bar afterwards and proudly proclaimed it “a four star film”), but they came up with The Wrong Mans – terrible title, but you get used to it – when working together on Gavin & Stacey, where Baynton played Deano.

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Corden: “It was at that time when everyone was starting to watch those American box sets – 24 and so on … TV with higher production values and where the stakes seemed to be a lot higher. We wondered why no one’s trying to do that in a a half-hour comedy. We’d also been to see Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers film, and both really liked it and thought it was very funny and thought, ‘We should have a go at doing this.'”

“We had this great opening, and we wrote this script on spec. We didn’t pitch it as an idea to anyone, we just wrote 35 pages … We put in very specific details, like the fact that the car spins three times, because we wanted anyone who was reading it, a commissioner or anyone, to not be left in doubt as to what it would need to be made.”

Baynton: “Some of the stuff that you assume is expensive, isn’t. What is expensive is time.”

Field Smith: “With that car stunt we had one go at it. If that car doesn’t flip the way it’s rigged to flip, then we’re reverting to Plan B, which is a car skidding out of shot and a hubcap rolling back, which was exactly what we wanted to avoid. We tried not to make choices that are comedic choices. With so many actors coming and going some of them would show up and not necessarily know what the mood is. There were a couple of moments where I’d have to go, ‘No. Wrong show. We’re not making Naked Gun.'”

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While BBC2 is screening the episodes in traditional weekly instalments, Hulu is releasing all the episodes online at the same time so if you are resident in the US, or operate on the wrong side of the law, you can binge on it like it’s House Of Cards or Orange Is The New Black or something equally hip and glamorous. Baynton says: “That’s sort of how it was written. We want people to get to the end of the episode and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to watch the next one!'”

I suspect you will.

I must admit, I’ve loved hanging out with the Wrong Mans cast, execs and crew. I’d been dying to meet Mat Baynton ever since he played Charles Dickens as Morrissey on Horrible Histories, and although we were denied James Corden in Edinburgh, he compensated in London by hanging around afterwards for drinks when, as a fairly new dad with a wife and a two-year-old son and someone who had been in Pinewood all day, he would have been forgiven for hopping it early. It’s been a while since he shook off the prima donna reputation that dogged him around the time of Horne & Corden (I’ve met Matt Horne a number of times too, and he’s an unassumingly nice chap, too), and if anything, with nothing to prove after One Man, Two Guvnors and its Tony-magnet success on Broadway, Corden has nothing to prove. And yet he behaves as if he has. I don’t believe this is an act.

Mind you, he is a good actor. I’ve admired his work since I saw his film debut in Shane Meadows’ TwentyFourSeven when he was 18 (he played Frank Harper’s kid Tonka). He’s continually played his weight to his advantage and even though he’s slimmed down, it’s his physique next to Baynton’s wiry frame that makes their chemistry so comedic. There’s something Laurel and Hardy about them. Having been involved in the show’s promotion within the industry, I feel quite attached to it, but if I’d never met anybody connected with it and just seen the first two episodes, I’d say: watch it. It’s right on so many levels.

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After Henry V

The new Telly Addict is available in the usual place, but in a new shirt (thanks). As an antidote to the Jubilee glut on television, I offer you: The Bafta Television Awards on BBC1; Panorama: Stadiums Of Hate on BBC1; How To Be England Manager on BBC3; Game Of Thrones on Sky Atlantic; and Hit & Miss on Sky Atlantic. (Sorry about the double dose of Sky Atlantic if you haven’t got Sky, but the former is really only a clip, featuring the great Peter Dinklage having his Henry V moment.) Send her victorious etc.

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Well, this is a new and welcome thing. Telly Addict is now going to go live on the Guardian Culture website on a Friday evening, as early as 7pm, rather than sneaking out in the dead of night at about 12am, as has been the case since it started last April. (This is particularly handy for me personally, as I’ve grown used to viewing it in the 6.15am cab on the way in to appear on Zoe Ball’s Breakfast show on Radio 2 on a Saturday morning, a slot that is about to disappear, as Zoe’s left and Anneka Rice is taking over, leaving me unemployed and secretly glad to be having a lie-in like some normal people do on a Saturday.)

Anyway, here it is, with, this week, catch-up reviews of BBC1’s Call The Midwife and Inside Men, plus the TV coverage of the Bafta Film Awards, and a terrifying clip from the Grammys on C4. Hope you like my new direction. (And the new shirt, which I believe is making its Telly Addict debut.)

Hung, er

It’s a talking point film, Shame. You’re sort of obliged to see it, so that you can talk about it afterwards to other people who’ve seen it. When I saw it, last year, at a preview screening, I ended up talking about it in the pub afterwards with fellow critic Adam Smith for about an hour. We didn’t go to the pub to talk about it. We went to the pub to have a drink and catch up. But we couldn’t stop talking about Shame, despite the fact that neither of us thought it the equal of director Steve McQueen’s debut, also starring Michael Fassbender, Hunger. It is still an artistic, thought-provoking piece, and Fassbender gives another raw and physical performance, but I’m not sure anything could live up to Hunger, which is one of the best films I’ve seen this century and haunts me still.

Shame is causing a stir because it’s about sex addiction, although not about shame, really. A tough sell, as anyone without an addictive personality will probably think being addicted to sex isn’t much of a hardship, but it clearly is. Also, you make a film about sex, and people are going to expect to be titillated, even if they don’t admit it. Shame does not titillate. Its job is to do the opposite, in order to get inside the mind of Fassbender’s Brandon, who has one of those identikit high-flying office jobs in New York that means he gets to live in a nice apartment, wear nice suits and drink in expensive bars. The film reminded me of American Psycho, although Brandon’s psychosis doesn’t really hurt anyone else, it mainly hurts him. And his sister, Carey Mulligan, whose surprise presence in his life hints at something incestuous but only hints.

Shame, written by McQueen and the currently feted Abi Morgan, does a lot of hinting. This is not a problem. I don’t need motivation spelling out, or backstory told in flashback, as long as the action and characterisation strike me as real. In this, Shame succeeds. It frames Brandon’s disease against a glamorous backdrop – hey, we’re in New York, even the dirty streets and trains seems glamorous! – and all this does is accentuate his inner turmoil.

It’s not an easy film to watch, as it throbs with discomfort and awkwardness. When Mulligan walks in on her brother masturbating, or he walks in on her showering, it knocks Mike Leigh into a cocked hat. Or a hatted cock, if you prefer. This might be a film about New York, or cities in general, and their ability to inflict deep loneliness and disconnection. This city never sleeps, and nor do its inhabitants. When Brandon goes outside and runs off his demons and his spare energy, we run with him, in an extended sequence that is McQueen’s bravura moment, one to rival the mopping up of the piss in Hunger, or indeed its extended 17-minute, one-take scene between Fassbender’s Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s priest, Father Dom. It’s not quite the equal of either, of course.

I’ve been moaning about the mysterious absence of Tyrannosaur from the Bafta lists, but Shame is not exactly a popcorn movie. It’s art, and difficult art. And to see it racking up award nominations is gratifying. We’re so used to seeing sex onscreen and the conventions around its depiction, which even in intelligent drama dictate that the act itself fades from lovingly dissolved close-ups of hands on bodies while suitable music plays, to the next morning, when light creeps in on discarded underwear and lovers wake up looking a bit disheveled. Nothing so conventional here.

Hunger was a personal, historical film – not exactly a biopic but certainly a depiction of an event in a man’s life – and a subject that meant something to McQueen, who remembers the hunger strikes in 1981 from his childhood and researched the subject thoroughly. (His co-writer was Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who will have had an even closer understanding of the story.) In it, everything came together, and McQueen was able to take the filmmaking that had won him acclaim in the art world into a new setting. Anyone expecting a pretty series of artistic images would have been disappointed. There were beautiful images in it (a snowflake dissolving on a bruised fist), but these did not detract from the seriousness of the subject, nor disrupt what was a very straightforward narrative.

Shame is, in many ways, easier to watch, and its narrative is characterised by ambiguity and missing information. This, I guess, is why it’s such a talking point. That and the sex. It’s a deeply sad film. And you get to see a lot of Fassbender again, if you like a bit of lean, lithe, pale, hairless Irish/German flesh. He really is an incredible screen presence, and although he’s casting flavour of the month, I think he has a lot of integrity and talent, and he will outlast his own fashionability. Although he looks good naked, he’s not vain. You only have to see Hunger to know that.

If you haven’t seen Hunger, best rectify that first. Then have a look at Shame, but don’t see either with a date.

 

Cheer up

And well you might look sad, Olivia Colman. Despite producing one of last year’s stand-out performances in film, namely, as abused wife and Christian charity shop manager Hannah in Paddy Considine’s devastating debut Tyrannosaur, you have been overlooked by the membership of Bafta in their 2012 nominations (which can be seen here in full). Instead, Leading Actress will go to one of the following five: Bérénice Bejo for The Artist; Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, Michelle Williams for My Week With Marilyn; Tilda Swinton for We Need To Talk About Kevin; and Viola Davis for The Help (which I haven’t seen, for the record). All of the above are great performances – and I’m sure Davis is good in The Help, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt – but it seems a crying shame that Colman didn’t make the final five.

It’s a shame, but it’s not a scandal, as many peers and commentators have made it seem on the internet today. If you want to understand the Bafta voting system, it’s explained in detail here. Basically, the 6,500 Bafta members vote the starting list of about 250 contenders down to 15, the longlist, then vote that down the shortlist, after which they vote for their favourite from that list of five. In other words, their vote is not influenced – at least not directly or explicitly – by such cynicism-feeding factors as who will look good on the front row at the ceremony on TV, or who deserves an award because they will make the British film industry look good, or the who will make us look good because they are American and will therefore stop the Baftas looking parochial and insular.

I’m sure Bafta members ask their friends who they’ve voted for, in secret (just like Big Brother housemates always seem to do) or who they intend to vote for, but with 6,500 of them, a consensus is bound to arise, and it will, you have to expect, accurately reflect the views of the membership. This is not the Hollywood Press Association, or the public, it’s 6,500 mostly professional people from within or in the vicinity of the industry.

In other words, across those 6,500 members, Olivia Colman might actually have been their sixth favourite Leading Actress, as she was rightly included in the 15-strong longlist. She was also longlisted for Supporting Actress for The Iron Lady, interestingly enough. It would have been ironic if she’d made the shortlist for that but not for Tyrannosaur.

Frankly, as is well known, Tyrannosaur is easily one of my favourite films of last year – right up there with Kill List – and I’m hardly on a limb in this regard. But in both cases I can see why Bafta members might recoil from the subject matter, and the execution. Neither is an “easy” film. Certainly not as “easy” as My Week With Marilyn or The Help (which I haven’t seen, but I will eat my hat if it doesn’t have an uplifting message, something that Tyrannosaur doesn’t, at least not in the conventional sense). Tyrannosaur gets a nomination for Paddy Considine, which is cheering news, but that is the full extent of its Bafta recognition.

What we have here is a disconnect between a broad consensus and the personal passion of a number of individuals. It happens. It happens in elections, too. As we have established, in a democracy the middle ground wins elections, and not the fringes. The Artist may be French, and in its own way radical, but it’s easy to like, and will prevail, I think, in all the big award categories this season. Considine did not write his first feature film so that it would bag him an Oscar, but he might, in his heart of hearts, dared to imagine it being recognised by Bafta. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t eligible as an “Outstanding Debut” (which it is), we would be looking at a total snub.

Except it wouldn’t be a snub. It wouldn’t be the insidious result of an agenda, or of internal politics. It would just be a larger group of professionals not liking a film about horrible, depressing abuse and brutality, than those liking it.

Which doesn’t make it any easier to be Olivia Colman today, who has arguably delivered the performance of her career so far – because Considine cast her in a non-comic role and gave her so much more to get her teeth into – and it has slipped beneath the radar.

It is not abuse. It is the way of the world. You wanted democracy. You got it.

PS: It has been suggested – by none other than that nice man Boyd Hilton on Twitter – that both Shame and We Need To Talk About Kevin, nominated for best film, are less conventional than Tyrannosaur. It’s an interesting point. I would say that Tyrannosaur’s “conventionality” or otherwise isn’t really the issue here; it’s more about its unrelenting misery, all-round tone of grey despair and scenes of sadistic violence. Shame is about a rich man who has a lot of mechanical sex but can’t get a girlfriend. It’s a powerful film, but actually pretty glamorous with its New York setting, and the only abuse is really self-abuse. Kevin is definitely disturbing, but it has moments of happy home life at the beginning (against which the nightmare plays out) and again has a bright, aspirational, middle-class setting (again, which points up the nightmare). But do discuss!