Andrew Knight on Jack Irish: “I’m really pleased with it”

Asked how he’s doing after a whirlwind year, screenwriter Andrew Knight is characteristically understated: “I’m alive and trying to construct a breakfast at the moment”. In between film work last year, Knight wrote new seasons of Rake and Jack Irish simultaneously, a process he calls “a blur”.

The new Jack begins tonight – a six-part series instead of the earlier telemovies.

Knight calls the change “liberating. We had more time to tell a story. The hard part was working out where everything would fall. We had an overall story, but assigning things episodically was a constant trade-off and shifting game”.

“I worked closely with the other two writers, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios. The three of us would go away and write our bits, then we’d come back and say – that needs to move, this needs to shift”.

“If you’re just writing a tele-movie, you know where you’re starting, you know where you’re ending, you know where the cards will fall. It’s harder to work out over six hours. Right up to shooting we were saying ‘uh-uh, this doesn’t belong here’. Even in the cut we moved quite a few things”.

“You’ve got more time to spend with characters. The tension with a series like Jack Irish is that you want the humour and the warmth of the characters, but sometimes if it’s not plot-related they can feel like spackle. Thrillers demand plot. It’s a constant balancing act”.

“It was harder in the telemovies to cut to the guys at the bar or Harry (Roy Billing) and Cam (Aaron Pedersen). I would artificially weave plot in there, just so the audience feels like you haven’t completely walked away from the story, and sometimes that makes it just a little bit muddy. I felt I muddied up the first telemovie, the one I wrote”.

“I hadn’t done thrillers before. I think I was probably trying to put too much of the book in there. As John Collee said, books are contemplative and films are immersive, and the distance between that is really rather great.

The first two episodes of the new series are directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, the rest by Mark Joffe and Daniel Nettheim. Knight describes a helter-skelter shoot.

“In England you’d get fifteen days per episode to shoot something. We get half that time: seven and a half days per ep. You don’t have thinking time once you go”.

“[Essential’s Ian] Collie and I had to be constantly thinking: where the hell are we in this series? As my father in law once said: it’s a bit like trying to fart Annie Laurie through a keyhole – it’s an achievement, but you want to make sure the end result is something you want”.

The new series is the first whose plot has not been taken from one of Peter Temple’s original novels, a change Knight calls “great and fearful at the same time. You don’t want to lose his voice – the Temple tone or humour. But it was also fantastic to be able to keep his world but come up with a plot that we owned”.

The TV veteran calls the changing landscape for local drama on the small screen “an absolute thrill. I think we’re doing some really interesting stuff”.

But Knight also sounds a note of warning.

“I think the problem is that we don’t have enough long-running series. 26-parters. Because nobody’s going to risk a six-hour, eight-hour series, on new talent. And new talent has to find a starting level”.

“When I started at Crawfords as a production manager and producer, they were pumping out hours and hours of soaps and series. Even though at the time I hated what I was working on, you definitely picked up a skill base, you definitely understood how the process worked, you definitely understood what a screenwriter did as opposed to a novelist, you definitely began to understand how to work under pressure and with urgency – and that’s missing now”.

“I would really love to see the ABC find time-slots for new talent. I started with John Clarke and the Working Dog guys. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we learnt it”.

“At the same time, I think the industry is in a spectacular place now”.

Selling War and Peace to the Russians: global cash drives UK drama

As BBC shows off its high-quality drama to international buyers, producers balance home values with global appeal

For its 6 million Sunday-night viewers, BBC1’s recent Tolstoy adaptation War and Peace felt like a classic British costume drama, with cut-glass production and a blue-chip cast. The average licence-fee payer wouldn’t realise that, like the majority of UK TV drama in 2016, the series was made with money from all over the world. BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm, has already sold War and Peace to dozens of countries – including Russia – and will this week present it to 700 more international TV buyers, at the company’s annual Showcase event in Liverpool. Its star James Norton will make a personal experience at a glitzy on-stage sales pitch on Monday night.

But does so much international funding put the purity of Britain’s prized TV drama heritage in danger, with big BBC series being made to satisfy lucrative viewers in America – or, God forbid, in Germany?

Helen Jackson, BBC Worldwide’s chief creative officer, believes not. “To get a show right, you need to be clear who is the lead creative commissioner,” she says, explaining that Worldwide’s role was to help fund the public-service BBC’s vision.

“War and Peace started with BBC Wales, who commissioned the writer Andrew Davies to develop the initial script. At the point when the BBC decided they wanted to move forward with it, we at Worldwide got more heavily involved in the financing.”

The show became a co-production between the BBC, BBC Worldwide, the British independent production company Lookout Point and US studio The Weinstein Company. It was, says, Lookout Point co-chief executive Simon Vaughan, a “collaborative” process, rather than one in which the Americans started to throw their weight around. “If Harvey [Weinstein] or anybody else had script notes, everybody’s always interested to hear what those are,” he says. “Good notes are good notes, no matter where they come from – but it was always clear that there was one primary customer, the BBC.”

Vaughan adds that Weinstein himself added value for British viewers, particularly by delivering the kind of cast that even the BBC might struggle to attract by itself.

“There’s no question that when actors such as Lily James are being offered lots of different parts, Harvey’s weight – and his personal relationships with talent – are a massive factor,” says Vaughan.

Certainly, British TV drama talent – both in front of the camera and behind it – is in greater demand than ever before. US networks are co-producing ever more British shows (such as Showtime with Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful), and now the insurgent online TV providers are snapping up huge runs of British-produced drama (most notably Netflix’s The Crown, made by London indie Left Bank). Experienced writers, such as costume-drama doyen Davies, are in particularly high demand. “What we want to hear from a writer is the thing they want to do most, not the thing they want to do next,” says Vaughan, who has signed up Davies to adapt Les Misérables. “Our deal in return is that we’ll get it made, or die trying.”

British producers and broadcasters also have to adapt to changing tastes at home.

“Viewers’ growing familiarity with what’s available on Amazon or on Netflix increases the appetite for things that feel like they have a real global scale,” says BBC Worldwide’s Jackson – though she adds that that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive runs of 13 or 22 episodes, as is traditional in America. “It’s more that people want to build franchises with a longer life. There’s not a huge volume of Sherlock, but it’s so deeply loved and anticipated that it has a really important place.”

Another cult hit, the sci-fi drama Humans, was developed for Channel 4 alone – but ultimately became a co-production with the US network AMC. That American money, says C4’s head of drama Piers Wenger, allowed the show to reach the kind of scale that would appeal to today’s British viewers. “To put it bluntly, it allowed us to do robots well,” he says. “Making sci-fi work for a mainstream audience, at 9pm, meant rendering it so that it didn’t feel in any way homemade.”

Wenger also counsels against seeing Netflix and Amazon as invaders, whose only purpose is to suck up British talent and put it behind their paywall.

“To think that America is asset-stripping the UK is missing the point,” he says. “What the US has got wise to is that the UK’s TV drama is an incredibly valuable cultural export – and that is largely driven by the BBC and Channel 4. So there’s a happy and helpful symbiosis between the two.” Netflix is co-funding the upcoming E4 series Kiss Me First – which, as a result, can have a budget more than double what the digital channel usually pays.

As well as high production values, British viewers are now much more used to seeing European dramas – which opens the door to foreign-language co-productions with British broadcasters. “I think The Killing was the show that changed things,” says Elaine Pyke, who, as head of Sky Atlantic, commissioned the first big UK-French co-production, in the shape of The Tunnel. “The great thing about The Tunnel, as a co-production, was that it felt creatively natural – it wasn’t just a bit of foreign casting. So it didn’t worry me that half of it was in French.”

Pyke is now co-founder and executive producer at the indie New Pictures, which makes co-productions Indian Summers for Channel 4 (and PBS in America) and mega-hit The Missing for BBC1 (and US cable channel Starz). “In The Missing, Tchéky Karyo – who is neither British or American – is the returning star for series two,” says Pyke. “Isn’t that interesting? That’s the brilliant thing about co-producing – when everyone involved can see what’s great creatively, and go with that.”

But, stresses Pyke, the increasing flow of international money doesn’t in any way diminish the role of the traditional British broadcasters. “They are still very key to our business as producers – they are absolutely our backbone,” she says. “And that’s why it’s important not to forget about contemporary British stories. I’m really glad that Happy Valley still gets 8 million viewers on BBC1, because it’s bloody brilliant: great stories, well told, brilliantly written.”

Neil Midgley – The Guardian – Monday 22 February 2016