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