A dead body – check; an engaging cast of characters – check; and a mystery to solve – check. So press “play” and we are box set ready to go. But what happens if by episode three the tension has fallen away and all the untied plot strands dangle annoyingly? According to one leading British writer, this is now the fate of too many television dramas as the demand for fresh entertainment cranks up.
Chris Lang, the creator of ITV’s returning “cold case” detective series Unforgotten, has questioned a commissioning culture that can oblige writers to deliver at breakneck speed to feed the beast of box-set production.
In an interview with the Observer, Lang said: “You can definitely spot the shows where the writers clearly didn’t quite know where it was going to end. It happens particularly in longer shows, with six episodes or more. You can see when they had no idea, and then they often leave it hanging, hoping to get a second series.”
Lang, who also scripted Sirens, Torn, Undeniable and A Mother’s Son, is one of the British writers who have benefited from the great boom in television drama over the last five years. He acknowledges the best shows have high standards, but argues no drama series should go into production before the creative team has thought their story through.
“Having it sorted in advance is incredibly important,” he said. “We are all enjoying this golden age of television drama but you would not believe how many shows start preproduction with only two or three scripts ready. The writers are still writing as they start filming. To me that is an absolutely insane way to work.”
British production companies have realised that hit dramas are vital to their survival. Broadcast magazine’s latest annual survey of independent programme makers found that revenues at the top five companies making drama (Carnival, the maker of Downton Abbey and Whitechapel; Left Bank, the maker of The Crown; Kudos, which makes Humans; Bentley, Midsomer Murders; and Neal Street, Call the Midwife) are all up more than 30% on last year. Meanwhile, subscription broadcasters such as Sky, Netflix and Amazon are investing heavily in drama, alongside the traditional terrestrial channels.
As the golden age of the box set enters its second phase, there are murmurings from writers’ rooms in Britain and America. If audiences want hit series that will truly entertain them, there must be enough time to create them. Although Lang has co-written a new show, Innocent, with thriller novelist MJ Arlidge, he usually writes alone. He admires the distinctive tone of Sally Wainwright, creator of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, and of the Catastrophe co-writer Sharon Horgan. He also enjoys US shows such as The Affair, which stars British actors Ruth Wilson and Dominic West, and Divorce, which is also by Horgan and stars Sarah Jessica Parker.
“It is the little flourishes in these scripts that make them feel real and truthful,” Lang said. “And sadly these are the first casualties when time is short and the plot has to take precedence.”
Lang said his work is usually complete before production. “Why would you not do it like that? You have got 60 or 70 people waiting for you, not including the actors, and they need to set up a shooting schedule. If you have it all done they can schedule it in blocks, which means you can save money and then spend it in the right way, making the show look fantastic.”
His new series of Unforgotten starts on Thursday (9pm, ITV) with the discovery of a body in a sealed suitcase in London’s river Lea. The detective duo played by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar then have to trace back the story, drawing in four apparently unconnected suspects. “If you are half-good at your job, you should have a vision and absolutely know where it is ending,” said Lang.
Neal Street’s Dame Pippa Harris agreed that producers prefer a finished script so that budgets can be spent wisely. “When we made Penny Dreadful for Sky, it was a huge advantage that John Logan had written the entire first series before we began,” she said. “But ultimately it depends on the writer, and some people produce their best work under the pressure of production. I remember that when we greenlit Paul Abbott’s State of Play at the BBC, he had only written the opening episodes and had no clear outline for where it was going. Likewise, Jez Butterworth, who I’ve been working with recently on Britannia for Sky, has relished the freedom of altering storylines and character arcs in later episodes.”
The first great golden age of television was in the 1950s and 60s, when limited channel choices meant that a few shows achieved cultural dominance. Writers tended to stick to the same shows and with the same on-screen talent. Now, with hundreds of scripted television shows on air in a year, it is impossible for quality to be widespread. Writers are more often freelancers, who must keep several plates spinning.
Notwithstanding his reservations, Lang, who writes at least 10 drafts of each of his scripts, emphasises that he is “rejoicing with my fellow writers at how ascendant television is. I can’t remember a time when there was so much good stuff on.”Read More »
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British crime series from Inspector Morse to Midsomer Murders have long dominated linear television schedules in the UK and show no sign of slowing down. The man responsible for many of the latest gruesome hits is Chris Lang, creator of ITV’s Unforgotten and Innocent.
(by Peter White for Deadline, July 31)
Lang tells Deadline why this new generation of police dramas is resonating with audiences and why he is interrupting this murder spree to focus on a number of more lighthearted, romantic comedy projects.
Unforgotten is currently in its third season and the Mainstreet Pictures-produced series is averaging 6M viewers a night, despite fierce competition from Aidan Turner’s sythe-wielding drama Poldark. The show follows two London detectives, played by The Split’s Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar (Goodness Gracious Me) as they work together to solve cold case murders and disappearances. The first series explored the case of the death of a 16-year old schoolboy, the second investigated the murder of a political consultant and the current season looks at the killing of a schoolgirl who disappeared on New Year’s Eve.
The show has managed to retain its audience – helped by streaming catch-up figures – in its latest incarnation despite moving to a Sunday night slot. Lang said, “I wasn’t entirely convinced by the scheduling of the show but it won the slot and beat Poldark eventually. People love the cast and the actors that we’ve attracted are the actors people want to watch. It’s not easy to lead an audience through a procedural whilst retaining humanity and warmth and wit and they both do it effortlessly.”
He said that crime procedurals are just good devices to tell broad stories. “Shows like mine and other cop shows are sold as genre shows but really it’s just a hanger on which to tell human interest stories. They happen to provide a good structure with a beginning, middle and end with a resolution as well as more complexity but really you’re looking at how people live their lives. People will always be fascinated by that and the police element is just a wrapper.”
Lang is currently considering whether he wants to bring the pair back for a fourth series. “ITV has asked for more and the truth is I don’t know. If I can get the team together, I have ideas, that’s never an issue, but it’s whether we can pull the same team together. There are very few shows on telly, if any, where you have the same director [Andy Wilson] for 18 hours and the same production team and editors. We all know what we’re working towards and to do another one, we’ve got to make it even better, which is quite a big ask.”Read More »
CHRIS LANG is one of our best and more prolific television writers. It’s no shock to his fans that his current hit, Unforgotten, has beaten Poldark, the BBC’s period drama juggernaut in the latest TV ratings. (from The Express)
But this writer doesn’t tread water, acknowledging, “I am a bit of an obsessive”.
He also has a new ITV drama, Dark Heart, going out in the autumn, and the fashionable and money-bags streaming channel Netflix has come looking for content.
He obliged them with an idea, which he has worked on with another writer. We should see that next year.
Lang, a Londoner, also knows his way around a police station having learned his trade by writing for the one-time procedural staple The Bill.
But Unforgotten, starring Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker, is nothing like that, with a much more elaborate story which occasionally can challenge the viewer.
Lang, 56, has created two detectives in Cassie (Walker) and Sunny (Bhaskar) who are complex, believable and well-rounded. They also happen to be two fine actors.
The secondary characters seem realistic, too, not least Cassie’s father, played by the excellent Peter Egan. His story with his daughter develops more as this series evolves.
We meet in the cavernous stately home near Slough whose interiors double as a police station in Unforgotten.
Lang, as ever, is thoughtful, friendly and always interested in how his dramas are being received.
In a world which laps up crime action in every way, there are very few critical voices of this drama, which has kept the same crew and director from the outset, maintaining a consistent tone and style.
Lang is also one of the best creators of a red herring around. In this series again, they dart and dance around the script.
In front of a group of journalists, he is unapologetic about making this series’ focal point social media and the impact the press can have on crime and investigations.
“Yes, it’s true,” he begins, “I do always have a theme underlying the piece. In terms of characters I wanted to explore the relationships of the four people who have the spotlight thrown on them.
“They are four people who have known each other since school (played by Alex Jennings, Neil Morrissey, Kevin McNally and James Fleet). I have a similar dynamic in my life, four friends I have known for 45 years.
“We’ve been through a lot together. But this set-up feeds directly into the central idea of Unforgotten, ‘How well can you actually know someone?’.
“On a macro level I wanted to explore social media and how it has impacted on the judicial system, and how it has also impacted on our society.”
He explains further: “It was a general sense that I think we all had, that we have observed over the last five to 10 years, that media has impacted on the national psyche.
“On there, you get the collective anger of our nation. Social media is often a cause for great good, but also seems to be a platform where people quite often express huge rage.
“I don’t know if this anger always existed, and we now have a public platform for it, or not. It has certainly amplified everything.”
He cites an example that morning on Twitter when he simply expressed sympathy for people caught up in the Hawaiian volcano. “Came the reply, ‘If they live near a volcano, so be it!’. Then people call him an ‘****hole’, then he’s coming back again, and on it goes.
“But I also wanted to explore how the public gaze on an investigation can affect it, and how we are all able to comment on it in what I think is a quite unhelpful way.” (read the full interview at The Express)Read More »
Chris Lang’s festive holiday with four mates “didn’t go entirely to plan” – but served as an excellent starting point for his script
(Radio Times, 29th July 2018)
The creator and screenwriter of ITV’s Unforgotten has revealed that a disastrous New Year’s Eve getaway with his friends was the starting point for the latest series of the murder drama, which investigates the notorious disappearance of a teenage girl at the turn of the millennium.
In series three, the suspects are four mates who had rented a holiday home nearby with their wives and kids for a long weekend.
Although all four men initially tell DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) that they had a quiet night in, it soon emerges that this wasn’t quite the case; ugly memories of drink, drugs, marital breakdown and mental illness are laid bare.
“The inciting incident was slightly precipitated by a weekend away I had with four mates and our wives in 1999 – which didn’t go entirely to plan,” Lang explains on the set of Unforgotten in Buckinghamshire, where Walker and Bhaskar are filming their police station scenes.
“I have to say, no one was murdered. It was a volatile time for a few people and it was New Year’s Eve and it didn’t go entirely as planned. Some things were sort of aired about where people were in their lives and relationships and emotional places.
“And I’d like to say all those involved in it are still very happily married and together and everything. But it’s an extraordinary time, New Year’s Eve, the time when you think you’ve got to be celebrating and having a good time.”
After an experience like that, you won’t find Lang popping the champagne corks and singing Auld Lang Syne.
“I always make a point of going to bed – I sound like a really fun guy – I go to bed at exactly 20 to 12 and go, ‘F**k off, the lot of ya!’ So that’s my Happy New Year,” he laughs.
Reassuringly for Lang’s friends, the collection of characters played by Alex Jennings, James Fleet, Kevin McNally and Neil Morrissey are not actually based on real life, even if their holiday served as inspiration. (read the full interview)Read More »
Chris Lang, the critically-acclaimed writer and creator of ITV’s Unforgotten, talks to Stig Abell about his latest crime drama Innocent, starring Hermione Norris and Lee Ingleby on BBC Radio 4’s “Front Row”Read More »
Chris discusses the second season of the critically acclaimed drama Unforgotten with Samira Ahmed on BBC Radio 4’s “Front Row”Read More »
With several remakes under his belt, Chris Lang is penning his first original series for French TV
British drama writers often head to Hollywood after achieving domestic success, but Chris Lang, creator of ITV crime dramas including Unforgotten, crossed the Channel to Paris.
Lang has already remade two of his ITV thrillers – A Mother’s Son, starring Hermione Norris and Martin Chines, and Bradley Walsh’s Torn – for TF1 and is currently adapting two more for the French commercial broadcaster.
A Mother’s Son, which was remade in France as Tu Es Mon Fils, averaged more than 7 million viewers when it aired last year, while the Torn adaptation, which will be known locally as Entre Deux Meres, has just finished production.
A version of his 2014 two-parter Undeniable, starring Claire Goose and Peter Firth, is in pre-production, while Lang is working with Julien Teisseire on a French version of The Reckoning, which featured Ashley Jensen and Max Beesley.
“What French viewers really like is high-concept thrillers that are rooted in a family reality,” said Lang. “The concept is a Trojan horse to tell a story about the way in which families interact, particularly when they are put under pressure. That genre speaks to their audience, and that’s what I do.”
Lang, who was first approached over the remakes by former ITV Studios France boss Francois Florentiny, writes scripts in English before his drafts are translated into French, with attention paid to local nuances.
“It’s a different process,” he said. “You write your beautiful English prose and then it’s translated. Then you see it back eventually, subtitled, and it’s something completely different. You can spend however much time you like making something sound beautiful and actually it’s going to change an awful lot.”
Lang, who was one of the writers on The Tunnel, Kudos’ bi-lingual remake of The Bridge for Sky Atlantic, is also preparing to start work on a French original in the new year.
“I’m writing an original idea, which will be a very interesting experiment,” he said. “It’s one thing them buying something when they’ve seen the original, it’ll be another when it’s a bespoke project which I’m starting from ground zero.”
The move will make Lang the latest British writer to succeed in France after Spooks writers Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft penned Louis XIV period drama Versailles, which was produced by Capa Drama for Canal+. The show was later sold to BBC2.
Lang, who was the original drummer of British ’80s indie band The Housemartins, started out in a comedy revue group with Hugh Grant and continues to write dramas for UK broadcasters.
He is currently working on Dark Heart, an adaptation of Adam Creed’s crime novel Suffer The Children. The 120-minute thriller, which stars Tom Riley as Wagstaffe, is produced by ITV Studios for pay-TV channel ITV Encore.
The writer also runs his own boutique drama production firm, TXTV, with Jeremy Gwilt and Matthew Arlidge.
The company is in production on 4 x 60-minute Innocent, a crime drama for LTV starring Hermione Norris and Lee Ingleby, which is currently being filmed in Ireland.
Lang said his intimate domestic dramas will be produced through TXTV, but he is open to working with other production companies when projects demand a bigger budget. He pointed to Unforgotten, which is produced by Mainstreet Pictures for ITV and has been renewed for a second 6 x 60-minute run.
He is also developing a drama for the BBC and is keen to move into new genres. “I want to shift a little away from crime shows. It’s incredibly hard to get non-genre shows away, but I’ve got a relationship drama in with ITV… and I’m hopeful,” he said.
Following his French adventures, Lang is set to join the swarm of British producers in LA after scoring a development project with Disney-owned US network ABC.Read More »