Even in a lockdown year, Jane Tranter’s Bad Wolf produced a healthy litter of hits, including Industry and I Hate Suzie. Interview by Tim Dams.
Bad Wolf co-founder Jane Tranter shoots back with a rapid reply when asked what her Cardiff-based production company is up to: “Dealing with high-level anxiety all the time, probably emanating from myself.”
If so, Tranter – speaking over Zoom – hides it well. Any stress would be understandable. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Bad Wolf has brought the second seasons of fantasy epics His Dark Materials and A Discovery of Witches to the screen, and launched two acclaimed contemporary dramas, Industry and I Hate Suzie.
This slate of high-end TV propelled Bad Wolf to seventh place in Broadcast’s recently published Indie Survey, on a turnover of £65m. Not bad for a company that only launched in 2015, with backing from the Welsh government and, later on, minority investments from Sky, HBO and Access Industries.
Meanwhile, sister company Bad Wolf America, run by Julie Gardner, has just received a series order from Apple TV+ for Lady in the Lake, a thriller starring Natalie Portman and Lupita Nyong’o.
Home life sounds like it has been busy for Tranter, too. Her twins finished school last summer and had to navigate applying to university in a year when A levels were cancelled and the first term of university was disrupted by Covid.
As for many others, her dog – a Goldendoodle she got while working in Los Angeles as BBC Worldwide’s EVP of programming and production – has been a lockdown solace. So, too, has watching television. She says she’s “hoovered” her way through shows such as Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, Call My Agent!, The Bureau and My Brilliant Friend.
‘People don’t watch television any more. They watch programmes’
We speak on the day that the long winter lockdown restrictions have finally started to ease. The weather is sunny, and there is a palpable feeling of relief and anticipation about what lies ahead.
Tranter says she’s looking forward to being able to go to restaurants again, and is keen to reapply for tickets to the delayed Tracey Emin exhibition at the Royal Academy. “But, for me, the main excitement is 12 April, at which point I can go to the hairdresser – that’s my only real concern.”
Joking aside, her concerns do run deeper. For Tranter, seeing Bad Wolf’s position in Broadcast’s Indie Survey, where it was also ranked as the second-biggest true indie, wasn’t an entirely pleasurable experience. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Fuck me, how are we ever going to do that again?’
“It’s a constant feeling in our industry, no matter how good or experienced you are. It is a naturally very precarious business, and that’s without Covid thrown in.”
Tranter says that Bad Wolf was lucky in 2020 in that only one of its four productions, His Dark Materials, had to stop filming when the March lockdown hit. Rather than postpone production, Bad Wolf was able, with backing from its funders, the BBC and HBO, to squeeze the narrative into seven, rather than eight, episodes, helped by visual effects.
The other three shows – Industry, A Discovery of Witches and I Hate Suzie – had all completed production. So Bad Wolf spent much of 2020 in post, before firing up production on the third season of A Discovery of Witches in September.
This continued shooting during the height of the Covid second wave, completing in February with only a few stops due to positive Covid tests.
“It was a very anxious time,” admits Tranter, who doubts that Bad Wolf would have attempted this kind of challenge in the early days. Even with the Government-backed production insurance scheme, the additional cost and financial risk of proceeding was considerable.
Covid has made the production landscape much harder for newer indies, she reckons, threatening truly independent suppliers. “Even for a company the size of Bad Wolf, it really makes you think, ‘Do I want to be here on my own, or do I want to join with a stronger partner?’”
This year, Bad Wolf is making the third series of His Dark Materials, second series of Industry and I Hate Suzie, and is editing A Discovery of Witches. “So 2021 is really a transitional year of nailing those shows that we set up in 2020,” says Tranter.
Bad Wolf will also be looking to this year to get its next wave of dramas off the ground, to set the template for the company’s next five years. “It’s almost like starting again, because so much has changed in terms of how we want to view, and what we want to view,” says Tranter, whose executive producer credits include acclaimed series such as The Night of and Succession.
With so much work on during 2020, Bad Wolf didn’t spend lockdown madly developing, as many indies did, but development is a focus this year.
Tranter ushered in hit shows such as Spooks and State of Play and resurrected Doctor Who during her time as BBC head of fiction back in the 2000s.
She says she “absolutely loves” developing, but admits that, during the past year, it has been a struggle to “get my head around what the themes of our viewing lives are going to be” as the world has grappled with the pandemic.
She seems to have a clearer sense now. In the wake of 2020, she says, the traditional way of drama transmitting once a week has gone for ever. “We have got to look now for shows that work in a box-set environment. People don’t watch television any more. They watch programmes.”
In terms of content, Tranter says she is drawn to areas she has not looked at before – notably contemporary romance. British TV, she explains, has always held a mirror up to the way we live now, and often has a slightly dark cloud to it. While she watches and admires this work, Tranter says she’s now interested in exploring life in a slightly brighter way. “We have not done that so much in British television.”
By romance, Tranter explains that she’s taking a broad approach. It could also be romance in terms of our relationship with the environment, our community or families.
Could this focus on romance also be a reaction to what many think is TV’s over-reliance on crime drama? Tranter doesn’t think so: “People want to watch it – and it would be ludicrous to disregard that. All the way back through the 20th century and beyond, British people have loved a good crime story.”
Beyond this, she thinks there is an appetite for what she calls “tourist porn”, suggesting it was a key part of the appeal of Emily in Paris, The Serpent and Call My Agent! “We loved watching those worlds in lockdown, and I think that will continue.”
Not that travel is easy for productions. The third series of A Discovery of Witches was due to shoot in Italy, the south of France, the east coast of the US and New Orleans. In the end, the whole series was shot in Wales, where Bad Wolf runs its own studio operation, Wolf Studios, in partnership with the Welsh government.
Bad Wolf is now hiring local crews in each country to film environment shots, and will stitch them into the series with visual effects.
Tranter is hoping that, as the vaccination programme picks up around the world, His Dark Materials might be able to film abroad later this year. “We are just going to have to be flexible,” she says, admitting that Covid safety protocols such as mask-wearing and testing are going to be with the industry for quite some time.
This year, she thinks, will be a year when the industry just has to evolve as the coronavirus situation allows. “I’m hoping that next year, 2022, will feel more stable.”