TV drama featuring strong, complicated female characters have become more common of late thanks to shows like Fleabag and Killing Eve.
But a new high-profile drama from UKTV, Flack, starring Anna Paquin as a smart, scheming PR, was arguably ahead of the curve when the idea was first conceived by British writer Oliver Lansley seven years ago.
An RTS Futures audience heard how the show had gone through several iterations before it was eventually commissioned by UKTV’s head of scripted, Pete Thornton.
Flack was originally a half-hour comedy, then a one-hour drama and subsequently morphed into its current form – a 45-minute comedy drama that makes its debut on UKTV drama channel W this week.
Lansley told the RTS that he thought it was long overdue for a drama series that revolved around a complicated female character following the so-called 'Difficult Men' shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
“Five years ago a book came out about the golden age of television called 'Difficult Men'. It was about showrunners and leading men like Tony Soprano, Walter White and Donald Draper.
“They were complex, male protagonists. I wanted to write a female character that could be on the cover of a book called Difficult Women.
“We’ve come on a lot since then, but at the time if female characters were complicated they were often apologising for themselves or they were over-explained.
“By contrast male characters do what they do and they’d be mysterious and interesting because of it.”
Lansley also wanted to create a show set in the world of public relations, celebrity and media.
“I thought it was quite a fun world to play in,” he said.
He’d experienced this world having as an actor played the late DJ and TV presenter Kenny Everett in a BBC 4 biopic. Lansley was the focus of the film’s PR campaign.
“I was given this lovely lady PR. That was the first time I saw how it worked,” he said. “I was fascinated by it. We think of PR as Ab Fab, white wine and air kissing, but it always struck me as more of a robust world than that.
He added: “My reference for Flack was always The Thick Of It but with glossy magazines.”
Originally what became Flack had another actress attached to the project. A pilot episode was commissioned by an unnamed broadcaster and shot.
A six-part series was then ordered but the broadcaster decided to uncommission the show.
“I don’t think Flack’s gestation is typical,” said Mark Talbot, head of comedy development at producer Hat Trick. “It’s not the way that most shows get made.”
Hat Trick then took the show to its US agents. They got Anna Paquin involved in the series.
It was then developed in the US for an American company. Again, the programme was rejected.
Undaunted, its creators returned to the UK where it was successfully pitched to UKTV’s Thornton.
“He loved it and he had all six scripts to read, which worked in our favour,” said Talbot.
“Although UKTV had come on board we needed extra financing. We took it back to America and pitched it to some American channels. Pop said yes.”
The green light was given in November 2017 – seven years after the lunch where the idea was first discussed. Filming commenced two months later in January 2018.
“The hybrid version we ended up with was perfect,” said Lansley. “The show embraces both the worlds of English and American celebrity. We jump between the two.”
Lansley described what it was like as a writer working with two channels and umpteen executive producers who constantly sent him notes on his scripts.
“If everyone was a knife in your side you’d bleed to death very quickly,” he said. “You have to be able to see through the notes to what helps the script."
“Sometimes you’ll get a note and it’s not necessarily a great note, but it will identify something that needs changing.
“Early on in the process, there is this resistance and defensiveness against it.
“You think ‘I’ve written this and this is how it’s going to be.’ You’ve got to let go of that and use the notes to your advantage.
“You need to find that central line in yourself to go ‘Yeah, okay that can be better.’ But you’ve got to pick your battles and be as objective about it as you can.
“You do have to get used to it because if you want to write telly you are going to get a lot of notes.”
The RTS Flack Screening and Script Writing Q&A was held at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden on February 19. The session was chaired by journalist Emma Cox and produced by UKTV’s Ali Laurie and Gem Pinkney. A full report of the event will be published in the March edition of Television magazine.
All photography by Paul Hampartsoumian