Shilpa Ganatra investigates a new era for crime drama at the UKTV-owned pay channel Alibi.
There’s a firm logic in the recent push to serve up more original drama by the likes of Channel 5 (Boleyn, The Drowning) and BritBox (The Beast Must Die, Crime). For viewers, a gripping drama is a calling card that helps define a channel in an increasingly crowded market.
Within the industry, it is a stake in the ground, a display of creativity and clout. So, it is fascinating to see that the pay-TV crime channel Alibi, owned by UKTV, has thrown its towel in the ring, and shown its full commitment with a succession of new shows in the second half of 2021.
After the summer launch of Annika, starring Nicola Walker, December will see the debut of Ragdoll, the next detective show from Sid Gentle Films following its runaway success, Killing Eve. Later, we’ll see The Diplomat, set in the British Consulate in Barcelona, digging deep into organised crime in Britain and Spain against the backdrop of a modern workplace, and all the friction that entails.
“We’ve had a couple of launches and some good acquisitions, but this year is the starting gun for the channel, as we have a persistent drum beat of good pieces launching,” says Alibi channel director Emma Ayech via Zoom, as drama commissioning editor Philippa Collie Cousins nods in agreement in the adjacent box. “It was meant to be last year, of course, but it got delayed by the pandemic.”
After hiring Collie Cousins (formerly head of development at Fresh Pictures and head of drama and comedy development at Hartswood West) in 2018 to steer their drama commissions, the first result aired the following year. Traces, which centred on an all-female forensic team, was a calculated first step. The subject matter was safe territory for the channel and was necessary to establish its move into original commissioning.
That allowed Alibi to take a little more risk with its second commissioned programme, the psychological thriller We Hunt Together.
Both paid dividends. Traces, produced by Red Production Company and distributed internationally by BBC Studios (owner of UKTV), was later shown on BBC One and boosted its profile no end. “Around 1 million people watched it on Alibi, and 6 million people watched it on the BBC,” recalls Ayech. “The second series, which will come out later this year or early next year, will have a much bigger audience – hopefully, this will make Alibi better known with fans of crime drama.”
We Hunt Together was the channel’s highest-rated show in 2020. It netted 602,000 viewers and was shown by Showtime in the US. It has been commissioned for a second series, too. The commissions complement a strong acquisition strategy that has brought the likes of Smother, Briarpatch and Hudson & Rex to Alibi.
The channel adopted its current name and remit of crime in 2008, when UKTV rebranded it from UKTV Drama. While Alibi’s move into original drama is not a brand refresh, it is the next stage of its evolution.
“If we’re going to grow with the times, then having a drama offering is really important,” says Ayech. “The commercial reality is that Alibi’s a pay channel, and drama has been getting better and better, and having more money spent on it.
“Without that handful of bold, British pieces, we weren’t going to be worth paying for. That was the bottom line. So we had to raise our game.”
Annika, which made its debut in August, is the most recent original. Based on the successful Radio 4 drama, it sees Bafta-nominated Nicola Walker (Spooks, Unforgotten), reprise her role as a detective in Scotland’s Marine Homicide Unit, which investigates unexplained deaths off the coast of Scotland.
“We were really happy that Nicola Walker was up for it,” says Ayech. “It’s a nice one to hopefully get new viewers in and satisfy everyone that already likes the channel. A unique element is that she breaks the fourth wall, so you get a real insight into her inner world. You always want to make things feel a little bit different because there are so many crime drama programmes.”
While the market is certainly crowded, there’s still space for a relatively new player such as Alibi, says Collie Cousins. “All of the UK terrestrial broadcasters have been going quite a long time. Their philosophy of what works for them is fairly stuck, or resolved. Whereas, I think that there is a space between BBC One, ITV and a Netflix show that we can occupy.”
What makes a crime drama right for Alibi? Ayech suggests that, even before it began commissioning but especially now, “we want to give our viewers a gripping mystery that’s always got humour and heart. That can apply to the soft story of the week or the more escapist crime stories that some people enjoy, right up to Ragdoll, which definitely has a darker humour and a more gruesome feel to it.”
Ragdoll, the next release on Alibi’s agenda, focuses on a murderer who stitches together the body parts of his victims, and exemplifies the daring tone the commissioners are aiming for. Collie Cousins explains: “Sally Woodward Gentle [the producer of Killing Eve] came to me this time last year and showed me a project that was perfectly fine, but I asked her if she had a script that was a bit more high-concept, because we wanted something a bit riskier. That’s when they sent me Ragdoll, which was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Of course, premium scripts require premium budgets, and “we always make sure projects are properly financed. There are BBC One/ITV-type of budgets for We Hunt Together, Traces and Annika. And then, for Ragdoll, it’s a lot more, it’s around a streaming budget,” says Collie Cousins.
Ragdoll was a partnership with AMC in the US, but Alibi also works with Masterpiece and Showtime, which help fund its flagship shows. “I’ve worked on dramas where you were asked to explain the cultural differences, but it’s been a joy to work with these partners because they don’t ask you to change anything – they want the sensibility that comes out of the UK,” notes Collie Cousins.
Both Ayech and Collie Cousins agree that they’re particularly interested in breaking new writing talent, not only to bring fresh thinking to their channel but also to ensure that there are modern, diverse voices.
For example, Traces and We Hunt Together were the first original series to come out of the traps for writers Amelia Bullmore and Gaby Hull, respectively.
“Someone said to me about We Hunt Together that it was extraordinary that we had two black male leads. You just think, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, just make room for some new ideas please’,” says Collie Cousins.
The channel is part of Project Diamond to ensure diversity on and off screen – which, inevitably, involves providing spaces where new talent can be nurtured. “Television certainly isn’t as diverse as it should be, and that’s partly because of the evaporation of entry-level roles,” says Collie Cousins. “For drama, you do have to have a certain amount of experience, but we would like diversity in front and behind the camera, so we’re looking into what that might look like.
“I was a director and I feel quite strongly that I don’t want Alibi to offer a short here and there – I want proper stranding. We should be able to offer something where people can hone their craft.” She’ll continue considering the shape it will take as their original drama strategy matures.
UKTV has a long-term view of its plans and the pair understand that, while they’re off to a promising start, they’re still at a formative stage.
“We’re trying to build something where we’ll look back and see a body of work that is British, well-crafted, the audience loves it and it includes legacy dramas,” says Collie Cousins. “The idea is that it’s stuff that we’ll be watching in 10 years’ time.”