The thrill of escapism

The thrill of escapism

Friday, 10th June 2016
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What is the secret of a successful Sunday-night drama? Sally Woodward Gentle shares her recipe with Steve Clarke

Have you heard about the woman who named her new production company after her dog? She then went on to make ITV’s most popular new drama series since Cilla in 2014.

The Durrells, described by The Daily Mail as “a masterclass in ideal Sunday telly”, was the first show produced by Sid Gentle Films to be broadcast.

More than 6 million people tuned in regularly this spring to watch the sun-soaked, feel-good adventures of an English family struggling to adjust to life in 1930s Corfu.

The six-part remake, based on Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, gave ITV a much-needed hit after several high-profile flops. Season 2 will start filming in Corfu late this August.

Sid Gentle Films was formed two and a half years ago by the experienced British TV drama producer Sally Woodward Gentle. Her career spans the BBC, where she was Head of Development, and leading drama independents Kudos (as Managing Director) and Carnival (as Creative Director).

“I wanted to call the company Sid, after my ancient Bassett Hound, but there was already a firm called Sid, so I had to use my surname as well,” she explains.

BBC One's upcoming SS-GB (credit: BBC)

Woodward Gentle, dressed in a comfortable jet-black frock and gold jewellery, is sitting on a small, lived-in sofa in her cramped, homely office in London’s Fitzrovia. Next to her is the firm’s MD, Lee Morris. Disarmingly, he looks like he might have strolled in from a construction site.

Neither resembles what you might think of as Forbes magazine’s idea of a successful entrepreneur. Yet the independent producer has been financed by US investment firm The Yucaipa Companies (owner of the Soho House club chain), founded by billionaire Ron Burkle.

But appearances can be deceptive. A cursory glance at their CVs confirms that Woodward Gentle and Morris form an extremely dynamic drama duo.

So don’t be surprised if, before long, they join the growing list of British drama indies that have been acquired by multinational content and distribution companies. Unless things go very much awry, the peculiarly named Sid Gentle Films looks set to make a splash with those broadcasters and platforms that are hooked on drama.

The pair have around 40 years’ combined experience in making successful, and often outstanding, TV drama. Their portfolio embraces  single films, serials and returning series. They collaborated on Enid, the BBC Four biopic starring Helena ­Bonham Carter as Enid Blyton, and on Channel 4’s award-winning adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. Woodward Gentle oversaw four seasons of ITV’s gothic crime saga Whitechapel, and she helped to develop BBC One’s schedule-defining Spooks.

For good measure, it’s worth mentioning that Morris was a producer on the brilliant British film The Damned United and several high-end period pieces, often filmed in faraway places.

Whenever a technician or an actor flew out from London to join The Durrells on location, they were usually given a large wad of euros to accompany them

The two met at the BBC. “If you’re filming abroad and the production’s gone tits up, Lee was the man to send in, a bit like the SAS,” says Woodward Gentle.

It was this kind of ability that proved so vital in producing The Durrells in Corfu during the last Greek financial meltdown. At the time, people were allowed to withdraw no more than E50 a week from a Greek bank.

So, was there ever a risk that the company would run out of money during the two-month Corfu shoot? “No, but we had to take out lots of euros in our knickers,” replies Woodward Gentle.

She is speaking metaphorically. “The Greek banking crisis made everybody here very nervous about lending us money,” explains Morris. “Once we’d got the funding in place, the first question anyone asked was: ‘What are you going to do with the money – you’re not going to put it in a Greek bank?’ But we had to.”

Whenever a technician or an actor flew out from London to join The Durrells on location, they were usually given a large wad of euros to accompany them.

It sounds a bit like the widowed Mrs Durrell (played to perfection by Keeley Hawes in the series) getting by on a wing and a prayer in her new, decrepit home in the Ionian Sea.

Seemingly, nothing was left to chance in developing or producing The Durrells. Post-Downton Abbey, ITV needed another period drama to cheer up and charm audiences on Sunday evenings.

Morris had worked on the production of the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of My Family and Other Animals, a single 90-minute film, coincidentally also scripted by Simon Nye.

To make it different, Woodward Gentle knew that the new version needed to put Gerald’s mother – rather than the boy, cute though he was – at the centre of the story.

"Downton, I've worked it out, it's just a series of mid-shots."

“When you’ve got a single mother and four children, you’ve got this amazing family dynamic,” she explains. “We knew the book was funny, with beautifully crafted characters, and how many episodic adventures there were. In two pages, there are ideas for an entire episode.”

She continues: “Basically, we were thinking about what we’d want to watch at 8:00pm on a Sunday that’s unpatronising and has a slight literary quality.… You’ve got family, you’ve got animals. It’s total escapism.”

Woodward Gentle makes it all sound very easy. Yet, producing a show that is so effortless to watch requires hard graft – and a fresh eye.

Steve Barron, who directed three of the six The Durrells and whom Woodward Gentle had first met when he was helming pop videos (Barron directed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video), was ignorant of the books. He had never watched a single ITV drama.

To rectify this, she sent him several. These included episodes of Downton Abbey and Poirot. Barron came back and said: “Downton, I’ve worked it out, it’s just a series of mid-shots.”

“He didn’t know what you could and couldn’t do, so he was very true to the material and made it quite magical,” opines Woodward Gentle, whose father worked as a set designer at Thames Television.

Aside from The Durrells, Sid Gentle has two other shows on the go, plus several in development. The latter includes at least one comedy. Sky Arts showed the four-part Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories last month. The cast featured such talent as Tom Hughes, Johnny Vegas, George MacKay, Rita Tushingham and Kenneth Cranham. Jarvis Cocker provided the music.

Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories (credit: Sky)

More ambitious is an adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB. The story ima­gines what might have happened to Britain under Nazi rule following the Second World War.

Woodward Gentle and Morris are anxious that audiences might confuse the new, five-part series with Amazon’s recent version of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, set in a post-1945 parallel world when the Germans and the Japanese have partitioned the United States.

If the show – expected to be shown on BBC One next winter – follows the pedigree of The Durrells, they need not worry. “Five years ago, we wouldn’t have got SS-GB away. You’d never have got the cash to make something like that,” suggests Morris.

Today, content providers are determined to bring feature-film-style ­production values to the shows they commission and, if necessary, spend big money.

So how, in such a competitive TV drama marketplace, does Sid Gentle Films intend to make its mark? Are its directors worried that the company might become a one-hit wonder?

“It’s all about either storytelling or a bit of bucolic escapism,” says Woodward Gentle. “When you read a project you ask yourself: what is the pleasure is this? There’s got to be pleasure.

“It can be pleasurable because it’s thrilling. It puts you on the edge of your seat. Or it can be pleasurable because it’s sunshine and animals. Or it can be thrilling because it’s intellectually stimulating.”

“There’s a load of not very good drama,” she adds. “I was just looking at the new shows at the LA Screenings and they all look really dull.

“This,” she concedes, “is pretty strong coming from the makers of The Durrells, which is a remake. But there are a lot of remakes, adaptations and spin-offs. They feel quite safe. There’s nothing I am jealous of.”

Morris adds: “Everything is execution dependent. The Durrells could have been rubbish. We could have made it in a way that wasn’t the joy it’s been.”

 It can be pleasurable because it’s sunshine and animals. Or it can be thrilling because it’s intellectually stimulating.

Woodward Gentle remembers the time, not that long ago, when she worked at BBC drama. People were demoralised during the reality boom, especially when reality formats won higher ratings than their own shows.

“In the drama community, people didn’t know what to do, because drama costs three times as much as reality,” she recalls. “Today, thankfully, drama is selling worldwide and it’s selling for lots of money.”

Small may no longer be beautiful in a consolidating entertainment landscape. Sid Gentle, which employs a full-time staff of six (including Woodward Gentle and Morris), looks to be bucking this trend. What, then, is their end-game: a sale to a broadcaster or a big studio?

“It isn’t why we set up,” insists Woodward Gentle. “If something came along and wanted to buy us for lots of money, of course we’d have to think about it very seriously....

“We don’t have to fulfil any demands from a big distribution machine. Had we been owned by someone else, I don’t know whether we’d have been allowed to do such a small-scale production as Neil Gaiman for Sky Arts...

“We don’t need that distraction at the moment. Also, we’d want to partner with the right people, because you would probably have a fantastic 12 months but then, once the excitement had worn off, I am sure people would want their pound of flesh.”

Crime wave is drama overkill

Sally Woodward Gentle: ‘I like crime drama but I do think that there’s too much.… I did four seasons of Whitechapel and, before that, I served my time on Waking the Dead.

‘There is something very reassuring about crime drama. You know where you are; the crimes get solved. You can have that vicarious thrill of crime.

‘But there are far too many that are too similar. There is a law of diminishing returns in certain types of story. Some of them are a little bit po-faced and don’t actually enjoy the genre enough.

‘There are some people who make crime drama because they know they can sell it but, actually, are slightly embarrassed about trying to make it about something.

‘They should just enjoy it as a genre. We wish we had a crime drama. We’ve just picked up Rag Doll, a book by a new author, pre-publication. We hope that it will be our crime drama.

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