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British talent offers creative spark to prestige series on US TV

PUBLISHED: 16:18 18 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:18 18 September 2018

Claire Foy as The Queen in the Netflix series The Crown

Claire Foy as The Queen in the Netflix series The Crown

The Emmy awards, America’s TV Oscars, rewarded a lot of British talent this week. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at how Britain has become a major player, not only in Hollywood but in US TV as well.

The scene in the Crown with The Queen (Claire Foy) dancing with  the ghana president Kwame Nkrumah. Picture: NETFLIXThe scene in the Crown with The Queen (Claire Foy) dancing with the ghana president Kwame Nkrumah. Picture: NETFLIX

In the early ‘80s writer/producer Colin Welland hoisted an Oscar aloft and cried: “The Brits are coming!” This was the Best Picture Oscar for Chariots of Fire and Welland’s cry of victory has proved increasingly prophetic over the years.

In the last four decades Hollywood has grown increasingly fond of British talent using not only actors and directors in their movies but shooting films in the UK and using our crews and studio facilities. Now, last night’s Emmy Awards ceremony has proved that American TV, that most insular of entertainment platforms, has also embraced British talent with a clutch of high profile awards.

Claire Foy, Thandie Newton, Matthew Rhys, Charlie Brooker and director Stephen Daldry all won major prizes as did the British-based and largely Brit-cast TV juggernaut Game of Thrones.

Kit Harington as Jon Snow, left, in a scene from Kit Harington as Jon Snow, left, in a scene from "Game of Thrones." Photo Helen Sloan/HBO via AP

Part of the reason for this is the way that prestige television has moved away from traditional TV networks to find a home on cable and streaming sites. Today the big players are more likely to be HBO, Hulu, FX, Netflix and Amazon rather than old stagers like CBS, ABC or NBC.

With the rise of cable and satellite technology television has gone high profile and big budget. Today’s most talked about dramas look more like long-form movies rather than traditional multi-camera, studio-bound talk-fests that TV dramas used to be. They also have the casts to go with them.

Even ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to have stars of the calibre of Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams, Susan Sarandon, John Travolta or Dustin Hoffman making TV dramas and yet now such casting doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

Emilia Clarke appears in a scene from Emilia Clarke appears in a scene from "Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO via AP

As Hollywood has become increasingly obsessed with ultra-high budget, special-effect-filled super-hero movies or high octane action films, television has become the natural home for what would have been mid-budget, character-driven films, movies that British cinema was always very good at delivering.

Now that a 90 minute movie can be spread over six (or more) episodes, it allows for greater character development and greater complexity/nuance in terms of plot.

As cinema and television have grown closer together in terms of technology and the production process it makes sense for Britain to provide talent, scripts and studio facilities.

Anthony Hopkins in WestworldAnthony Hopkins in Westworld

This blurring of the lines has resulted in last night’s Emmy successes. This is why huge series like Game of Thrones is shot here and a seemingly very British series like The Crown has become an international hit.

This is why a dark series like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror can be enjoyed all over the world and why British stars like Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are recruited to star in what appears to be an American series like The Affair. Similiarly programmes like Westworld, Black Sails, Penny Dreadful and Outlander all feature British cast and crew as well as British locations.

Britain is now a major provider of onscreen and backstage creative talent. Someone like Stephen Daldry can leap from the stage directing Billy Elliott, to cinema guiding The Reader and The Hours to Oscar glory, and now is picking up TV trophies for The Crown.

James Marsden as Teddy, 
Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in WestworldJames Marsden as Teddy, Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in Westworld

The production quality of independently produced series like Top of the Lake, A Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects has affected how domestic television is produced.

Dramas maybe thinner on the ground but the production quality is far better. Compare the quality of a show like Doctor Who. In the 1980s you would have been dazzled by the brightness of the lighting required for video production and disappointed by the shaky sets. Today the series looks and feels like a feature film. The same is true of period series like Endeavour, The Durrells, Poldark or Call The Mid-Wife. Tom Hardy’s series Taboo was really able to play with lighting to give the production a real sense of atmosphere. These series produced for domestic consumption are then sold and enjoyed all over the world.

As Killing Eve proves, the BBC are now entering into US-UK co-productions, premiering series abroad to great acclaim before screening them at home. Today television is an international business and British talent lies at the heart of a thriving creative economy.

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heugan in Outlander Photo: Channel 4Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heugan in Outlander Photo: Channel 4

TV’s Prestige Productions

Caitriona Balfe in Outlander Photo: Channel 4Caitriona Balfe in Outlander Photo: Channel 4

Game of Thrones (2011 - ongoing)

Based on the best-selling books of George R.R. Martin, this series follows nine noble families as they fight for control over the land of Westeros, while an ancient mythical enemy returns after being dormant for thousands of years. Stars: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Diana Rigg, Jonathan Pryce, Charles Dance, Sean Bean

Taboo (2017 - ongoing)

Adventurer James Keziah Delaney returns to London during the War of 1812 to rebuild his late father’s shipping empire. However, both the government and his biggest competitor want his inheritance at any cost - even murder. Stars: Tom Hardy, Jonathan Pryce, Jessie Buckley, Oona Chaplin, David Hayman.

Sharp Objects (2018- ongoing)

Recovering from a mental breakdown, reporter Camille Preaker faces a troubling assignment: she must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. For years, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful 13 year old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed in her old bedroom in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille finds herself identifying with the young victms - a bit too strongly. Dogged by her own demons, she must unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past if she wants to get the story - and survive this homecoming. Stars: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Elizabeth Perkins

Westworld (2016 - ongoing)

Westworld isn’t your typical amusement park. Intended for rich vacationers, the futuristic park allows its visitors to live out their most primal fantasies with the robotic “hosts.” However, the robotic hosts have evolved an artificial consciousness that is similar to, yet diverges from, human consciousness. No matter how illicit the fantasy may be, there are no consequences for the park’s guests, allowing for any wish to be indulged; but there is a price to be paid. Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Talulah Riley, Ben Barnes

Outlander (2014 - ongoing)

Follows the story of Claire Randall, a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown into an unknown world in which her life is threatened. When she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a passionate relationship is ignited that tears Claire’s heart between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives. Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Duncan Lacroix, Tobias Menzies

A Handmaid’s Tale (2017 - ongoing)

Based on Margaret Atwood’s best-seller, this tells the story of a religion-based autocracy which has taken over most of the United States, renaming the country Gilead. In this country women are second-class citizens. Anyone trying to escape is punished. One such person is June, who is captured while trying to escape with her husband and child and is sentenced to be a handmaid, bearing children for childless government officials. As a handmaid, June is renamed Offred. Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Max Minghella, Yvonne Strahovski

Top of The Lake (2013 - ongoing)

Obsessed with the disappearance of a 12-year-old pregnant girl near a freezing lake in New Zealand, a brave detective will find herself up against small-town secrets and a side of herself that was meticulously kept at bay. Stars: Holly Hunter, Nicole Kidman, Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan

Band of Brothers (2001)

This is the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division from their initial training starting in 1942 to the end of World War II. They parachuted behind enemy lines in the early hours of D-Day and again parachuted into action during Operation Market Garden. They also liberated a concentration camp and were the first to enter Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. A fascinating tale of comradeship. Stars: Damian Lewis, Scott Grimes, Michael Fassbender, Ron Livingston, Shane Taylor. Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

Sopranos (1999–2007)

New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life that affect his mental state, leading him to seek professional psychiatric counseling. This serial is presented largely first person, but additional perspective is conveyed by the intimate conversations Tony has with his psychotherapist. Stars: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Steven Van Zandt

Breaking Bad (2008–2013)

A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future. Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn

Penny Dreadful (2014–2016)

A glorious mash-up of all the Victorian Gothic horror tales as vampires meet Frankenstein’s monster and Dorian Grey entertains Dr Jekyll. Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, scientist Victor Frankenstein, and medium Vanessa Ives unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London. Stars: Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory.

Rome (2005–2007)

This historical drama follows the turbulent transition from Roman republic to autocratic empire, which changed world history through civil war and wars of conquest, is sketched both from the aristocratic viewpoint of Julius Caesar, his family, his adopted successor Octavian Augustus, and their political allies and adversaries, and from the politically naive viewpoint of a few ordinary Romans, notably the soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Stars: Ciarán Hinds, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Lindsay Duncan

True Blood (2008–2014)

Set in present day Louisiana, telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse encounters a strange new supernatural world when she meets the mysterious Bill. Vampires have revealed they roam the earth but are not a threat as a substitute has been found for human blood, True Blood, but rogue elements on both sides are ready to upset the uneasy truce. Stars: Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammell, Chris Bauer, Alexander Skarsgård, Deborah Ann Woll, Kristin Bauer van Straten

Mad Men (2007–2015)

A drama about one of New York’s most prestigious advertising agencies through the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm’s most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper.

His creative brilliance belies the fact of a troubled childhood, his outward confidence also masks many insecurities as evidenced through his many vices, such as excessive smoking, drinking and womanising. Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks

Black Sails (2014–2017)

Follows Captain Flint and his pirates twenty years prior to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island. The series centres on a group of pirates operating out of Nassau in the Bahamas. We meet characters from history - Captain Charles Vane, Governor Woodes Rogers, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny - plus characters from fiction - Captain Flint and, of course, Long John Silver. Stars: Jessica Parker Kennedy, Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold, Clara Paget

Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010–2013)

The inspiration behind this series is the Thracian Gladiator Spartacus, who led a slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Captured by Claudius Glaber, Spartacus is condemned to death as a Gladiator, whilst his wife Sura is condemned to slavery. Spartacus, however, proves to be a formidable fighter, and defeats the four gladiators tasked with executing him. He becomes a favorite of the crowd, leading Senator Albinius to commute his death sentence to a life of slavery. Spartacus is purchased by Batiatus for gladiator training, who promises to help him find Sura if he proves himself in training. Stars: John Hannah, Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless, Manu Bennett

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