Juliette Howl, one of the top minds at Working Title Productions shares her insights into today's television audience.
Working Title, the most successful UK film producer of the past two decades, is a name familiar to cinemagoers from the credits of movies ranging from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Shaun of the Dead and The Big Lebowski. However, on Boxing Day the Working Title brand will appear in the credits of a British television drama for the first time, when The Borrowers airs on BBC1.
The Borrowers is the first production to reach the small screen from Working Title Television, the spin-off launched 18 months ago with Juliette Howell at its head to bring the company’s expertise in scripted content to broadcasting.
What you first notice about the sleek London offices of Working Title Television are the giant international posters of films such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Not surprising, as the company is a joint venture between Working Title and its parent company, the Comcast-owned media giant NBC Universal. It was set up in February 2010 to provide what NBC Universal International’s president, Pete Smith, called an “international drama pipeline”.
The brand names of NBC and Working Title give the chic and petite Howell a calling card many other independent TV producers may envy. Her own credentials are not too shabby either, with credits during her time as drama commissioner and head of development for Film4 including Slumdog Millionaire and Shameless.
She was hired when WTT was set up last February, with offices in London and Los Angeles. In the ensuing 18 months the company has picked up three major BBC commissions: The Borrowers, an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s first world war love story Birdsong, and an improvised drama serial from Dominic Savage called Love Life, whose cast will include stars such as Billie Piper and David Tennant.
Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama commissioning, is full of praise for Working Title’s first forays into TV, saying the company has brought a “filmic edge” and “epic quality” to productions such as The Borrowers and Birdsong.
Working Title’s films have often struck a chord – from the rise of the thirtysomething singleton (Bridget Jones), to the vagaries of modern celebrity (Notting Hill). Howell is hoping to achieve something similar with the new adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers – an apt title considering the impact of the recession and the Eurozone debt crisis – which features Stephen Fry, Victoria Wood and Christopher Eccleston.
“With The Borrowers, here is a family who is suffering, they can’t even afford Christmas. These things have a resonance,” she says. “However, I also do think people want escapism at the moment, but not empty-headed escapism.”
Which is one of the reasons why WTT is also developing a drama about the French revolution. “One of the things that is interesting about the French revolution is how it came about in a time of economic crisis. If people can find things they recognise then that helps,” she says.
Howell, whose education included a stint at the Sorbonne in Paris, adds: “The French revolution is fascinating subject matter, so it’s an opportunity to look at history but also have a romp through it as well. And I think people want a diversion during grim times.”
Also on the cards for the BBC, Howell reveals, is a drama series based on Bletchley Park – the home of the Enigma code-breaking project during the second world war.
The drama focuses on the comings and goings around the Buckinghamshire town during the period. She sees Bletchley as another programme for the recession years: “This is a series that will make us feel good about our own history and show how there were some incredibly inspiring stories and fun to be had despite the darkness of the times. What’s interesting about that place is there were so many people from all walks of life. It also works internationally as there were US soldiers there.”
Even though it has NBC’s big-name backing, setting up a new drama company in a period when budgets are tight in TV was still a risk. “We never imagined we would have quite so many things go into production,” admits Howell. “The good thing is we’ve not been pigeonholed because the projects’ subject matter are so different. Although they are all for the BBC, they couldn’t be more different.”
Howell, who started out in TV as a BBC script editor in 1996, accepts the market is more difficult these days: “When I started out there was no such thing as co-production money. Now you may not even start with a UK broadcaster. That’s why having a US office makes sense.
“We have a close relationship with the LA office, although we’re run separately. Obviously we talk all the time and there are things we join up on. Some of those things are about how we change formats, or asking is something an international project.”
Howell gives as an example the French revolution drama, which WTT will “probably set up as a joint venture from the outset”, even though it is being developed out of the London office.
When WTT was first set up, there were suggestions that it could turn some of Working Title’s film content such as Bridget Jones into TV series, not necessarily for the UK but for the international market. Howell is not averse to recycling, but says the main focus at the moment is on creating new content: “I’d never dismiss that as a possibility. There are some details that would have to be worked out but you can see how they would work for television,” she adds.
“The amazing Working Title films are an incredibly important part of who we are but what I think is interesting is expanding that brand. We don’t want people to think, of course, they’re just part of the film company – and while that’s really important it’s about doing new stuff as well.”
The other bonus for Howell of having an LA office is it can channel programmes that could also work in the UK. The company’s US arm is working on a science fiction drama that Salman Rushdie has penned for Showtime called The Next People.
WTT also gives its parent company an outlet for ideas that might work better on TV. Birdsong began as a feature but now is a two-part drama and Howell thinks it works better in that form.
Regarding other UK broadcasters, the upbeat Howell says WTT has “a lot of things in”, including three series with new writers in development at Channel 4.
For the moment WTT is sticking to drama and comedy, not trying other genres. “Never say never. But we started in one place and we want to get that right and focus on what we are doing there.”
It has, as Howell puts it, been a “whirlwind but very positive” start for WTT. But what of the future? She cites developing new writers as important and says: “Like everyone, we’re looking to find long-running series. Almost every writer gets asked when they go in to see production companies if their ideas can be made into one. We’re looking for international appeal, and quality and commercial [potential], the same sort of values the film company has.”