A&E execs talk early and often to U.K. for classic co-productions

A correction was made to this article on Jan. 6, 2004.

With titles such as “Pride and Prejudice,” “Horatio Hornblower” and “Shackleton” as evidence, A&E’s success with its Brit co-productions is due to careful, time-consuming preparation.

Delia Fine, A&E’s VP of film, drama and performing arts, oversees many of these projects with her five-person department, and talks to her U.K. counterparts, be they at the BBC, Granada or Channel Four, early on. Discussions continue during development before A&E signs on. Fine also has her say on writers, cast and other talent.

“If you don’t have a shared vision, it can all end in tears,” says the net’s 15-year vet.

Jane Tranter, head of drama at the BBC, has worked with A&E for five years, beginning with “Lorna Doone.” Partnering with A&E has been crucial to the re-emergence of classic adaptations and not just for the financing that raises production values, she notes.

“We’ve been able to make them (classic adaptations) to a certain standard. It’s critical to engage audiences. There is the shared desire of BBC and A&E to make classics accessible to audiences, books that most people wouldn’t think of taking off shelves and reading.”

Michele Buck, controller of drama at ITV’s London Weekend Television, has worked with A&E for five years on projects including the “Horatio Hornblower” series and Agatha Christie mysteries.

“It’s not like we take American money and run away,” she says about the partnership. “During production we talk every week about casting, about rushes.”

The series Buck greenlights are not necessarily with an eye toward the U.S.

“Co-productions have to benefit both sides, have to serve both masters and not feel grafted on,” Buck says.

The amount of coin each company contributes to the project differs, but Fine won’t go into specifics.

Fine takes pride in the net’s role in raising the profile of thesps such as Colin Firth (“Pride and Prejudice”), Kate Beckinsale and Samantha Morton (“Emma”). However, not all their co-productions are what Tranter calls “bonnets and bows.” The upcoming “Pride,” from the BBC, is a coming-of-age tale by Simon Nye about lions in Africa. Docu, directed by John Downer, includes the voices of Sean Bean, Helen Mirren and Kate Winslet.

“The Last King” (“Charles II” in the U.K.) is based in the 17th century, a turbulent period in British history.

Fine says A&E rarely imposes casting choices based on American preferences, although they did suggest Peter Falk for the role of the Rev. Theo Kerr in “Lost World.”

“You just can’t force that,” Fine says of the casting process. “You don’t want to violate the integrity of the project.”

While most of these projects are co-productions, BBC’s “MI-5″ started out as a pickup for the American net. ” ‘MI-5′ was on our radar,” Fine says, but the Beeb had only ordered six episodes. Once viewers responded, the Brits ordered 10 episodes and A&E stepped in as a co-producer.

Tranter says the project, called “Spooks” in the U.K., happened very quickly. “I read the script and commissioned it in hours. We didn’t search for a partner. A&E looked at it and decided to come in, but it was already in the can.”

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