British TV dramas in rewrite

'Wallander' offers new model in tough times

LONDON — Is the new high-end British TV drama “Wallander” the start of a turnaround for smallscreen fiction in the U.K. — or the last of a dying breed?

The answer is certain to have an impact on the shape of U.K. TV schedules in the months ahead as budgets tighten and broadcasters look for more cost-effective fare.

“There is so much real-life drama in today’s schedules — in sport, in reality shows like ‘X Factor’ — that it is getting harder and harder for us and the BBC to launch new drama,” says Michael Grade, executive chairman of commercial web ITV. “It is hard for scripted drama to match that emotional drain you get from these big events. Fictional storytelling is still what singles out British TV for its excellence, but dramas get harder and harder to launch.”

In the U.K., as the advertising famine threatens to make further inroads into program budgets, blue-chip drama is coming under increasing pressure to justify itself on such ad-funded webs as ITV and Channel 4.

And as the economic crisis worsens, producers fear that more money will be diverted from upscale drama and to event TV like sports, factual entertainment and reality.

ITV, Blighty’s biggest terrestrial private web, invests more than $450 million a year in U.K. drama, but chief operating officer John Cresswell, looking for new economies, recently hinted that this sum may soon be reduced.

His head of drama, Laurie Mackie, warns: “The economic picture affects all of us and we have to think very, very hard about how we spend our money. We have to make sure our commissions are carefully judged and that we get value for money from producers.”

Her opposite number at the BBC, outgoing fiction topper Jane Tranter, last month said that TV drama budgets were at the breaking point.

She said: “There’s really not much more we can cut without endangering not just the quality of the work, but also the quality of the lives of the people who work on these things.”

But, arguably, “Wallander,” which bowed Nov. 30 on the BBC’s flagship service, BBC 1, provides a textbook example of how shrewd financing models can be forged to create a high-quality, standout show that pleases auds and critics.

The buzz surrounding the program about a disheveled, Swedish, pizza-munching crimebuster (played by Kenneth Branagh) was, to say the least, unusually upbeat as U.K. reviewers backed “Wallander” unanimously.

“This distinctly superior cop show is both spare and suggestive, and brilliantly acted,” wrote the Times critic Andrew Billen.Budgeted at $5 million apiece, the first of three 90-minute “Wallander” shows defied skeptics like ITV’s Grade by grabbing a hefty slice of the ratings against tough competition — 6.2 million viewers and a 24% share.

If these kind of figures can be sustained, “Wallander,” based on Henning Mankell’s bestselling novels that have been adapted into feature films for Scandinavian auds since 1994, will more than justify its investment.

The remarkable thing about the new show is that it is a co-production involving U.K., U.S., German and Swedish coin via the BBC, WGBH Boston, ARDDegeto and Film i Skane.

“Co-prods have a reputation for being one big muddle and dreadful creative compromises, but ‘Wallander’ shows decisively that this is no longer the case,” says Andy Harries, CEO of Left Bank Pictures, who made the show with Yellow Bird and Branagh’s own shingle TKBC.

“As money gets tighter TV drama has to adopt funding mechanisms that are more akin to how feature films are financed.”

Of course having Branagh on board helped, but there is a growing conviction in British production circles that if TV types want to get their projects made they will have to think laterally about how the money is stitched together.

“TV drama can no longer be financed from one or two sources,” insists Kenton Allen, joint CEO of U.K. shingle Big Talk. “These days multiple investment partners are certainly as applicable to the world of TV as they are to movies.”

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