Writer of gritty dramas sheds light on Mary, Joseph and co.
British TV exec Tony Jordan is looking forward to a very merry Christmas.Jordan, the closest the local biz gets to a U.S.-style showrunner, has written and exec- produced a new version of “The Nativity” after a year’s research in which he consulted faith experts and historians. It airs as four half-hour episodes on BBC1 and as a 90-minute telefilm on Canada’s CBC this week. What can a scribe better known for soap opera, gritty urban drama and high-concept crime bring to a religious tale set more than 2,000 years ago in the Middle East? At the heart of “The Nativity,” Jordan says, is a simple human drama: how two people met, fell in love and dealt with some extraordinary events. “If your partner came home and said ‘I’m pregnant, but don’t worry, it’s God’s,’ I doubt that you’d say, ‘Oh, blessed am I!’ So, my Joseph doesn’t; he sees it as a genuine betrayal,” Jordan says. “I’ve dealt with that and other aspects of the story realistically and honestly.” Alongside that central strand, there is also the story of the wise men and the shepherds. Jordan had some questions about them. “So who were they? Where did they come from?” he asks. “And why would they travel a thousand miles following a star?” As the narrative unfolds, he has sought to answer those questions. “The idea being that by the time you get to the end of the piece, in the stable with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, you know who each is and, more importantly, why they are there.” Jordan came late to TV. He was 32 and working selling produce in a street market when he tried to peddle his first script to the BBC in 1989. The pubcaster turned it down, but recognized his talent and attached him to its blue-collar soap “EastEnders,” where he quickly rose to head writer. He went on to co-create hits including sci-fi cop series “Life on Mars,” remade in the States for ABC, and slick conmen skein “Hustle,” which is in its seventh season. “The Nativity” is produced by Jordan’s Red Planet, which he set up three years ago to have more control over productions. “As a writer and show creator, I was generally executive producer, but it was kind of a vanity title: There was always what you might call a ‘real’ executive producer from the production company or the broadcaster, and they had the final word,” he says. Now Jordan has the control to ensure high creativity and production values. “What I am trying to do is what I’ve always tried to do: to set the world on fire. I want to do shows that are ground-breaking, smart and have some kind of creative integrity to them. I’ve got no wish to turn out crap for no money.” Next up is Caribbean-set detective thriller series “Death in Paradise,” a co-production with France’s Atlantique Prods., greenlit by the BBC and Gallic pubcaster France Televisions. Jordan says that co-productions are the future for ambitious companies like his, as local broadcasters have become reluctant to pay for expensive dramas. “It’s the only way to get a show made and maintain high-production values,” he says. “You have to spread your wings a bit and find like-minded people to fully fund shows and to make them properly.” With Red Planet, one of Jordan’s intentions was to create “a kind of United Artists for writers,” and one of his first acts was to set up a competition for up-and-coming scribes. “There is a very small pool of A-list writers (in the U.K.), and the broadcasters are all chasing the same people,” he says. “So as we are genuinely writer-led at Red Planet, it seemed to make perfect sense to try to find the next generation of writers.” The company selects 30 to 40 scribes from the competition each year and then nurtures them and develops relationships with them. It was out of that process that “Death in Paradise,” written by Robert Thorogood, emerged. Another way that Jordan tries to create and develop new drama formats is via writers’ retreats, where small groups of scribes brainstorm ideas. “Life on Mars,” co-created by writers Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, came out of a retreat to the English seaside resort of Blackpool that Jordan organized for super indie Kudos, a frequent collaborator. “The beauty of having an idea in a room with three or four very clever writers is that you pick it to pieces and attack it from every angle, so what you come out with is much stronger, and can withstand anything the broadcaster can throw at it,” Jordan says. Next on Jordan’s to-do list is to extend his company’s reach into new genres. Red Planet produced its first fact-based series last year, “History Cold Case,” and is now developing a kids’ series. Plans to produce a movie version of “Hustle” have been shelved for now. “It is tough when the show is still running, because you have to leave the characters more or less where they are. You can’t kill any of them, because they’ve got to appear the next (season). I think (a movie) is something for when ‘Hustle’ finishes on TV,” he says. However, Jordan does plan to turn his attention to moviemaking eventually. “Film is a natural progression for me,” Jordan says. “At the moment, I have immersed myself in television, and it is where my passion lies, but I’d love just to set a few years aside and concentrate on writing two or three movies.”