American sees Brit TV with fresh eyes

Living in the U.K., Caryn Mandabach fashions mobster skein

American TV comedy producer Caryn Mandabach, whose credits include “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne,” “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “That ’70s Show” and “Nurse Jackie,” is producing a period gangster drama in Blighty, where she’s lived for the past seven years.

Footage from the miniseries, “Peaky Blinders,” will be shown for the first time at TV mart Mipcom, where distrib Endemol will kick off international sales.

The skein charts the battle between a police chief — played by Sam Neill, in England’s second largest city, Birmingham — and one of the four families who control crime in the city, with Cillian Murphy cast as one of the main villains, against a backdrop of trade union conflict and communist agitation.

Mandabach says it uncovers a secret history of early 20th-century England, one populated by gangsters and revolutionaries — a far cry from the England of “Downton Abbey.”

It helps to have a fresh pair of eyes when viewing British society, she says. “I have no preconceived notions. I have child’s eyes, like the Buddha says you should have,” she says with a laugh.

Mandabach rejects the notion that the series reps a shift in direction for her. Despite its Emmy classification as a comedy, “Nurse Jackie” has a lot of dramatic elements in it, Mandabach points out. “(“Peaky Blinders”) didn’t seem much of a transition to me,” she says, “and telling sagas — you know, long-running arcs about relationships, especially ones with a family at the center — struck me as not terribly different. I’d already been doing it for 25 years.”

The show, which was greenlit by the BBC, was created by Steven Knight, who penned Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.” Mandabach’s U.K.-based shingle, Caryn Mandabach Prods., is producing alongside Tiger Aspect Prods.

Mandabach hasn’t turned her back on dedicated comedy, though. She produces a family sitcom for the BBC, “In With the Flynns,” which was created by Simon Nye, who worked with her on the U.S. version of his 1990s sitcom “Men Behaving Badly.”

Nor has she cut her ties with Hollywood. As well as producing “Nurse Jackie,” which Showtime reupped for a fifth season in May, Mandabach has several projects in development with U.S. networks and cablers, including Fox and HBO.

In fact, Mandabach sees her Hollywood experience as perhaps providing an advantage for her in the U.K.

“In the U.S., we are used to long-running series,” she says. “We don’t talk in terms of if we are going to be re-commissioned. We assume if it is good, we are going to be re-commissioned, and we design the show at the beginning to last. It is part of our DNA to architect the original show with the possibilities inherent necessary for a long-runner.”

However, Mandabach also see inherent advantages in the Brit biz, as well. In the U.K., producers retain ownership of their shows, and can reap the benefits of international exploitation. And finding funding improves with the territory planning to introduce a generous tax credit for high-end dramas next year.

“It has just gotten better for people who are well-meaning and not just doing it for financial gain; people who respect the system,” she says. “It is an important and thriving industry here, whereas in America, you end up working for a very large corporation and getting a whole bunch of money, but you don’t actually control the rights, and you don’t have the satisfaction of saying what you want to say.”

Mandabach sees room for expansion of the production biz in Blighty, but she’s not limiting herself to one territory. She’s hired Beatrice Springborn, who formerly worked as a production executive at Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla, to help drive the company’s international business, developing long-running genre-based and book-based series that can be set up in any territory.

Mandabach says she most values Springborn’s roots in the world of independent film. “She has a background in putting together financing for independent features, and television is becoming increasingly like the independent feature model, insofar as no network here is going to fully fund anymore, especially at the high end. So it is very important that we make friends in the financial community.”

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