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Drama rises at Fremantle

New series to debut at Mip

FremantleMedia Enterprises is moving in an edgier direction.

Having made its name with reality tentpoles like “X Factor” and the “Idol” franchise, teen soaps like “Neighbours” and home craft icons like Martha Stewart and Jamie Oliver, Fremantle has established a relationship with British screenwriter Paul Abbott, creator of the subversive blue-collar drama “Shameless,” which first aired in the U.K. on Channel 4, and has been adapted in a U.S. version for Showtime.

The hookup is part of a push to add drama and limited-run series and event minis to Fremantle’s mix. English-language writers like Abbott are particularly valuable because of their international sales potential in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia, says David Ellender, the company’s global CEO.

“We wanted to work with the best in those markets,” he says.

Ellender started talking to Abbott three years ago, at the time the scribe was setting up his U.K. home-based shingle, Abbott Vision. “When I heard that Paul was creating a writing studio, I leapt at the opportunity,” Ellender says.

In 2009, the two agreed to a first-look deal that gave Fremantle the first option on global program sales and home entertainment rights for shows created by the startup.

Abbott, the seventh of eight children from a broken home, comes from the naturalistic tradition of working-class British smallscreen drama. His characters are perhaps best epitomized by the down-and-out alcoholic Frank Gallagher (played by William H. Macy in the American adaptation) of “Shameless.”

The first fruits of the Fremantle Abbott Vision collaboration, “Exile,” will be available to international buyers for the first time at the Mip sales mart, which bows April 4.

Mixing thriller with family psychodrama, the three-part series turns on the intense and troubled relationship between a father and son re-united after many years apart. The old man (played by Jim Broadbent) suffers from Alzheimer’s, and his son (John Simm) has hit the skids. The show is set in the rain-sodden north of England, Abbott’s usual hunting ground. Casual sex and recreational drug use abound.

In other words, “Exile” is a universe away from Ramsay Street, the setting of the sudsy “Neighbours.”

“In common with a lot of my work, ‘Exile’ is subversive,” Abbott says. “You can mask it as a thriller, but not far from the surface, there is all this other stuff going on. You have to train people to look for the extra layers.”

While the idea for “Exile” came from Abbott, the script was written by one of his collaborators, Danny Brocklehurst, who also worked with Abbott on “Shameless,” among other shows.

“I create good concepts and I refuse to believe they can only be written by me,” Abbott says.

Ellender acknowledges that Fremantle isn’t expecting “Exile” or any of the other Abbott Vision pieces to sell in 100-plus markets. “Those days are gone,” he says. “But I will be very happy if we can sell Paul’s pieces into 10 to 15 markets internationally.”

Ellender says that while the biz continues to be challenging, broadcasters are looking for unique pieces to plug into their schedules.

“We’ve already had a lot of interest because of Paul’s past success,” he adds.

The second Abbott Vision drama for Fremantle sounds even less mainstream than “Exile.” About to go into pre-production, the six-part “Hit and Miss” revolves around the story of a transsexual hit man.

Again, the idea came from Abbott, but the script was written by another collaborator, Sean Conway.

While “Exile” was commissioned by the BBC, “Hit and Miss” will air in the U.K. on BSkyB’s new channel, Sky Atlantic, alongside high-end fare such as HBO series and “Mad Men.”

Abbott appreciates being in that kind of company.

“We haven’t got channels like HBO and Showtime in the U.K.,” he says. “Sky Atlantic may become it. We’ve been praying for that.”

And he is clearly delighted that “Shameless” has, against the odds, succeeded in the U.S.; the recent first-season finale registered 1.45 million viewers, according to Nielsen. After four weeks, the skein is Showtime’s top-performing freshman drama, outpacing the starts of “Dexter,” “Dead Like Me,” “The Tudors” and “The L Word.”

Fremantle now has a total of eight first-look deals with U.K. producers, plus two in the U.S., with Tollin Prods. and Landscape Entertainment.

Other U.K. titles include period drama “The Crimson Petal and the White,” made by Origin Pictures, which focuses on a socially ambitious Victorian prostitute; and ITV Studios thriller “The Reckoning,” starring Ashley Jensen.

Ellender said that 17 pilot scripts have been sold to 12 U.S. cable webs.

Additionally, filming has just wrapped on a pilot for TBS made by Tollin, “The Wedding Band,” about friends who form a band to play at another friend’s wedding.

It is too early to tell if Fremantle’s deal with Abbott Vision will be renewed when it expires next year, but if “Exile” gains traction at Mip, the relationship may prove too valuable to sever.

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