Boosting its position in the scripted business has been a key remit at Fremantle over the last few years. As the company’s director of global drama, Sarah Doole is involved with a broad array of projects across the globe, from German-language fare like Deutschland 86 and the Italian original My Brilliant Friend to the hit Australian project Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gurinder Chadha’s upcoming period epic Beecham House. Doole talks to TV Drama about the importance of fostering diverse voices and the need for projects to be authentic in order to break through in a cluttered landscape.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the projects you’re working on that you’re particularly excited about?
DOOLE: They are all fairly different and interestingly are across all the broadcasters in the U.K., but none are actually shot in Britain. They’re being shot around the world. I love that we’re opening windows on the world for the British audience through our storytelling, which fits in with what we hope we do at Fremantle with our dramas. We’re really busy with Beecham House, Gurinder Chadha’s big, epic family saga for ITV next spring. She is one of the leading female directors in the U.K. and we love her because she has a diverse voice, a point of view, she’s inspirational—truly a renaissance woman. She writes, produces and directs. She’d probably be in it if she could! [Laughs] She’s created this story, all set in the India of the late 1700s, a period we’ve never seen before on British television. The British and the French have arrived in India with the East India Company and they’re fighting over what they believe the spoils of India are going to be. Gurinder is keen to tell the story because we’ve always seen India through a colonial or post-colonial prism. We’ve not seen the idea that India already existed for millennia in its beauty and glory, and the Europeans came to spoil the party! Gurinder has re-created most of India at Ealing Studios, and now she’s off in India shooting in the real locations like the Red Fort. It’s a story that is accessible, fun and emotional.
We are filming Baghdad Central in Morocco for Channel 4. It’s a script by Stephen Butchard, and it’s the story of an Iraqi detective after the fall of Saddam. It shows Iraq of that time through an Iraqi perspective, which we’ve never seen before on television. It’s almost a standard detective story set against this fallen city. It’s really beautiful.
We have The Dublin Murders, [based on] the Tana French books, shooting in Dublin and Belfast, for BBC One. And then Taken Down is shooting in Dublin, for RTÉ and ARTE, and it’s a poignant story about the death of a young Nigerian migrant during the refugee crisis in Ireland. Again, it’s a viewpoint on the world that is unique.
And then our other big show for MIPCOM is My Brilliant Friend. We’re excited to actually have episodes to show. That’s our flagship, filmic, beautiful series, in Italian and Neopolitan. We’ve never seen 1950s Naples on an international stage.
TV DRAMA: How are you finding new, diverse voices?
DOOLE: That’s absolutely our driving force, and it comes from a pure creative ambition. We want to be the first to tell stories, not follow stories that have already been told. We particularly advocate for women’s voices behind, and in front of, the camera. Look at something like Picnic at Hanging Rock, which we did earlier in the year. We were determined that that would have a female director. It was nearly a wholly female production crew as well. And then we wanted a really strong actress in the lead role who also has a voice, and that was Natalie Dormer. We fought long and hard for that to happen. In the end, it was a beautiful piece, we sold it all around the world, and we were at the forefront of genuinely bringing women’s voices to the screen. You have to fight for it. I’m quite passionate about that; it’s really important to lead the way on it. And we’ve got brilliant men working with us as well!
TV DRAMA: What qualities does a drama need to cut through in the current environment?
DOOLE: The number one thing is authenticity. Viewers have a lot of choices. They want to experience a world that feels authentic and unique to them as they’re watching it. Gurinder’s show is filming in India, she’s from the Indian diaspora, it’s a story she wants to tell. My Brilliant Friend is authentic Naples of the ’50s. They scoured every antique and junk store in Naples! Everything on set is authentic to the period and the time. Same with Baghdad Central. We’re making it as authentic as we can. It’s difficult to shoot in Iraq, so we had to create downtown Baghdad in Morocco, but they speak Arabic in the show and there’s Arabic poetry in it. And the language doesn’t matter now. Audiences would rather it be authentic and watch it with subtitles than it feel manufactured and inauthentic. The fact that HBO is playing My Brilliant Friend in Italian and Neapolitan is a big milestone for us on our international journey. The other thing is, we just want to work with the best talent. Christian [Vesper, executive VP and creative director of global drama] and I spend a lot of time just meeting talent and saying, What’s the story you want to tell? Let’s help you tell it. You have to trust the talent and the creators and work with them to bring out their unique stories.
TV DRAMA: How is Fremantle mentoring new creatives to help them get to the point where they can run their own shows?
DOOLE: There are all sorts of ways of doing that. Noemi Spanos, creative director for Kate Harwood [at Euston Films], is exec producing her first show, Dublin Murders, under Kate’s mentorship. You have to believe in people and give them a go! I’m a believer in that. Usually they deliver and if they don’t, you help them along the way. People make mistakes. We all have. That’s part of the job and you learn from them. Laurence Bowen at Dancing Ledge runs a writer-in-residence program. He pays for a young writer to come in for three months to work with him and his development team and get a feel for how you put a pitch together and how you can take an idea and develop it so that it’s good enough and bold enough to take to the broadcasters. All of our companies and producers use different mechanisms, but they all are in search of the next great talent and they’re all focused on bringing on that next generation of talent.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the trends in the scripted space that most excite you?
DOOLE: I’m always excited about book IP. Penguin Random House is part of our family–we’re all owned by Bertelsmann—and I’m excited about how we can work with some of their big talents. It’s about taking a big book author—and therefore they’re a brand—but not necessarily doing a straight adaptation. An example of that is we’re working with Paulo Coelho, one of the biggest selling authors in the world. We haven’t optioned his books. We’re working with him to develop a TV show that isn’t a straight adaptation. It would have characters from his books and some of his own personal story, developed uniquely for television. That’s a really interesting trend for some of those big literary authors who are the world’s best storytellers. Their books might be the straightforward way of telling those stories, but there are more interesting or creative collaborations to have with them. That takes time and patience, but I think the rewards could be immense.
I think we’re ready for something breakout in sci-fi. For the last few years, genre has been a bit out of fashion and there’s room to do something really clever in that space. We’re working on that. Those genre pieces aren’t easy and they’re not quick to bring to market. But if you get it right, you’ve got a fan base. The skill here is how you keep a fan base of genre fans but extend to a broader audience. That’s an interesting creative challenge.
And there’s room for some feel-good stories. Life is quite grim at the moment for a lot of people. We shouldn’t forget that TV should be entertainment and escapism. I’m fortunate; I have a brilliant job that I love that is kind of my hobby as well. But a lot of people do things that they don’t enjoy. TV is really important to how they live their lives and their escapism and joy. Sometimes we get a bit hooked into thrillers, the girl in the ditch. We have to look for lighter ways of telling stories as well. We’re spending some time on development on that.
And I’m excited about telling stories in Africa. I think it’s completely underexposed and there are great writers and fantastic talent out there. That’s one of my passions, to see if we can tell the next big great entertaining story out of Africa.