It could be said that Jack and Harry Williams, sons of a producer and a TV writer, have television in their blood. Jack started as a sitcom writer. Harry had a brief career as an actor before writing his own comedy. They then began writing together, comedies first and then dramas. The Missing, for BBC One and Starz, won critical acclaim. Jack and Harry set up their own production company, fittingly called Two Brothers Pictures, which is part of all3media. The duo is among the most sought-after writer-producer teams in the U.K. They talk to TV Drama about their shows premiering this season and in development, including Liar for ITV and SundanceTV, Rellik for BBC One and Cinemax and White Dragon for ITV.
TV DRAMA: Was comedy writing your first foray into the television business?
HARRY WILLIAMS (HW): Yes, we were both writing sitcoms separately and then we eventually said let’s try to help each other write each other’s sitcoms; maybe they will end up funnier. That didn’t work out because they didn’t end up that much funnier. We did that for eight years, still under the delusion that people might find the stuff funny, but they didn’t. So we wrote The Missing, which is as funny as most of the sitcoms we had written, but it seemed to work better. Now we don’t write comedy; we just produce it with actually funny people like Phoebe [Waller-Bridge]. But yes, comedy is where we started. It’s a very hard thing to do and get right.
TV DRAMA: You mentioned Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of Fleabag. Tell us about Fleabag. Was that the impetus to set up your own production company?
JACK WILLIAMS (JW): I think the impetus to set up our company was years of failure, which was partly our fault, but we like to own our own failure a bit more. You can write stuff, but how it ends up on-screen—how it’s cast, who directs it, how it’s edited—is important to us. A little before that we had done an animated comedy called Full English, which you wouldn’t have heard of—because no one’s heard of it—[Channel 4] only showed half of it before it was pulled off the air. Fleabag was one of the first things we developed. We met Phoebe when she had just written a monologue, which she did as a one-woman show as stand-up. We said that would be a great TV show, let’s do it. She wrote it as a play first. It went to the Edinburgh Festival and did very well and that gave us the basis of how the TV show would work.
HW: For eight years we had seen our shows made and not come out quite right. Hopefully what we did with Phoebe was avoid all the pitfalls that we had encountered and made something that had high production values and all that good stuff that comedy should have.
TV DRAMA: How did the transition into drama come about?
JW: Desperation, despair.
TV DRAMA: Great motivators.
JW: Great motivators, they really are! We hadn’t worked for about three months.
HW: We were going to stop working together. Writing a sitcom in the U.K. is not great when you’ve got a family. It’s a hard life to sustain, so we were going to have to find other things to do.
JW: We had written a few comedy-drama things. We were watching a lot of serious dramas and we thought, we want to do that. So we went away and wrote The Missing. We went to France and wrote it on spec. We sent it to our agent and said this is terrible don’t tell anyone about it. But fortunately he liked it and that was that.
TV DRAMA: You have a new series, Liar. Tell us what it’s about.
JW: Liar is about a schoolteacher and a surgeon who meet on a date, and that night has disastrous consequences that change their lives forever. The central story is about liars and which one of the main characters is lying, but everyone in the show is lying to someone else in a different kind of way; we are exploring that theme. Liar premiered on ITV in September. TF1 did a prebuy. SundanceTV and AMC came in as co-producers.
TV DRAMA: Did SundanceTV have editorial say?
HW: Yes, they were involved from the very start, they and Polly [Hill, head of drama at ITV]. It was a very harmonious working relationship. It seemed to work out very well.
TV DRAMA: Do you mind having more cooks in the kitchen?
HW: We are writers, so we are used to getting lots of notes and lots of opinions. Our job as producers is to know which ones to listen to and which one to ignore. We’re used to it. Everything you do should be subject to criticism and questions and should be able to sustain that. Actually, the more questions you get, the better, and you should have an answer to them all, or at least an opinion as to why something does or doesn’t work.
TV DRAMA: How do you share the writing process? How do you decide where to put the twists and the turns and how much to reveal to the audience?
HW: The process is the two of us sitting in a room or a train or anywhere, talking about the idea and the characters and just doing that for as long as we can to know that we are on the same page and what the story is that we want to tell. In terms of the reveals, it always seems that the audience is smarter than we are because on the whole they probably are. They definitely are in Jack’s case. [Laughs] You have to do what’s right for the story, not hold things back or try to play games or be too tricky with it.
JW: And between the two of us, if we can surprise each other that normally means that we can surprise the people who are watching, hopefully. We share pretty much everything. There are some scenes that I write, but that evolves as we go along. When we have a script outlined and know all the story elements, the hope is we are fighting over which scene to write because they are all really good.
HW: Normally we cut a story in half, and one does one half, one does the other and then we swap it around. It’s quite clean.
TV DRAMA: What other shows are you working on?
JW: White Dragon is an eight-part conspiracy thriller that will air on ITV and starts shooting in Hong Kong in October. It’s about a professor whose wife worked in Hong Kong for half the year. He gets a call saying she has died in a car crash. He goes over to identify the body only to find that she is married to another man. And not only that, the man she is married to is an ex-policeman and the two of them have to have an awkward alliance to try to find out what actually happened to her, because obviously she didn’t just die in a car crash. We didn’t write White Dragon. Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood wrote it.
HW: And then there is The Widow, which we did write and is filming in South Africa at the beginning of next year.
TV DRAMA: You also have Rellik.
HW: Rellik is killer spelled backward because the story is told in reverse, which is a stupid thing for us to do because it’s really hard!
JW: It’s about a serial killer and the search for him. It’s also about this myriad of characters and the choices they make. Telling the story backward means you can tell a story about motive and why people do what they do. It’s trying to make motive the center of six reverse hours.