Bulletproof was an immediate hit for Sky when it premiered in 2018 and has continued to build throughout its run; season three was up 40 percent on season two, and a fourth season is already in the works. But as star and producer Noel Clarke tells TV Drama, the show almost didn’t happen.
Long in the works, Bulletproof was conceived by Clarke and Top Boy star Ashley Walters at a coffee shop in London after a chance encounter at an awards show. “We just felt like we had been doing so well individually in our careers, we hadn’t crossed paths enough when it came to doing projects together,” Walters tells TV Drama. Clarke, who has his own production company, Unstoppable Film and Television, with fellow British actor and producer Jason Maza, began pitching the show far and wide. In the tradition of American movies like Bad Boys, a favorite of Clarke and Walters, it was to star the duo as detectives and best friends working to take down an assortment of dangerous criminals. “I was pounding the pavement,” Clarke says. “I sat in meetings where people would say to me, We’ll make it if it’s you and this person, and mention white actors. I would be like, No, this show is going to be Ashley and me, or it’s never going to get made. The kind of person I am, it had to be that way, or it’s no way.”
Clarke did finally find a receptive partner in Vertigo Films. The British indie had been well known for its signature film work, including The Football Factory, Pusher and The Sweeney. “We were making a big move into TV and various broadcasters were courting us,” Allan Niblo, co-founder, tells TV Drama.
“Allan called and said, ‘Remember that idea for you and Ashley? Do you still have it?’” Clarke recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah I still have it because no one will make it!’ He said, ‘If you guys come in with us, we can get this over the line.’ I spoke to Ashley, he said, let’s try them.”
Vertigo set out pitching the show to U.K. broadcasters and “Sky came back most enthusiastically,” Niblo says. “We had a deal within weeks and were off to the races.”
Season three recently wrapped its run on Sky in the U.K. and last week premiered on The CW in the U.S., with NBCUniversal Global Distribution having notched up deals for the show in several other markets. While seasons one and two encompassed eight episodes each, the third season had a limited run of three episodes—and sees the show take the action to South Africa.
“We were plotting season three, but both of us had filming commitments,” Clarke says. “It was either wait for [Ashley’s show] to finish or squeeze in another shorter version. Thank god we didn’t decide to wait because corona hit.”
The pair knew they wanted the shortened season to film outside the U.K. “Ashley and I originally chose Hong Kong or Japan because we wanted a real fish-out-of-water thing, and then logistics didn’t make that happen. We went through the list of places, as you do. And South Africa came up. Everyone [agreed]—not me, I was outvoted!—and we ended up in South Africa.”
The experience was enriching, personally and creatively, Walters says. “It was just a beautiful place, and we quickly realized it would become another character for this season. Production-wise, everywhere you look is good enough to shoot. We had to come up with some good stories and put some effort into acting, but a lot of the work was done by just being there. We learned a lot from that experience as well; about each other, about not taking the good things that happen in your life for granted. There is a lot of poverty over there, a lot of hardship, racism and segregation between the rich and the poor. And no matter what, you saw smiles on people’s faces. That taught me a lot, my family a lot, my kids a lot. I think Noel got the same thing from it as well. We were enlightened together; it was amazing. And it did wonders for the show. We used our environment to tell a really good story.”
Production wrapped “the day before lockdown started,” Niblo says, and the Vertigo team quickly moved to set up a remote postproduction process. “My instinct from the start was, of course, we can do it! Whether it’s shipping monitors around to check the grade or getting special headphones and sets that allow you to check mixes online. There was a lot less sitting around the edit suite talking about various cuts—that was all passed around digitally as well. It wasn’t that hard, to be honest. Some people miss the traditional method, but you can make it work. Ultimately, I don’t think the quality was affected at all by it.”
As for what makes the show work, the dynamic between Clarke’s Aaron Bishop and Walters’ Ronnie Pike Jr. is critical. Whereas their characters have been friends for years, Clarke and Walters were only casual acquaintances before the show started production. “The first time we ever spent more than two days together, more than a full day together, was the first day of the shoot or maybe a rehearsal day,” Clarke says. “We never were in each other’s proximity. The time we spent in the coffee shop creating the show was the most time we had ever spent together. It was interesting to get to know each other and realize that we had a lot in common, contrary to even our popular beliefs. We had the same sort of humor, the same mentality and attitude toward certain things. I learn a lot from Ashley about how considered he is when he thinks about things. I think Ashley has learned from me when sometimes I’m more instinctual. Those elements are also in the characters. We barely row. In the three years we’ve been doing the show, we may have had two disagreements that lasted half a day and then after that it’s, ‘Bruv, you annoyed me.’ ‘You annoyed me!’ And then it’s done. We have this relationship where we can, like the characters, talk to each other. I can call him and say, I love you, you know? As Black men, you’re conditioned to side-eye each other; you’re conditioned to battle. It’s crabs in a barrel. It’s like Highlander—‘there can be only one.’ And actually, with a lot of the stuff that we’ve done and the doors we’ve opened, we’ve broken that down.”
Walters adds, “If we weren’t able to have that closeness off-camera, I don’t think the show would be as good as it is. As much as we have a brilliant team around us helping create the show, a lot of the magic you see on the screen—a lot of the words, the lines, the feeling—comes from us. It comes from a lot of the stuff that we work on off-camera. That’s what resonates. As Noel said, you don’t see the so-called ‘bromance’ or whatever you want to call it between two men too much on the screen, especially in the U.K. The ability to share, to be humble, to practice humility without feeling humiliated. That’s what Bishop and Pike do well.”
As for how much the U.K. industry has progressed since Clarke’s early struggles to get a show with two Black leads picked up, Walters says: “It’s happening, but probably not fast enough.” And the Bulletproof team is actively working toward the progress, ensuring that it gives opportunities to BAME talent behind and in front of the camera.
Niblo, Walters and Clarke are all also riding the wave of the streaming revolution. For Vertigo Films, in particular, the SVOD operators provide a range of opportunities to tell stories that U.K. broadcasters haven’t been willing to take a risk on. “We were making a lot of movies and were approached by all the broadcasters, saying, ‘You’re reaching an audience we can’t reach, a young male audience, we want you to make TV series.’ We started submitting ideas we liked that were similar to our movies, and it always came back: This is too genre, too action-packed, too violent. The SVODs came along and said, We want to do genre, we want to do action, we want to deal with difficult subject matter in a provocative way. It’s a radically different environment, where you can be as bold and cinematic and challenging as you want.”
The arrival of well-funded streamers is also pushing broadcasters to partner more, Clarke adds. “TV is becoming a lot like film now in terms of people being more willing to do co-productions. So you’ll get stuff like Industry, which is HBO and BBC. Why did it take HBO to come up with a show like that, and BBC then says, We’ll partner on it? It’s young and vibrant and sexy. We could have done that! Everyone was safe in their bubble, but as Allan said, once the SVODs got involved, it’s put up or shut up. You need to step up, or you’ll be out of the game. Everyone is being forced to step up, which I love. Netflix was the first; it’s the best thing that happened to television. If they didn’t change the game the way they did, we would still be struggling for work.”
With a proliferation of platforms hungry for scripted content, Vertigo is continuing to expand its television slate. “We’re shooting four shows this year, two to be announced, and making a movie as well,” Niblo says. “We have a slate of top projects that have been carefully curated and developed. We’re in early negotiations with all the players. It’s a really exciting time. We’ve always made our films based on what audiences want, not what’s going to get a red carpet award. It’s all about understanding audiences. Our very first films, Human Traffic and The Football Factory, had very distinct audiences. We’re trying to find those audiences in TV as well because they’re underserved.”
In addition to his on-screen work, Clarke continues to develop projects at Unstoppable, which since 2018 has been a part of All3Media. Recent hits include The Drowning on Channel 5, and there’s much more in the works. “We’re planning to work with Vertigo and with Ashley. I’m about to send Ashley five potential projects that we can work on with his company. We just got a greenlight on something else. There are four other things picked up in development. I’m just trying to create content that can benefit as many people as possible and entertain people like Ashley and I like to be entertained.”
Walters’ current schedule includes season four of the iconic Top Boy, details about which he can’t reveal, other than, “We’re nearly finished! That’s as much as I can give you. And I haven’t got a clue when it’s coming out. We’re pushing forward with our next season of Bulletproof, and we’re just happy we had the reception to the specials that we did. I’m constantly pinching myself every day that it started with this little idea that Noel and I had and we’re sitting here now talking to you about it, looking to go into season four. It’s amazing for me. I just hope everyone enjoys it. It’s one of those shows you can watch over and over again. My 4-year-old son the other day said he wants to be Pike. He doesn’t want to be me; he wants to be Pike. For me, that’s job done!”