EXCLUSIVE: Fleabag EPs Harry and Jack Williams have said they wanted to “go back to something simple and primal” with upcoming BBC series Boat Story, which comes at the back-end of an “era of peak TV when you start to feel every story is being told.”
Jack Williams joked that the storied writer-producers “didn’t turn the dial but feel we broke the dial” on the upcoming series, which is produced by the Williams’ All3Media-backed drama label Two Brothers Pictures and is a pivotal part of distributor All3Media International’s catalog at this week’s Mipcom Cannes.
The show stars a rotating cast of actors that the Williams’ have worked with over the years including Back to Life co-creator Daisy Haggard, Noughts + Crosses’ Paterson Joseph and Tchéky Karyo (The Missing), along with BAFTA-winner Joanna Scanlan. The offbeat thriller follows Janet (Haggard) and Samuel (Joseph) as they clutch on to a haul of illegal drugs found on a shipwrecked boat. The pair can’t believe their luck as they agree to sell the goods and split the cash, but on their tail is a sharp-suited gangster known as ‘The Tailor’ (Karyo).
“In an era of peak TV when you start to feel every story is being told we wanted to go back to something simple and primal, and tell a morality tale,” said Jack Williams. “This is one of the oldest premises in the book, the idea behind what people do when they discover a metaphorical pot of gold.”
Harry Williams said the show is a natural extension of two of the pair’s recent BBC series, The Tourist and The Missing, but takes an even more offbeat tone.
The brothers have carefully nurtured this offbeat reputation since being catapulted a decade ago via Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, which shifted the taste dial and ushered in a wave of off-center shows with dramatic elements, and the pair said offbeat is still in demand, evidenced by Boat Story.
“When we were developing Fleabag commissioners were saying ‘It’s a bit different and weird’ but after some persuasion we were suddenly hearing ‘Can we have something else like that?’,” added Jack Williams. “I think audiences are completely used to that style of humor and I don’t think anyone is bored by it. In many ways it has opened new avenues for types of shows and talent and that has coincided with the growth of streaming.”
Harry Williams praised the BBC for backing an “unusual show for them” in Boat Story and giving the brothers the lie of the land creatively.
Although the big-budget action sequences in Boat Story were kept to a minimum, the show was a creative challenge for the Williams’ not least because – bar a Channel 4 pilot titled The Revengers – it is the first they have directed.
Harry Williams said they would direct again “but only for the right thing.”
“This was a specific and unique tone so the best way to execute what was in our heads and not get it wrong was to go to Leeds for seven months and direct,” he added. “It was demanding on our time and energy in a very different way [to producing and writing] but satisfying to see something through on every level.”
The show was made with co-production money from Amazon Freevee and will air on the AVoD platform in the U.S. and Germany. Which Jack Williams said is reflective of the direction TV financing has headed in over the past few years.
“At the time the deal was struck we were less familiar with Freevee but then [Emmy-nominated reality-comedy] Jury Duty came out and Netflix was doing ads and suddenly we realized Freevee has a pretty good model,” he added. “They were always supportive of our tone.”
The creators took a universal approach to penning the show, which is set in a fictionalized version of the north of England, and Jack Williams said he hopes this universality will help All3Media broker more deals at Mipcom, akin to the way in which The Tourist proved popular globally.
“UK crew has got twice as expensive”
The pair were barely impacted by the recently-concluded U.S. writers strike but acknowledged it is an extremely tricky time for the global drama market, which could spell the end for the “era of peak TV.”
Jack Williams flagged the perfect storm of U.S. streamer and studio strife coupled with the recession and skyrocketing costs of UK crew.
“The studios have lost loads of money and streamers have been basically vanishing shows for tax reasons that can’t even be seen on DVD,” he added. “And UK crew has got twice as expensive in the past 18 months. It feels harder because we’re used to massive budgets but there is no longer one [network] funding the entire show, so it will be more difficult to make things particularly at the level people were making them.”
He countered: “But it’s happened before, and people shift and find new ways of doing things. TV had a good time taking advantage of huge budgets and that had to change.”
Boat Story is being sold at Mipcom and will air next year. The series is written by the Williams, who, alongside Christopher Aird (Baptiste), Sarah Hammond (Fleabag) and Daniel Walker (The Tourist), serve as executive producers for Two Brothers, with Tommy Bulfin and Nawfal Faizullah as executive producers for the BBC. Matthew Bird (Strangers) is producer, and Harry and Jack Williams directed block one. Alice Troughton directed block two and Daniel Nettheim directed block three.