Monday, 14 March 2011

Interview: Ben Richards, writer/creator of 'Outcasts'

Monday, 14 March 2011

Ben Richards wrote for BAFTA-winning spy drama Spooks, before creating the political drama Party Animals and ITV's hitman thriller The Fixer. Most recently, he made the sci-fi drama Outcasts, which completed a turbulent eight-part run on BBC1 last night. It was a show that garnered very mixed reviews, although some of the critical hostility softened as the series progressed. However, after ratings halved from the premiere's 4.8m after a few weeks, the BBC were forced to shunt it from weekday primetime to late-night Sundays for its final three episodes. I got in touch with Mr Richards to put a few questions to him about Outcasts; from its conception and creation, to the disappointing audience reaction...

DAN OWEN: Briefly talk us through the origin of Outcasts: was it all your idea, or was it a project you took on that Kudos Productions wanted to pursue? And what did you intend to achieve with it?

BEN RICHARDS: Outcasts started as an idea about pioneers. I had been reading a lot about the colonisation of Australia and Virginia and really wanted to do a pioneer drama. The sci-fi element came later as we thought about doing it in the future rather than the past and having our settlers on another planet. Law and order is obviously a critical element of frontier settlements and that was where the idea for Protection and Security came from.

How did the writing process work? Did you come up with the entire eight-part storyline and assign individual episodes to other writers? Or was there more collaboration with other writers than people expect from the UK system?

We had an incredibly tight timeframe from greenlight to shooting and had to get scripts ready very fast. This meant finding the writers, briefing them and there was nowhere near as much time as we would have liked. Those experts who like to pronounce loftily on the shortcomings of British drama would do well to actually study the production constraints of a show like Outcasts which is not nearly as simple as just budget. We had about a year from greenlight to channel delivery to produce seven scripts, to find Carpathia (!), to design the sets, to cast and prep and then enjoy the luxury of eleven shooting days per episode while getting all the CG done etc. And by the way these are not excuses as I am really proud of the finished product. That was our reality.

Was it a challenge creating this show for a mainstream audience on BBC1? I can imagine a very different show if it had aired on BBC2 or Channel 4. Did the "BBC1 factor" curtail a few things creatively, or in any way dilute the original vision? Or would it have been impossible without the BBC?

This goes right to the heart of the issue. We tried to create a show that wouldn't just be for a niche audience -- after all this was designed for primetime BBC1 -- but appeal also to the mainstream. In that we clearly failed but I am no longer sure it was an achievable objective within a genre like sci-fi. How big an audience do the critically successful series get, let alone sci-fi? Those who compare us to BSG might like to consider how that show would fare on Monday at 9pm on BBC1? It does make me laugh sometimes when critics imply that high ratings and cross-audience popularity is an easy combination to achieve in a new drama series. If it were, presumably we would see more of them, right?

The most ludicrous part comes when critics who dismiss ratings as vulgar when it suits them have no hesitation in using them as a stick to beat shows they have decided they don't like. But I think ours was a valiant effort as the elements of the show of which I'm most proud -- the moral issues and conflicts of humanity at a crossroads -- still reached a bigger audience than they might have otherwise done. The BBC in no way interfered creatively with this process except in a helpful way and we had excellent support from Matthew Read our BBC executive and from Ben Stephenson -- both of them very clever people who care about good drama. I'm sure people will be saying "oh he's just saying that out of self-interest" but boringly it happens to be true.

There are certainly many influences on Outcasts (which isn't unreasonable given the core premise has been done many times in sci-fi literature), but was anything a particular touchstone? Many people spotted similarities to recent TV successes like Battlestar Galactica, Lost and various sci-fi novels -- were they deliberate, unintentional, or unavoidable because of the premise?

It was obvious that people would look at BSG and Lost although I can honestly say they weren't big creative influences and the idea that we were trying to rip them off is funny for a number of reasons. Not least because we're not quite stupid enough to think "oh people won't notice if we just reproduce some of the most iconic sci-fi shows on television". I don't think Outcasts borrows much from either show except where the similar terrain makes it inevitable. In any case my background -- in terms of both writing and taste -- is not especially in that type of show and I would say Deadwood was a much bigger creative influence. Even within sci-fi, Blade Runner -- one of the greatest films ever made -- will always be more present in my head.

Outcasts was announced in summer 2007 but only arrived in 2011. Was it delayed for any unexpected reason, or did it simply take four years to develop, write, film and schedule?

The answer is quite boring. The announcement was made very very early to put down a marker and way before development actually began or I could start work on the script. Then there were several changes at the BBC which required us to take on the thoughts of different people. But there was never any crisis in the development process.

The original press release described Outcasts as "a tense and fast-paced series about co-operation and conflict, idealism and power, sexual competition and love. Most of all it is about our life's big imperatives -- cheating death, seeking suitable mates and surviving as a species." Do you think the series covered that early manifesto, or did things get lost? "Fast-paced" doesn't seem to describe the show.

Ah pacing! Well, I don't agree it was as slow as some people say although I totally agree it would have probably suited a 50-minute length given that it was definitely not high octane on the action front. I've written lots of early Spooks so I can do fast if I want -- honest guv! In retrospect, given our attempt to gain a mainstream audience, and the difficulty of selling the genre to them, not enough action was always going to be a problem for us. We would have changed that in a second series I'm sure.

I enjoyed Liam Cunningham's measured performance as President Tate, and it was interesting to see an American star like Ugly Betty's Eric Mabius involved in a British series. Were you involved in choosing those actors?

I was involved in the casting decisions and we had great fun with it. You're right, Liam's was a brilliant understated performance and I have nothing but praise for all the cast. I'd like to make a special mention though of the lesser known, younger actors. Amy Manson is going to be a star I have no doubt of it. And Michael Legge as Tipper was, I thought, quite exceptional in a very hard role. He would have been a big part of our plans in Series 2.

Were you around during the filming of the show in South Africa? Do you have any fun anecdotes about shooting on location?

Because the rush for scripts was so intense I was mainly based in London overseeing that and helping with rewrites. Obviously the funniest anecdotes are unrepeatable but our frantic schedule wasn't helped much by a cobra on set. That was the origin of the snake joke in Ep 5 between Cass and Fleur.

The ratings for Outcasts' premiere (4.8m) were much lower than anticipated for a major BBC primetime series, and the immediate reaction was mixed to negative from the press. Was that a shock? Were you expecting more positivity from viewers, or patience?

I was shocked that only 4.8m started watching the show. Although kind of relieved too as it would have been worse to start with 7 and fall to that over an hour! So -- and this is very important -- we did not start with high enough figures to sustain a loss which would undoubtedly come given the nature of the show. And most shows will lose at least a million viewers across their first eps - especially new series. It is much easier these days to do one-offs or three-parters than a series. Unless they are safer genre shows -- and even these are hard -- new series are fiendishly difficult. Slow-burners or those with complex serial arcs even more so. And the critics will always be much harder on a series than an issue-driven 90-minute drama with a name writer where low ratings are a badge of creative honour (ditto American series). I don't know a single person who works in TV who doesn't agree that returning series is the hardest thing to crack. But they are essential as well and so we keep trying.

The only impatience I really lament is that shown by certain critics who should have known better. So peering into the dingiest corner of the stupidity basement, badge of honour goes to the previewer who said with extreme condescension to the black cast in both episode 1 and subsequent episodes that: "apart from Ashley Waters as a mouthy soldier" (yes, let's just ignore that minor "detail" shall we?) it would give comfort to Nick Griffin. This piece of wilful idiocy was hard to trump but a few gave it their best shot. People who attacked the production values or the "discount CG" were just ignorant although it made me angry for the talent and effort which went into such a difficult project. Then there were those who thought themselves qualified to give me writing classes while becoming so entangled in their struggle to find hysterical adjectives that it became better just to shrug, whistle and stare at the sky. As the Spanish saying goes: "mucho ruido, pocas nueces." I don't believe some of these people watched past Ep 1 -- if they even did that -- and that is just not good enough to judge a new series.

On the bright side, there were also some good and understanding reviews -- a fact that is sometimes forgotten. We had nice comments in several broadsheets and from some surprising sources but the thing that gave me real hope and optimism was the internet. I'd never really dealt with this side of things before but I found that TV critics online seem to like and have a genuine interest and enthusiasm for the medium with which they engage. Many sites had -- usually interesting, sometimes justifiable -- reservations about Eps 1 and 2 but crucially they were able to show the patience you describe, do their job as critics and judge a new show across its run. Most became very supportive of the show and that was great. Even a cocky smartarse nitpicker like yourself, Dan, changed your tone a bit from the original hilarious injunction to "lower your expectations!" Many hardcore sci-fi fans really swung behind the show as witnessed by the thoughtful -- and by no means unconditional -- support given by sites like Outpost Skaro and Den of Geek. [The editor of Den of Geek] Simon Brew's timely piece when our slot changed was like breathing clean air and was greatly appreciated by more than just myself.

Do you think Outcasts was badly scheduled by the BBC, who chose to air two episodes on consecutive evenings for a fortnight?

Oh this is so complex I'm not sure I can really do it justice. I think showing 1 and 2 on consecutive nights would have been OK were it not for Gypsy Weddings which really hurt us. Then I think people got confused and from then on it was just a bit chaotic. But better would have been for [episodes] 1 and 2 to be combined into a 90-minute pilot. Maybe a less high profile time slot from the start would have helped, I just don't know. Hindsight's a wonderful thing though.

I maintain that the BBC drama standard of 60-minutes isn't ideal, often resulting in saggy middles. Do you agree, and were you aware of this problem with Outcasts? Did you miss being able to hit mini-climaxes for ad breaks, as you can on a commercial station?

I didn't miss ad breaks, I loathe ad breaks -- they can really kill you sometimes. But I do agree with more 45/50 min eps. I think especially with slower paced shows like ours an hour can easily create longueurs. Clearly some people felt it did and -- while we couldn't do much about the running time -- that would have been a major issue in Series 2.

With the benefit of hindsight, what would you change about Outcasts, now you've had time to process all the criticism? And is there anything you passionately disagree with critics about? Conversely, is there anything the show's detractors were right to attack that you didn't realize was an issue?

I love Ep 1. I think -- contrary to some critics -- that the expositional balance was about right and if anything we didn't explain enough. I think Bharat [Nalluri] directed it with beautiful cinematic elegance and personally I liked the slower pace building towards the dramatic denouement with Mitchell. I'll always love scenes like Stella talking to Tate about her memories of watching La Traviata on Earth and if that's not your bag then you'll never like my writing so nothing to do there, sorry! I also think that many of those who have watched Ep 8 are now looking at Ep 1 through slightly different eyes -- some are even watching it again and have e-mailed me with really interesting thoughts.

But... the one thing I've definitely learned is you can't start with too much backstory especially in a strange and new world like ours. Our intentions were honourable though -- we wanted to get people into story as quickly as possible because exposition is so hard and tedious. However, I totally take on board that it was hard to care about an ensemble in these circumstances and we should have given people an easier "in" to the show and crucially a central character to identify with more quickly. We started with Mitchell as the focal point and then killed him although I still think that was a really interesting story. The "strutting conquistador nobody needs" is a tragic figure in many ways and we had long debates about whether to kill him or not. He was Mitchell Hoban before he was Jamie Bamber! But because our starter "human" story was very complex and tied to conflicts we hadn't actually seen I do accept it was hard to get a handle on it. So I think it was a great episode but perhaps not the most accessible episode 1. If we had started with a universal crisis like the whiteout in Ep 3 we would have made life much easier for ourselves. And I think the two opening eps would have worked better as a 90-minute pilot as you and others have suggested.

Creatively there's not a great deal I'd want to change with the series as a whole. To get more viewers we could have obviously upped the action and pacing although it's not something I was itching to do. I think the later episodes are gripping, interesting and emotionally intense and luckily I can still find a few people who agree with that! I love Episode 8 -- it's one of the favourite things I've written and a huge credit to the director Jamie Payne. When Cass explains to Fleur about watching footage of the Srebrenica massacre on earth (his memory of the kid with the rabbit is from a real image that never fails to distress me) I think you would simply have to be a heartless, unimaginative twat not to be moved. Obviously it cuts across giving comfort to Nick Griffin but I can live with that.

Official word is expected soon, although it's very unlikely the BBC will recommission Outcasts. [Update: it has been axed.]

I'm sad there won't be a Series 2 as we had lots of great stories and new characters. We had some exciting writers lined up too and I think it would have become a seminal TV show. I really do think that -- it was obvious from the growing appreciation of the show, just check the Twitter and Facebook responses now, that the early hate-mob had been left far behind. That's partly our fault for not drawing people in more quickly -- I won't deny that -- but there are lessons too for those who stamp with such drearily obvious glee on newborn shows. The fact is that the show had a moral concern and an emotional core that is lacking in so much TV these days and I think it was growing in confidence to tell those stories.

Now it's gone and what will replace it? The flip self-aggrandising negativity that is so in vogue -- but which I think many people are really tired of now -- was brutally applied to Outcasts at the beginning. Luckily, I think it was strong enough to withstand that onslaught and -- schedule change notwithstanding -- emerged with both dignity and a group of fans who understood and admired what we were trying to do. I'm still really proud of it and the questions it tackled. I'd make changes -- of course I would -- but I will never look back on it with anything but pride for the show and admiration for the dedication of all of those who worked on it. Anybody can write a 300-word sneer; not everybody can do what our brilliant team did -- and create a whole new world for the imagination.

The Outcasts DVD/Blu-ray box-set is released on 4 April 2011. You can pre-order now from Amazon, and HMV. You can also read my archive of Outcasts reviews here.