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PART 6: PRODUCERS TONY WRIGHT AND GEORGE ADAMS ON THE DOCTOR BLAKE MURDER MYSTERIES

December Media has just begun filming the fifth season of The Doctor Blake Mysteries, which is represented internationally by ITV Studios. It is when shows are recommissioned that revenues start to flow in earnest.

From the producers

Tony Wright, Creative Director / Executive Chair | George Adams, Head of Drama
December Media

Series one was listed here as one of the most successful dramas currently on Screen Australia’s books. The agency did not finance any of the four following seasons.

“We loved the idea of shipping coals to Newcastle”

Craig McLachlan not on board when ITV came on

Craig McLachlan as Doctor Blake Craig McLachlan as Doctor Blake

TONY WRIGHT: “We thought about international potential a lot in the early days of Doctor Blake. We believed that if we created something indistinguishable from the best of these kinds of UK shows we would have an international market. We were creating an Australian show that would work internationally. A lot of shows don’t but some do, particularly those out of the ABC in recent times.”

GEORGE ADAMS: “The trick is to tell a good story but Craig McLachlan (being on board as Blake) and the look of the series helped. Doctor Blake is cold, wet, dark and gloomy and the best mystery series are a bit dark. Many Australian dramas are bright and sunny – although as Blake’s life has become a bit rosier we have lightened the look up a bit.”

TONY WRIGHT: “I secured the distributor ITV Studios at the Science Congress here in Melbourne. When I was there I sold the 13-part animal show Chris Humphreys Wild Life to then head of acquisitions and co-productions at ITV, Richard Life. Later I was talking to someone about Blake and Richard must have been eavesdropping because he tapped me on the shoulder and asked if we made drama too.

“We were blessed in that when ITV came on board they provided significant development funding. We thought it might be normal and have asked distributors for development money since but they say ‘Are you mad!?!’ The ABC also put in a substantial amount.”

Doctor Blake is on BBC One and some PBS stations

GEORGE ADAMS: “We were also blessed in that there were no editorial requirements from ITV. You can get caught between input from the local broadcaster and the international distributor.”

TONY WRIGHT: “We are delighted with Doctor Blake’s popularity in the UK. It was the first show commissioned by the ABC to go out on BBC One, although there’s been some co-productions involving both broadcasters. Each new season is stripped in early afternoons, every weekday over two weeks, and attracts 1.5 million people. The sale of the first season was made on the finished show and as soon as the BBC had played three seasons it renewed the licence on season one. The BBC renews each licence on each series as it runs out. Doctor Blake also has a growing reputation in the US where it plays on some of the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) stations.”

On the set of <em>The Doctor Blake Murder Mysteries</em> On the set of The Doctor Blake Murder Mysteries

GEORGE ADAMS: “We’ll have 44 episodes by the end of season five. We are now sold in 130 territories but some buyers won’t consider a show until they have half a year of episodes. Knowing a fifth season had been commissioned really helped.”

TONY WRIGHT: “Screen Australia has not been an investor since the first season but the investors have not changed apart from that. The ABC had to put up more money to fund the second and ongoing seasons. Basically the investors are the ABC and Film Victoria. The first season is starting to return its investment, as will the other seasons as revenue ripples down over time. The more seasons you have the more recoupment will accelerate.”

In Screen Australia’s Drama Production Guidelines it states that “a compelling case must be demonstrated for Screen Australia to fund more than 26 viewing hours of any one project, including multiple series (whether or not they have been funded by Screen Australia)”.

“Mainly we earn from the fees”

TONY WRIGHT: “There is more demand for Australian content globally but the adult drama that travels is – for want of a better word – harder edged than what broadcasters typically want in Australia. But there are exceptions. Everyone is hungry for content and SVOD platforms are paying to tie up product so there’s opportunities there if you can find a way in. But generally buyers are paying less.

“We make money from Doctor Blake via the producer and executive producer fees and also because the company provides services to the production in various ways, production accounting being an example. But mainly we earn from the fees.

“Few shows, especially in the Australian context, make profit. However, the producer offset (PO) can mean that the producer is an investor and can make some returns on first dollar alongside other investors. This is a plus, although to drive an ongoing business in the burgeoning market of global TV, it is more desirable that TV should be on the same footing as feature film in terms of the PO. Perhaps they could both shift to 30 per cent? TV potentially employs far more people Australia wide and it is growing. We could be taking advantage of that by changing the underpinning of the PO.

“The other side of our business is 3D IMAX production. These shows take longer to make, on our analysis, return about the same as drama, but the returns come in more quickly. We are about to release The Search for Life in Space, which follows on from Hidden Universe, are about to start shooting a third, Earth Story, and are contracting a fourth. We also do some factual production. Together these strings to our bow provide diverse sources of revenue that finances the infrastructure of the company and keeps us afloat. Producing is always tough, but we’re doing alright.”

“Know what the show is in one sentence”

George in conversation with Craig McLachlan on the set of The Doctor Blake Murder Mysteries

GEORGE ADAMS: “The idea for Doctor Blake came about when I was working on an installation at Sovereign Hill, a living museum about the gold mining era and the biggest tourist attraction in Ballarat …

TONY WRIGHT: “… except now Doctor Blake is the biggest attraction! …”

GEORGE ADAMS: I had been thinking about Ballarat as a great setting for a television series in the tradition of the great British murder mysteries. I’d made a few notes on the back of an envelope about a guy who comes back from being away for a long time to take over his dying father’s medical practice and then starts solving crimes.”

TONY WRIGHT: “I’d heard that the ABC wanted something for the 8.30pm Friday spot. Having watched the ABC on Friday nights myself for years, I felt the murder mystery audience for that slot was ready to watch something home grown. I gave George a call, he sent me his idea and I sent back the word ‘bingo’. We loved the idea of shipping coals to Newcastle. Our instructions to the writers were to make our show indistinguishable from Inspector George Gently, Foyle’s War and the best shows that the ABC imports from the UK. There were a couple of pitch meetings with the ABC and the show developed pretty quickly from there, although there was a bit of resistance because they had another period murder mystery in development.”

GEORGE ADAMS: “I wasn’t aware that Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was in development. I thought the resistance was like saying ‘we have Prime Suspect so we don’t want Cracker’. We had a very clear vision of what the show was and stuck to that. If I’ve learnt anything it’s this: once you’ve got a good idea stick to it because there is a danger the idea gets diluted and the show becomes a smorgasbord of what different parties want. You’ve got to know what the show is in one sentence.”

TONY WRIGHT: “The producer’s vision has to be clear. It is the anchor for the whole show.”

GEORGE ADAMS: “I always say to the writers that they have to ensure that the audience solves the mystery at the same time as Blake. But what viewers ask about is the characters not the mystery elements. So character is very important even though focussing in on character makes the broadcaster worry that a viewer who misses an episode may not know what’s going on. Historically that concern may have been justified but not now with catch-up opportunities.”

TONY WRIGHT: “Many murder mysteries don’t have as much of a character arc as Doctor Blake. This genre is not easy to make. You’ve got to sell red herrings while keeping the right mix of ongoing personal stories. Blake and Jean’s (Nadine Garner’s character) UST (unresolved sexual tension) is personal – and it’s great that the audience hung on for four seasons to see that first kiss!”

GEORGE ADAMS: “We’re religious about Doctor Blake going to air at the same time each year. Pre-production has always begun in July and it’s always gone to air in February. Appointment viewing is still relevant for the 1.7 million people (consolidated ratings) that watched last season. Season four increased by four per cent over the previous year. There are people who won’t watch the show for eight weeks, then watch it all over one weekend, but 60-70 percent watch on the night. Appointment viewing is by no means dead.”