Nicola Shindler is surely the most well known drama producer from Manchester, England, with a credits list including Queer as Folk, Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. She tells Jesse Whittock about finding the perfect story and whether she could produce in the US
Think of the most influential producers in the UK in the past 20 years and it is hard to get beyond Nicola Shindler. The first series she produced after establishing Red Production Company in the late 1990s, Queer as Folk, remains one of the most impactful cultural statements about a modernised Britain. More recently, BBC executives have held up crime drama Happy Valley (left) and family melodrama Last Tango in Halifax as reaching the standards they want new scripted series to reach.
TBI puts her straight on the spot: what is the secret of her longevity? “I work very hard,” she answers. “I work with writers and producers to make sure what we make is absolutely the best it can be. We never let one scene get past if it’s not good enough.
She’s also uninterested in fashion. “I’m aware people want certain things, because you hear it from broadcasters all the time, but ultimately I’m not going to do something I don’t like just to get something fashionable made – I can’t work so hard on something I don’t like. I’m very lucky that I haven’t had to do that,” she says.”
Manchester-born Shindler began her career working for ITV Studios predecessor Granada Television in the 1990s, where she produced and script-edited acclaimed dramas such as the BBC’s Our Friends in the North and ITV’s one-off Hillsborough, which Jimmy McGovern wrote about the Sheffield Wednesday stadium disaster of 1989.
She was representing Hillsborough at the International Emmys when she first met writer Russell T. Davies, whom she struck up a working relationship with that lasts to the present day. “We both lost that night,” she recalls wryly.
Years later, after Granada drama chief Gub Neal had moved to Channel 4, Shindler and Davies came together to create Queer as Folk, a highly stylised drama about the thriving gay scene in Manchester starring Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire) and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) among others. Its impact on the UK public was significant, and has been named among the top UK dramas ever by numerous publications.
“As a fairly unsophisticated 29-year-old, I had no idea people would react to the show that way,” says Shindler. “To me, it was a great story of unrequited love, and it didn’t matter who loved whom… but the impact was massive. Russell always knew it would be, because he knew there was nothing like it on TV. He went to town on that script.”
Recent years have seen Shindler’s attentions shifting to the international market, parallel to the entire UK industry. In 2015, she produced Sky’s crime drama The Five (right) with US writer Harlan Coben – another example of how she aligns with top screenwriters.
Shindler had specifically targeted working with the multi-million-selling author, emailing his agent before receiving an excited response directly from Coben directly just hours later. “We haven’t stopped emailing since,” says Shindler.
They are now working on Safe, a Manchester-set coproduction for Netflix and Canal+-owned free-to-air C8 in France. It stars Dexter’s Michael C. Hall as a widowed father whose life is jolted back into chaos after a death in the picturesque gated community he lives in. Danny Brocklehurst, the Accused scribe, is writing.
“Harlan knew he wanted to tell a story about how people build a wall to protect themselves and keep the bad inside, and that means you don’t know where bad people comes from,” says Shindler. “That is incredibly relevant at the moment.”
The show is a Red production, separate to the US drama-focused business she and Coben launched earlier this year called Final Twist Productions. “We are working on something that we hope will come through that,” says Shindler.
Shindler sold a majority share of Red to Paris-based Studiocanal in 2013 after 15 years of independence, which was something of a shock at the time. “What I really liked about Studiocanal, which was mostly a film company when I became involved, was a feeling of authorship and mainstream at the same time,” she says. “I like the creative attitude.”
Ultimately, all of Shindler’s career choices can be put down to her stubborn focus on story and character. “I couldn’t care less if a show is set in outer space, down a mine or in a police station,” she says. “As long as it’s a good story.”
Identifying a great script:
It’s an instinctive thing. I grew up reading a lot and watching television, and for me TV was always about story and less about visuals. When I went to work in telly, I worked as a researcher for the BBC locked in the cellar reading a massive pile of unsolicited scripts. From that, I could quickly hear a writer’s voice and tell what they were like.
How the US and UK production systems differ:
I’ve never filmed in the US, and that is something I hope to do with Final Twist. It would be tricky for me to actually work there, because I’m not a writer. US showrunners are writers and the role doesn’t exist over here. I wouldn’t be able to not read a script, or get involved with hiring people. Ideally, I’d adapt to them and they’d adapt to me.
Selling her business to Studiocanal:
I knew that drama was changing and evolving, and becoming much bigger. I knew I needed support and real backing in order to do that. I had an informal relationship with BBC Worldwide, but it was at quite a distance. I felt like it was the right time to become part of something bigger, but at the same time I didn’t want to become part of something that was too established and still wanted to feel independent. Studiocanal allows you to do that.