Ben Donald, the former BBC Studios drama executive behind shows such as Death In Paradise and Amazon’s revival of Ripper Street, knows a thing or two about the value of TV drama.
He is also a rare example of a largely commercially focused exec who has successfully turned his hand to creative, most recently with BBC One’s big budget daytime show The Mallorca Files.
The series was commissioned by BBC Daytime and its streaming sibling iPlayer, but this was not aiming to be a typical mid-afternoon scripted series. Shot on location in Mallorca and dotted with action scenes, the crime drama has a primetime budget, lavish scenes, and high production values. Acclaimed screenwriter Dan Sefton is also onboard.
No surprise then that its commissioning raised a few eyebrows among the scripted community when it was first ordered, with some seeing the programme as something of a gamble. With a second season now in the bag, it seems it’s paid off.
For Donald, who produces through Cosmopolitan Pictures in partnership with Clerkenwell Films, the series provided an opportunity to use his contacts for commercial gain and get the idea off the ground and onto screens. North American streamer BritBox boarded the series in the US and Canada, ZDFneo took rights in Germany and Donald rekindled relationships with France Television – a key partner on Death In Paradise – to secure France 2’s participation.
Behind all of that, however, was an instinct for understanding the show’s intrinsic value to those partners.
“They all had slightly different reasons to be involved: Britbox is the home of great British crime drama so there was a relationship there; with ZDF, there is a German interest at the heart of the show with one of the two cops being German (and the other British); and then in France there has been a long-standing appetite for the types of shows that don’t exist anymore – the network episodic, crime procedurals like House or Castle. There was gap there that needed to be filled.”
“Knowing the value of your show and where it else might work and the people to talk to, is definitely important,” Donald adds. “And coming from a sales background enables you to maybe carry on when someone says no, to keep going come back with a tweak in the narrative perhaps or to change tack to get it going. It has allowed me to be quite an early mover in the way the landscape has evolved.”
Aside from Death In Paradise – which remains a ratings hit globally and huge seller for BBC Studios – Donald has helped forge co-productions for series such as Parade’s End, The Spies Of Warsaw and that deal with Amazon for Ripper Street, which at the time caused ripples of excitement as the streamer revived the seemingly doomed BBC drama.
That excitement has somewhat dissipated over the intervening years as the reality of the streamer revolution and their global strategies have set in – and for this commercially creative exec, opportunities now seem to lie elsewhere.
“I led the deal with Amazon on Good Omens too but now it seems everyone is just at Amazon, Apple and Netflix’s door – I feel that my USP is almost going back to the part of the business where we put together parties from France and Italy, or Scandinavia or Germany.
“What I love about that is that it’s not just a commercial transaction, it’s a deep cultural dialogue. I get very into the language, the TV culture and the country’s culture.”
Culturally enriched co-pros
Donald, who exec produces on The Mallorca Files, argues co-productions are also not simply ways to get a show made. Rather, they provide a conduit to a better final product.
“That was always the service I provided for other producers, I said I’d knock on every door and turn over every stone to try to convert opportunities that were culturally enriching. For example, with Passing Bells, we told the story of the Eastern front as well as the Western front. Death In Paradise becomes a richer Creole show because we turned it from being a British package tour story into an Anglo-French co-production.”
And that, he says, is an innate difference to series that are being commissioned by global streamers.
“There is a cultural enrichment there, which can’t be the case with a global deal. That’s not a criticism. But you’re not really making it bilaterally. With The Mallorca Files, I’ve really enjoyed the casting process trying to find the right actor for [detective] Max Winter. And the provenance of the project is this desire to try to modernise the Anglo-German relationship on television. It comes from a very pure cultural place, and is a combination of that sales background and my deeply seated interest in language and culture.”
Cosmopolitan has numerous other projects in development, ranging from a show about a multi-generational and intercultural family going through a psychological horror story to crime story Blood On The Altar, a true crime story about an Italian and British family.
For Donald, the attention on global streamers is providing opportunities. “SVODs will have local shows in France or Germany but I think they are local for local’s sake. And then they talk about the US and UK shows as local for global, which might seem an imperialist view of the world.
“I think it provides great opportunities for localised pan-territory SVOD platforms, and European alliances. It is really important to mean them though and not just have announcements. And it is up to producers to try to provide those projects and have that hustle in a way that really does bring the execs from France and Italy together to make it happen.”
And the former BBCS exec seems to fervently believe that the cultural heritage of European TV should be mined more deeply, moving away from “this ‘Marvelisation’ of the world, where everything seems to have horns or feathers or superpowers.”
“I do like those shows but it feels like one way traffic at the moment, and what is our version of that? And I don’t mean what is our version of a superhero, I mean what are the ideas that we can create – we have centuries of them, without them having to be period drama, and we should be able to make that powerful and dominate the airwaves.”