TBI Weekly: How Rex kept the beat on C5’s sex, drugs & libel show

Lana Salah

Paramount-owned UK broadcaster Channel 5 will debut Rex TV’s debut series, Frank Bough: National Treasure, National Disgrace, tomorrow. Ahead of the launch, creative director Lana Salah tells TBI how she tussled with budgets, scripts and commercial breaks to get her show on screen.

Sex, double-dealings and envelopes stuffed with cash: not the description of an average jaunt to the Edinburgh TV festival but the content of Rex TV’s first commission – a 4 x 90 series of films for Paramount-owned Channel 5, scheduled to TX Saturday nights, examining some of the most infamous political and entertainment scandals of the 1980s and 90s.

It was decided to abandon chronology and start with the strongest beat, letting the story unwind around that

And when it comes to scandal, they don’t get much juicier. The unlikely affair between Edwina Currie and John Major, Jeffrey Archer’s life of lies and libel, the ‘cash for questions’ fall and reality rehabilitation of Neil and Christine Hamilton. Plus, the story of Frank Bough’s fall following the revelation of his fondness for sex parties, cross dressing and class A drugs.

Yet a commercial ninety-minute programme is a challenge. It’s not simply ensuring that the story has enough material but also enough beats and development to carry across six parts. Add the challenge of bringing something new to stories, to make them something more than just a regurgitation of a Wikipedia page, and it’s a knotty editorial problem.

Notes & needs

In addition, the main note passed on from commissioners Kit Morey and Kate Ansell at Channel 5 was to make these films tonally heart and soul Saturday night. Ben Frow considered them to be closer to L.E. than dry history docs. The audience would be on the wine and looking for a rollocking good story.

So, a deep dive into story is where we started. What did we know, what did we think we knew, what were the best and most shocking story beats? It was decided to abandon chronology and start with the strongest beat, letting the story unwind around that.

Once in the edit, the detailed initial scripts and in-depth story discussions allowed for a fast first pull

What followed was an ongoing process of research, beat sheets, scripting, discussing and re scripting. Honest and forthright discussion were had. It wasn’t without frustration as scripts were reworked and loved sections dropped. Every scene had to move our understanding on, earning its place.

We insisted on a full shooting script – with dream guide sync – so we knew the story shape and the question each of the films were trying to answer.

It was a lot of work but meant the casting, drama recon and cutting could be more targeted and economical.

This approach wouldn’t have been such smooth sailing without series editor Jeremy Daldry at the helm. Not only did he forensically attack the stories but also identified an excellent cast of talking heads – a delicate balance of comedians, eyewitnesses, commentators and journalists.

Such a confident and focussed approach allowed multi-film deals with tent pole names and for the production team to follow up and secure additional names specific to each of the stories to give detail and insight.

Pushing the budget

To create continuity and efficiency Jeremy also directed the drama recon, dressing the shot, rather than the locations, and combining resources to create a cast of returning actors, playing multiple roles, as well as finding locations that would allow multiple set-ups.

Four 90-minute films is a considerable undertaking and required editorial clarity, clear vision, commitment and hard work across the team

This meant we could spend the budget on fantastic DOP’s and top-flight hair and make-up. A dedicated producer and AP ensured the props, costumes and schedule were organised and ran without a hitch.

Once in the edit, the detailed initial scripts and in-depth story discussions allowed for a fast first pull. Of course, thoughts changed once faced with the reality of the sync but working in a tight edit schedule the in-depth story work early doors meant there was a road map for the edit from the first.

Four 90-minute films is a considerable undertaking and required editorial clarity, clear vision, commitment and hard work across the team; production management and support, AP’s, editors, edit and camera assistants.

It is testament to that hard work that we could concentrate so doggedly on the story and create the level of films of which I am immensely proud and happy are the first commission for the Rex TV label.

Lana Salah is creative director at UK-based producer Rex. Its first show, Frank Bough: National Treasure, National Disgrace, premieres on Saturday 11 February at 21.00 on Channel 5 in the UK.

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