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Brit Takes: How the UK Television Scene is Changing According to One Veteran

Brit Takes: How the UK Television Scene is Changing According to One Veteran

[Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. As makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry.  Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.]

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Neil Biswas first received major recognition in the UK film industry in 2007 after he received BAFTA’s Breakthrough Talent award for his made-for-television movie “Bradford Riots.” The Channel 4 film garnered attention for highlighting the 2001 riots in Northern England and showcased the animosity between the growing British-Asian community and the industrial city’s white majority. With Anti-Nazi League, The British National Party and National Front involvement, Biswas’ film was unique in its portrayal of the historic event from the perspective of an Asian family.

Biswas also recently directed two episodes of series IV of the BAFTA winning drama Skins” for Channel 4. His TV writing credits include Sky1’s “The Take,” starring Tom Hardy and Shaun Evans. He further diversified his list of projects by writing “Second Generation” for Channel 4, a two-part series based on “King Lear.”  He also wrote episodes four through seven of BBC2’s 10-part series, “In A Land of Plenty.”

What sets Biswas apart from many other directors of television and film is his relationship with theater. Biswas’ work includes “Focus Group,” which showed at London’s Soho Theater, “Wish,” which played at the Oval House Theater and “Over Hear,” which ran for weeks at the Bristol old Vic and Leicester Haymarket Theaters.

And there’s a lot more to come. Biswas is the co-creator, lead writer and co-executive producer of Sky1 and Carnival’s much anticipated 10-part series “Lucky Man,” which is based on Stan Lee’s original story. The series is set to premiere early 2016. Biswas is also currently developing a feature film entitled, “Darkness Visible,” an original horror film produced by Newscope Films and Parti Productions with development funding from the BFI and financing from Blumhouse, which he is also set to direct.

Brit Takes spoke with Biswas about his diverse career, how his theater experience impacts his filmmaking and the craft of directing for television.

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How did you break into the UK television industry?

I had been working in theater for about six years before I was commissioned to write my first screenplays. A producer called John Chapman was adapting Tim Pears novel “In a Land of Plenty” into a 10-part BBC2 serial — and took a massive punt on me — after having read my play “Skirmishes.” It was basically the story of a large upper middle class family through five decades of British history. It was a dream job where they encouraged me to develop my voice. 

Is there a craft that you prefer more?

This is a hard one. I think I’m almost two different people when I’m writing and when I’m directing. If I had to choose one, it would be directing. For me, that’s when all the elements come  together…writing is just the beginning of the process. 

What has been your most rewarding project to date?

Another hard question. I really can’t choose — which I realize is a very lucky thing to say in the industry. “Bradford Riots” is the project where I learned the most — and where I was able to see a project from first idea to final cut — and for it to turn out much as I imagined it from the start was hugely satisfying.

What is the greatest challenge you have as a director?

To communicate my vision and at the same time to allow this vision to be made more complete and compelling by the skilled people working with me. It’s a fine balance. 

What changes do you want to see from the UK television scene?

I think the changes are already happening — our market is already much more influenced by streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix, which are making strong innovative dramas led by unique voices and ideas, like “Mr. Robot” and “Orange is the new Black.”

I think British drama has been very conservative for years, and the main broadcasters have not represented the diversity of this country in its stories. There’s been year after year when nearly all the leads in all BBC and ITV dramas have been white — and Britain’s ethnic population has not been represented either in casting or more importantly in story… These changes need to be made from the top exec level down. It’s not a matter of lip service – but a change of practice and personnel.  We need more BAME [Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic] execs who understand how to create brilliant and effortlessly diverse and drama employing BAME writers and directors — drama that truly represents the world we live in. We have a lot of catching up to do with the U.S. market on this. 

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Can you tell us about the influence of theater on your writing and directing?

Theater for me is about three things: the writing, the acting, and the imagination of the audience, who have to work much harder to immerse themselves in the world of the story. Directing actors for a play is a much more intensive, intimate process, where you really get to explore their character with them over several weeks. Theater developed my confidence in drawing out performances from the right actors. In terms of my writing, I think my early plays helped me find the themes that preoccupy me — the areas of life that I’m interested in and the kind of characters that fascinate me.

What differences between the markets do you see?

The U.S. is a much bigger market. Our drama output is still ultimately controlled and decided upon by five controllers. Some of their decisions are market-driven, but I’d say there is an equal amount of emphasis placed on brand. They spend a lot of time thinking what kind of drama defines their channel’s identity in the marketplace — what kind of drama do they want audiences to identify with their channel. 

What do you think about Netflix and Amazon as streaming platforms?

I think the quality of the original content they have entered the market with has genuinely changed the goalposts. For audiences it’s a no-brainer to have access to brilliant original drama from other sources. It’s a great opportunity for creatives to have producers with this kind of ambition for stories and pockets as deep as Amazon and Netflix. “The Man In The High Castle” sounds amazing.

Can you tell us about your newest project, “Darkness Visible”?

It’s a supernatural horror film that follows a British Asian kid going to Kolkata for the first time when his mum has an accident there. He quickly starts to realize that everything he’s been told about his own history is not as clear-cut as he thought it was, and then the events around him start to accelerate. I really wanted to bring this fabulously chaotic and spooky city to life in film. I have vivid memories of listening to my Kolkata uncles telling me ghost stories about spirits walking the city — and then being scared shitless as we traveled from one end of Kolkata to the other at night, as semi-miraculously the millions of people that populate it in the day suddenly vanish. I’m very influenced by seventies-era  horror: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Shining.” That’s very much the kind of slowly building tone and atmosphere I want to bring to “Darkness.”

Do you anticipate it to be more or less of a challenge for you to write and direct a film as opposed to television series?

In all honesty, I’m really looking forward to it. We’ve just shot some test footage for “Darkness Visible” in Kolkata, and it was exhilarating to be filming on some of the streets and locations we’ll be using for the actual shoot. It looked amazing and confirmed all the tonal qualities I was hoping to find for the film. Making a film is a very liberating experience for me. I’m basically set free to create the images that have been burning inside my mind for so long.

READ MORE: Brit Takes: Lenny Abrahamson on Why Irish Directors Shouldn’t Be Overlooked

This article is presented in partnership with Shinola in support of Brit Takes, our monthly dispatch on the UK film scene. Detroit based design brand Shinola was conceived with the belief that products should be made by hand and built to last. As makers of modern watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, Shinola stands for skill at scale, the preservation of craft and the beauty of industry. Learn more about Shinola handcrafted goods.

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