Scarlet woman – Red Productions and Nicola Shindler
When it comes to hot new independent comedy and drama, Red Productions has an enviable track record. Founder Nicola Shindler tells Liz Thomas why scriptwriters are the key to scorching television
Red Productions has been churning out hit comedies and dramas since its inception in 1998 and its founder Nicola Shindler – barely in her mid-thirties – is already something of a doyenne in the independent production world.
Described as a “one-woman hit factory” in many a broadcasting guide, Shindler insists she is merely part of a capable team and the success of shows such as controversial gay drama series Queer as Folk and the Bafta-award winning Clocking Off is hugely reliant on the strength of the writers.
Having worked with talent of the calibre of Russell T Davies and Paul Abbott, Shindler is in the enviable position of being content with her contacts book. “I am very lucky I work with some very talented writers – I think I’m actually working with or have worked with everyone I’d like to,” she says.
She is however, always on the look out for something new and original, particularly as feels really good screenwriters are few and far between. She confesses: “I think there are very few talented writers in the world, I really do. I actually believe calibre will out – so if someone is good enough and has written a script – as long as they send it somewhere it should get recognised at some point. In all honesty a lot of scripts that get sent in are terrible.”
Red Productions operates a policy where every script that gets sent to it is read and while Shindler acknowledges it is rare that something comes through this way, it does happen.
“If we get a script we like then we’ll get the writer in to talk to and we get some scripts in from agents. Reading everything is our way of giving something back and it is not that we necessarily want only new writers – it is important to give people access who might not get it anywhere else.”
Having worked as a script editor at the BBC, a producer on shows such as Cracker and Hillsborough and now an executive producer, it is clear the Cambridge graduate believes the heart of a successful production is in the writer’s ability to tell the story.
She says: “Even at university I was always interested in the new plays rather than Shakespeare. I like talking plot and characters and working on how they develop. When I set up Red, I wanted it to be a place where a writer can make a thing they really want to make rather than be forced into an idea that isn’t really theirs.”
After a heavy year of productions, with Dead Man Weds, Mine All Mine, Big Dippers and Casanova, it is back to the drawing board for Shindler and her team.
“I am talking to writers, looking at scripts and talking to broadcasters. We are working on an idea with Sally Wainwright about a man in suburbia setting up a brothel. We are also hoping to do an adaptation of Willy Russell’s The Wrong Boy and a drama about binge-drinking for Channel 4.”
There are also plans to work with Davies again – once he has finished working on Dr Who. The pair have a long history, from the early days with Queer as Folk to popular drama such as Bob and Rose and Mine All Mine. Most recently they worked on Casanova for BBC3, which has proved a ratings winner for the digital channel. “He is a very clever, very funny writer. It is the only period story that I ever really wanted to tell. It is clever, romantic and dynamic and I genuinely feel lucky to have been involved in it.”
The Manchester-based company’s enviable back catalogue gives it a clear advantage when getting programmes commissioned but it is not always plain sailing. She says: “Getting a show on the television is one hurdle but the real problem with a genre like comedy is keeping it there. It needs time to grow in a way that broadcasters don’t always allow. Dead Man Weds is an example. It really didn’t have an opportunity to develop, which is a shame. It got viewing figures that if it had been on C4 it would have been a big hit.”
She is also critical of the structure of commissioning at the Corporation. “I’ve always found getting comedy on the BBC quite hard as I’ve not always been sure who to go through,” she adds.
It is an issue that has become a key part in the development of the BBC’s future, with both director-general Mark Thompson’s plans for reform and the government stressing the need to ensure the commissioning process is meritocratic.
Shindler is muted in her appraisal of Thompson’s proposals for more programmes to come from outside of London and the so-called ‘Window of Creative Competition’, which aims to make 25% of commissions available to in-house BBC producers, independents or production houses owned by other broadcasters. This is in addition to the quota set by parliament, requiring that 25% of the Corporation’s commissions to be made by independent producers.
She says: “I never know what those things will actually mean in the end. I think the intention is good and if it brings more work to the area then that is great, if what it actually means is lots of people are moved up here and then all leave after a couple of years then I can’t see the benefit.
“I don’t think it will mean that lots of new companies will be making new drama or comedy, as you need to have a track record of producing strong shows because the budgets are so big. However, once you are at the table then a lot of it is down to if you have a good idea, a great script and it is the right time.
“Commissioners are intelligent people – if something doesn’t get picked up then it just wasn’t right for the broadcaster at the time. I truly believe a brilliant script will get picked up. It’s just a question of timing.”