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Maggie Brown: My Brilliant Friend bewitches as it sets standard for overseas TV

My Brilliant Friend My Brilliant Friend
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With 2018 drawing to a close, I took myself off to California for a bit of escapist hiking in the Sierra Nevada – largely to mark the imminent completion of my history of Channel 4.

In the event, noxious air from forest fires kept me more inside than out. But one plus was watching the first episode of the eight-part series My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about the intense relationship between two girls in post-war Naples. It remained so wonderfully true to the book – that distinctive Neapolitan accent rings out not just from the leads but the extras in the street and the sets are beautifully recreated – that bewitched Americans and Brits.

Thanks to HBO’s deal with Sky, which includes Game of Thrones, the series is being screened on its premium Sky Atlantic channel in the UK, though unlike the ad-free American broadcasts it is interrupted by breaks.

The audience for the first episode was modest – with 29,000 people watching it, then three repeats adding 35,000, but it is well worth hunting down. Ahead of watching the fifth episode, the series has made me reassess the quality of Italian television production, which has become heavily influenced by the antics of Inspector Montalbano, a mainstay of BBC4. From a global distribution perspective, the value of broadcasters screening quality foreign-made drama is clear. It brings in a lot of niche audiences across a range of territories, combining subscription and advertising models, which can now add up to a viable commercial deal. This in turn means more funding for truly aspirational high-end drama.

This method of distribution, when it works well, allows you into the heart of very different cultures, in this case the grim slums of southern Italy with its oppression and violence – though seen through the eyes of a young girl rather than organised crime as in shows such as Gomorrah.

The production could only work with fastidious attention to detail and local knowledge. Crucially, the casting director found the right girls to play the central characters from childhood to late teens – through a search of 5,000 actors. HBO teamed up with co-producer broadcaster RAI, and Italian director Saverio Costanzo, who had already worked on Italian adaptations of HBO scripts, and was chosen by the novelist herself. The director of photography used a bleached-out palette, to reflect a society exhausted by war, that brightens up as the country recovers.

For our national public service broadcasters here in the UK, players from across the Atlantic, especially streaming service Netflix, are viewed as a threat or at best ‘frenemies’ and a major challenge to locally produced programming.

Costs of drama production are rising fast, and, according to recent reports, Netflix is exploring the possibility of setting up a production base at Pinewood Studios. These challengers are driving up standards that some are responding to: let’s face it, the drama of 2018 was the BBC’s own Bodyguard.

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