‘His Dark Materials’: Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter On The Story Behind The Big-Budget Adaptation & The Current State Of The Global Drama Business

‘His Dark Materials’: Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter On The Story Behind The Big-Budget Adaptation & The Current State Of The Global Drama Business

His Dark Materials, the HBO/BBC co-production that launches this weekend, is an epic fantasy drama and it’s been an epic journey to get it to screen for Bad Wolf co-founder Jane Tranter.


The former BBC drama chief, who spent eight years in the U.S. working on shows including HBO’s The Night Of, believes that the drama can be a turning point for filming in Wales, Bad Wolf’s base, in the same way that Game of Thrones helped grow the industry in Northern Ireland. In a wide-ranging interview with Deadline, she opens up about the “hairy” process of adapting Philip Pullman’s novel series, working with young writers and Lena Dunham on Industry, the company’s broad development slate and her take on the current state of the global drama business.

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Jack Thorne-penned His Dark Materials, which stars Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, launches on Sunday night on BBC One and HBO on Monday night.


Keen plays main character Lyra, a seemingly ordinary but brave young woman from another world. Keen’s age, and the fact that Lyra is essentially the same age in Pullman’s first two books in the series, was the driving force behind Tranter successfully scoring an intial 16-episode order from the British public broadcaster and the WarnerMedia premium network.

The creative team essentially filmed seasons one and two back-to-back with only four weeks of shooting left of season two ahead of its debut. “We mainly wanted to make sure that we didn’t wait too long because otherwise by the time we came to film again, [Dafne Keen] could be 18 months older and at that age, you grow up very fast and season two picks up days after season one ends. We had that to consider. The BBC and HBO got that because it takes a year to post-produce,” Tranter said. “You’re often at your bravest when you’re at your most ignorant. I hadn’t realised how complicated this would be. We’re turning the filming around in this incredibly tight schedule. It’s been quite hairy, if I knew then what I know now, would I have done it the same way? Yes, probably, what choice have we got, but I might have remembered to take a holiday before we started.”


The first season of His Dark Materials follows Lyra’s searching for a kidnapped friend. She uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children and becomes a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. As she journeys through the worlds, including our own, Lyra meets a determined and courageous boy called Will (Amir Wilson). Together they encounter extraordinary beings and dangerous secrets, with the fate of both the living — and the dead — in their hands.

Although Thorne admits that he has “stolen” a “few treats” from other books, the first two seasons are essentially based on Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife. This has not stopped Tranter, who co-founded Bad Wolf with Julie Gardner, plotting out future seasons, particularly with reference to Keen’s age.


In the third book, The Amber Spyglass, Lyra is around 16 years of age, which, in success, would allow Bad Wolf to film in 2021. Tranter admits that if ordered, she would like to split the “huge” and “sprawling” book into two seasons. If the team get as far as Pullman’s next trilogy, The Book of Dust, which includes La Bella Sauvage, which was published in 2017, and The Secret Commonwealth, which was published earlier this year, plays with time in a slightly peculiar way. In La Bella Sauvage, Lyra is a baby, although Pullman has been clear not to call it a prequel, but in The Secret Commonwealth, she is 19/20. “I’m not saying I could make it happen, I’m just a woman in a shed in Cardiff with a dream but we’ve got to start somewhere,” she joked.

The shed that Tranter, who along with Gardner revived Doctor Who for the BBC, refers to is Wolf Studios, the 250,000 square foot studio outside of Cardiff that the pair set up with the backing of the Welsh government. She said that she believes His Dark Materials will help the Welsh production business in an even bigger way than Game of Thrones did for Northern Ireland. “The difference for us is that this is our Bad Wolf base, we’re not here to just make one show,” she said. “I can’t think of anywhere else which would have been better to have made it. The Welsh crews had real passion and commitment and the show was loved on to screen. The space that we were able to get with our warehouse here, we had the floor space and ceiling height to pull off Lee Scoresby in a balloon and the north in a studio.”


Also filming in Wales are the second season of Bad Wolf’s Sky fantasy drama A Discovery of Witches, which airs on AMC Networks’ channels in the U.S. and Industry, the HBO banking crisis drama directed by Girls creator Lena Dunham. The latter, which is filmed down the road at Pinewood Wales, is set in the cutthroat world of international finance as seen through the eyes of ambitious twenty-somethings struggling to secure their futures. It follows a group of young graduates competing for a limited set of permanent positions at a top investment bank in London – but the boundaries between colleague, friend, lover, and enemy soon blur as they immerse themselves in a company culture defined as much by sex, drugs, and ego as it is by deals and dividends.



The eight-part series, which the BBC boarded earlier this summer, is written by new British writing talent Mickey Down and Konrad Kay. Tranter (left) praised HBO, which developed the project for a couple of years, for taking a risk on new talent and said that all the network was interested in was the quality of the writing.


“Industry feels like the other side of the coin to His Dark Materials,” she said. Another show that is very much on the other side of the coin is Sky drama I Hate Suzie, overseen by Gardner. The show, which is filming in London, was co-created and stars Doctor Who’s Billie Piper with Succession writer and co-exec producer Lucy Prebble writing. Piper plays Suzie Pickles, a star on the wane, who has her whole life upended when her phone is hacked and a photo of her emerges in an extremely compromising position.


It is also working with British broadcaster ITV and eOne on submarine drama Tenacity, from Flightplan writer Peter A. Dowling.


Tranter said the plan was always to have a mixed portfolio of shows and was drawn to “idiosyncratic” drama. “Whether it’s a big piece of fantasy or something that is authentically tied to our lives today, we’re looking for things that are good stories, well told with something to say. However serious they are they have a sense of fun as well as elements of darkness,” she added.


Despite being in production on four shows, the company is also aggressively active in development and has a number of glitzy projects in early stages.


Gardner is working on projects including factually-based mystery drama Unresolved with Naomi Gibney, an adaptation of Jim Shepard’s novel Kiss of the Wolf, Lucia from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina writer Matthew Barry, in development with the BBC, and Darklands, a high-octane thriller set in a pitch-black world of cybercrime written by Das Boot writer Laura Grace.


Tranter, meanwhile, is looking after Soho 1918, Gold Dust Nation and the long-gestating Harrow Alley.


Soho 1918 is a gritty drugs, sex and nightclubs drama set in London’s Soho in the aftermath of World War One. The show, which comes from rising playwright, screenwriter and director Polly Stenham and Alex Warren, director of Ruth Wilson-fronted short Eleanor, follows the birth of the nightclub scene in Soho and tells the true story of a conservative, god-fearing 42-year old single mother, Kate Meyrick (above), who builds a nightclub empire and criminal family enterprise, becoming the most dangerous woman in London as well as a competitor to Brilliant Chang, the baron of Soho’s gritty underworld. Tranter called it “epic” and “amazing”.

Gold Dust Nation is set in the 1990s world of British Vogue. Former editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman and former editor-at-large Fiona Golfar of the British fashion magazine are developing the drama, which will tell the story of the 1990s through the prism of a British monthly, shining a light on a country emerging from grunge and recession to a new world of Blair and Prada. It will highlight how the world of New Labour, Britpop and the dot-com boom are about to set the world alight against a background of new feminism, body image, age discrimination, diversity and substance abuse through the eyes of the fashion world. “We are in early stages but we are progressing nicely,” Tranter said.

Nick Haddow

Finally, there’s still hope for Harrow Alley, which is being shepherded by Emma Thompson (right). The period horror thriller, which is set up at HBO, is based on one of Hollywood’s long-lost scripts. The original script was written by Walter Newman, who was nominated for three Oscars, 1951’s Ace In The Hole, 1965’s Cat Ballou and 1978’s Bloodbrothers, in the 1960s but never managed to make it to screen, despite the involvement of George C Scott and other high-profile talent, as a result of its dark subject matter and big-budget requirements. Tranter joked that “there’s no hurry” on the project. “I pray for that once a week. We are still slowly moving forward it,” she added.


This varied development slate sums up Bad Wolf’s broad tastes and while Tranter admits that she’s drawn to writers with interesting taste, she is looking for projects that Bad Wolf, with its studio space in Wales, can add something to. “You don’t always go see one type of film, watch one type of television series or read one kind of book, we’re attracted to development because I’m attracted to the writer’s take on a story,” she said. “At this stage, I need to feel I can contribute something worthwhile to that writer. I ask ‘is this something that I think Bad Wolf, in its particular place in Wales, could help contribute towards’.”


Most of Bad Wolf’s dramas are U.S./UK co-productions, something that has got easier over the years. “I think most UK broadcasters are well versed in co-partnering with American broadcasters in a way that hasn’t always been the case, but it is the only way to get money and keep pace. Long gone are the days are the days of British broadcasters fully funding drama.”


She said that having been drama boss at the BBC has helped enormously. “You trust,” she said. “Sometimes a note can come out not as clearly as you might want it to but I can ask ‘what is the note that I’m really being given here’. I know there’s a point behind it and I want to find out what that point is, because it might be something really valuable.”


Next up for the company, which is backed by Access Entertainment, Len Blavatnik’s company run by former BBC chief Danny Cohen, Sky and HBO, is finding the “green shoots” for 2020. She said, “That’s the endless march of the producer.”

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