Fifty Fathoms Execs Talk Recent Success, Upcoming Series With John Ridley, Idris Elba

Patrick Spence, Katie Swindon - H 2016
Credit: Fifty Fathoms

The young British TV indie, now on its fourth production in six years, is prepping the second season of 'Fortitude' and enjoying the recent acclaim of family dramedy 'The A Word.'

Earlier this week, John Ridley kicked off production on his latest project, the U.K.-set politically-charged '70s drama series Guerrilla.

The co-production between Showtime and Sky, starring Idris Elba and Freida Pinto, chronicles a fictional romance within the very real story of the U.K.’s own black activist movement and its battles with the police, and will likely make a big noise when it lands next year. The series will also highlight the somewhat rapid rise of local indie Fifty Fathoms, now on its fourth production in just six years.

With principal photography having started in London on Guerrilla, the TV banner, which has expanded beyond its original walls as a label under the Endemol Shine-owned Tiger Aspect production company, is also finishing up the second season of its mysterious, Iceland-shot “Arctic noir” Fortitude (Sky and Pivot), due out in January, and has recently seen the first season of The A Word, a family dramedy about a young boy with autism, become a ratings hit on the BBC. The show — currently airing on SundanceTV — has already been greenlit for a second outing.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Fifty Fathoms' managing director Patrick Spence, who set the company up in 2010, and its creative director Katie Swinden to discuss giving their writers the freedom to pursue their passion projects, persuading Ridley to swap San Francisco for London and, naturally, prehistoric parasitic wasps.

Let’s start with the latest show that aired, The A Word. Did you expect it to become such a ratings hit?

Patrick Spence: The overnights were decent, between four and five million, which isn’t bad for a show like that. But the iPlayer figures were just enormous. After episode three all three episodes were in the top five of the entire BBC chart that week. We don’t know the exact figures, but we know they were enormous as we were commissioned for another season before the end of the first. I think it was clearly to do with word of mouth. Ten years ago, The A Word would have had those overnights, but that would have been it. Word of mouth has turned it into a much more significant hit.

And do you think this was people realizing that it wasn’t simply a show about autism?

PS: Yeah, what must have been happening was people talking about it and saying, "It’s not what you think; it’s not homework; it’s not earnest." What Pete [Bowker, the writer] would tell you if he was here is that it’s a show about communication in which autism is the thing that accentuates all the existing problems of the family. So it makes everything more heightened emotionally. But it’s really a drama about a family who can’t communicate with each other, teaching a child how to communicate.

It was adapted from a drama by Israeli production house Keshet. How did it end up in your hands?

PS: Keshet approached Pete, and he said, "Yeah, I’m interested, so long as I can work with Patrick." That’s how we all came together. We became their producer on the ground. I’ve got a 20-year relationship with Pete from working at the BBC.

And how about Fortitude, which is an entirely different kettle of fish from The A Word?

PS: It was originally a film idea, that Simon [Donald, the creator] pitched to a producer. His telling of the story is that the producer openly laughed in his face and said it was a terrible idea. He phoned me up and said, "Have I lost it, am I mad?" I thought the film idea was brilliant but felt it was TV so persuaded him to think of it that way. He said, "Who, in this current climate, commissions a show set in a foreign community in the Arctic circle that is, well it was originally, a horror." His film idea was the last four episodes of the first season, so I suggested turning that into a series and having a murder investigation that leads into the horror.

And did Sky in the U.K. immediately pick it up?

PS: I took it to Anne Mensah, who had just started at Sky Atlantic, and she said it defined the kind of show the channel was looking for and supported it right from the start. The next week, she sent us up to the Arctic to spend two weeks researching that community.

The first season of Fortitude dealt with a mysterious and deadly ancient disease lurking under the ice. Although it seems to be purely fiction, it’s not completely implausible, right?

PS: The beginnings of Simon’s idea, which we could have never talked about in our publicity because it would have ruined the end of the show, was that he had read about Charles Darwin studying a parasitic prehistoric wasp. Apparently its modus operandi was so brutal and cruel that it caused him to question his belief in god. So Simon thought he had to put that wasp in contact with the human race and see what would happen. He sat with people at the Natural History Museum and they said it wasn’t actually preposterous. If it were put inside a mammoth and the mammoth was frozen and thrown out of the tundra by global warming, then strictly speaking that wasp could come back to life. So that’s what we did.

What are the chances of this actually happening?

PS: I don’t know what the continuing global warming will throw up. If you look it up, they are actually finding viruses under the ice. Luckily none of them are terrible. But they’re worrying that one of these days something might come up that is the next bubonic plague.

Although your shows are markedly different, there does seem to be a common theme involving a social message. Certainly with The A Word and its approach to autism, to a lesser extent with Fortitude and environmental issues and now with Guerrilla’s political activism and racism. Is this intentional?

PS: That’s a really good observation. But if I had to draw a thread between all of those shows and all of the shows in development, it’s that what we do is we go after writers that we love and we say to them, "what would you most want to write?" Some writers are passionate about pure entertainment, and some are passionate about dramas that have something a bit more profound to say. It is probably not a coincidence that some of the drama that we have gotten has had an underlying message of trying to either make the world a better place or get up people’s noses.

Katie Swinden: We don’t have an agenda. That’s what’s so freeing and why our shows are quite different. You’re right that they have a strong identity at their heart, but that has always come from the writer.

So how did you manage to hook up with John Ridley and Idris Elba? They're both rather in demand.

PS: I met John when he was in Ireland filming All Is by My Side. We discussed Guerrilla then; this was before 12 Years a Slave had come out. I had read the script of 12 Years a Slave and liked it very, very much, so I went after John very hard as a writer. When I asked him what he most wanted to write, he told me about this idea for a show about black activists fighting against a racist police force in 1970s San Francisco.

KS: I've worked with Idris before — I set up the first two seasons of Luther. When we were talking with John, the two of them met and began discussing it and it just very naturally came out of two inspired people.

And how did you persuade him to move the story to London?

PS: My team did two months of proper research to prepare a case to show him that actually the story was better set in London. When John read what had been going in London he said it was a better place to tell this story.

KS: It inspired us to see how much of a history there was in the U.K. And to our shame, we realized that there was a huge black power movement here in the '50s, '60s and '70s that we were not that aware of. We talked to a couple of academics who have been absolutely fantastic and opened our eyes to all this information. One historical fact is that there was, within the police force, a "black desk," which was about targeting people of color. So suddenly it felt like a really rich area to move the show over. We’ve talked to many of the original people, they’ve come on set and John sat down with them. It’s a story that we really want to get out into the pubic consciousness. It’s also a show that’s big and beautiful and set in the '70s, with the music and the hair.

You're doing it with Sky again, but how did Showtime come on board?

PS: We took the show out to the U.S., put it on the open market and received a number of bids. And we all chose Showtime. John has a long-standing relationship with them and they were very passionate about the material. They also have a long relationship with Sky. So there were a number of ways that the marriage seemed perfect.

Despite being set in the U.K. and being about British history, do you think the story will travel across the Atlantic?

KS: Very much so. It’s a universal story, which unfortunately is as timely today as it was back then. In a strange way, sometimes it helps to tell stories about the past that we can look to now. It was a time when people had a sense of hope and a sense that whatever you were fighting for you had an opportunity to make change. And that is very seductive. What we can look on in hindsight is that not that much changed, unfortunately.