Big Talk Productions CEO Kenton Allen is generally honest when he thinks about 2020. “A disaster,” he says, examining the economic wreckage of Covid-19 on a Zoom call from his home in London on last month. Like countless others, the pandemic has made a huge dent in Big Talk’s bottom line and created unthinkable headaches for the company, which should have celebrated 12 very healthy months. But Allen, a surly optimist, is celebrating the victories of the coronavirus crisis, rather than wallowing in what went wrong.
For starters, Big Talk was successful in convincing the BBC and Amazon to order a second season of Stephen Merchant’s comedy-drama. The delinquants even before the first is shot. Known for his monosyllabic comedic hits, including Tower and Mom, the production company also finally wrapped up a second season of Channel 4 / Sundance Now’s Return after a bewildering series of setbacks, both Covid and unrelated to Covid. Another great talk show, Friday evening dinner, delivered a compelling performance for its sixth (and possibly final) season, becoming Channel 4’s highest-rated comedy series. Meanwhile, Allen is also in awe of a development boom that has taken place during the downtime months .
Christopher Walken directs the cast of Stephen Merchant’s ‘the Offenders’ series for Amazon and BBC
“It’s been incredibly difficult, incredibly stressful, incredibly anxious, but also incredibly creative,” Allen said, tugging on a cigarette as he perched on a balcony bathed in winter sunshine. “Having six or seven months just to really focus on development and have the space to be very specific about what we all love – slate is also probably as tough as it has been for the 12 years. by Big Talk. ”
The delinquants is a project to which Allen is particularly attached. It’s quite the turnaround from nine months ago, when the six-part series was forced to give up tools after just 12 days. Allen makes faces recounting the “mortifying” experience, which he said was like “looking into this dark and deep pit of oblivion.” But during those grim times, Allen got a call from the BBC asking if Merchant would be writing Season 2 during the months when the cameras weren’t rolling. “To which we said, ‘We’ll write season 2 if you order season 2,’ he recalls. The BBC and Amazon have agreed on the basis that the two seasons will be shot back to back once production has upped. A virtual writers’ room was quickly assembled and Merchant went to work on new ideas for his show, which stars Christopher Walken and focuses on a group of seven strangers observing their community payback award in Bristol, England.
“We took advantage of the advantage of having already shot scripts to find out more before we shot. We were able to rewrite Season 1 to reflect what we know is going to happen to the characters in Season 2. We were able to take it deeper and layer it, ”Allen says. The former BBC executive was impressed with the work ethic of Merchant, who also stars, directs and co-produces The delinquants through her Four Eyes outfit. “His ability to be creative and focused in an environment that didn’t really lend itself to creativity and focus was exemplary,” Allen adds.
It is, after all, a passion project for Office co-writer Merchant, who co-created the series with Elgin James and was inspired by his experience of being raised by parents who ran a local community service project. This manifested in his early scripts for the series and helped land the fastest Big Talk order in history, according to Allen. He sent the show to Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s content manager, on a Thursday and the production company owned by ITV Studios got the green light the following Tuesday.
Filming is now back underway in Bristol, with filming scheduled until October 2021 – barring a major hiatus as a more virulent strain of coronavirus rages across the UK. “It’s slower and we’re building sets, which we didn’t originally plan to do. We have a more controlled environment on some things so we’re not on site, ”says Allen, who is not allowed to visit the set due to strict security protocols. The team planned the filming schedule around Walken, who is classified as clinically vulnerable in the UK due to her 77 years. “He is not yet on the set and will not arrive until March. We built the calendar in such a way that it doesn’t come here during the corona peak. It happens when we hope it will be safer and there will be a vaccine. The plan being that he will be vaccinated.
Allen knows from hard experience what it means to protect the vulnerable stars on set after his work on Return with British actor Robert Webb. The comedy, created by Veep Writer Simon Blackwell returns to Channel 4 on January 21, but it took more than three years to get to this point after the first season started in September 2017. That’s largely because Webb undertook a review. routine medical treatment at the start of filming for Season 2 in October 2019, during which it was discovered he had a heart murmur, which led to major open-heart surgery.
“The prognosis was he had about six months left before something much more serious happened,” says Allen. “We were able to keep filming for another two weeks using body voices and then we quit. We have five weeks under our belt. Robert was signed for four months. We restarted filming in mid-February of this year (2020) and filmed for four weeks, obviously watching out for Robert, and then we were closed on March 16. [because of coronavirus] – at this point we were two days away from finishing.
Return, which brings together Webb and his Peep Show co-star David Mitchell, has become something of a guinea pig for ITV Studios’ efforts to restart production last year. The two-day shoot turned into six days with security protocols including actors playing against iPad screens. Were there any fears that the shoot was cursed? There were obviously worrying moments, Allen says, but ultimately the commitment to the second season was firm. “Channel 4 and Sundance have been amazing. Obviously, it hasn’t been cheaper… as broadcasters, they never gave up. “
Season 1 follows Webb’s Andrew as he shows up at his adoptive father’s funeral and, to the dismay of his former adoptive brother, Stephen (Mitchell), steps back into the life of his former family, becoming the archetype of the cuckoo clock. in the nest. Season 2 turns that dynamic around, with Stephen re-entering his family’s life and trying to reestablish his role within it. Stephen and Andrew’s relationship has echoes of Mark and Jez in Peep Show, and Allen hopes Return may become the next iconic series starring Mitchell and Webb. At the very least, the series is in venerable company when it comes to the big gaps between seasons, with Allen pointing out that Fawlty towers and Absolutely fabulous both suffered similar screen absences.
Big Talk carved its own landmark in the annals of British comedy history last March, when Friday evening dinner returned for its sixth season with 4.3 million viewers – the largest audience ever for a comedy series on Channel 4. The story reached what seemed like a natural conclusion, Adam (Simon Bird) and Jonny (Tom Rosenthal) finding love in the midst of the chaos of their family life. Allen says creator Robert Popper, who wrote each of the Friday evening dinner 38 episodes, is now stuck in new projects. This includes a pilot project planned for this year called I hate you, which he produces with Big Talk. Allen is shy about the script.
“I don’t think Robert wants to write a series in which they bring their wives and children,” he adds. Friday evening dinner. “Never say never, but I suspect that’s probably all for now. We never know. At the moment, we no longer plan to do Friday evening dinner. Instead, Channel 4 released a 90-minute documentary on Friday evening dinner success and marking its 10th anniversary this year. Big Talk is currently filming interviews for the film, which will air in the spring. There remains hope of making an American version of the show after CBS and NBC both tried adaptations. Allen reveals that the American remake, titled Dinner with parents, is now in the hands of old Late Show with David Letterman writer Jon Beckerman.
Elsewhere in the United States, Legal Department, a remake of the BBC jury duty comedy We the jury, remains on hold at CBS after last year’s pilot was derailed by the pandemic. “He’s still alive,” Allen says. Big Talk is also planning to adapt its time-traveling comedy from jazz group ITV2, Timewasters, for ABC. A pilot is scheduled for spring, but Allen is measured during the American slate exam. He knows firsthand that it can be a volatile market after a brutal experience in 2011, in which he found out that the Big Talk remake of Free agents was canceled mid-season after an NBC parking attendant asked for his license to be returned.
Otherwise, Allen says Big Talk’s development slate includes dramas, half-hour comedies, and feature films (where he features hits including Baby driver, Attack the block and of course, Shaun of the Dead) is in good condition. The only problem now is that the market is full of well-developed materials vying for attention. “There are a ton of projects at an advanced stage of development so the competition has never been greater, but there are a ton of buyers out there and they are starting to think about 2022 after everything has been pushed back. year, ”says Allen. 2020 may have been a financial disaster, but he’s confident Big Talk is well positioned for the “rebound” this year and beyond.