EXCLUSIVE: The co-producer of Squid Game: The Challenge is bringing its fixed rig expertise to more genres following the success of the Netflix smash, and has promoted three execs to help with the push.
Prolific British unscripted outfit The Garden has nurtured a reputation over the past decade for a string of hit fixed rig shows for broadcasters such as 24 Hours In Police Custody and 24 Hours in A&E, but has recently turned to more formatted fare including the Squid Game gameshow and Channel 4’s Alone, a UK version of the History hit.
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CEO John Hay, who has taken sole charge from Magnus Temple and Nicola Hill, said the reshaping of the outfit’s strategy has been a long time coming, and there are plans to move the dial further.
“Everything in TV takes forever,” he told Deadline. “We have been pushing this [slate expansion] boulder for four to five years and it’s finally started to roll.”
Beyond Squid Game and Alone, Hay said his team is also expanding slate to other genres, pointing to premium documentary series such as the BBC’s Our Falklands War and an upcoming feature-length on the miners’ strike.
“We are evolving from being a company best known for domestic fixed rig shows to being a company that still has fixed rig at its heart but is taking something we’ve learned from that and applying it across a wider range of genres,” said Hay.
The Garden has two soon-to-be-revealed greenlights for streamers that tap into this DNA, Hay revealed, as he cautiously welcomed a “good moment” for the ITV Studios-owned company amidst a tricky time for the UK TV industry.
A trio of The Garden promotions will solidify the new strategy, with Lucie Duxbury becoming Head of Programmes, Spencer Kelly taking on Director of Factual and 24 Hours in Police Custody series director Jermaine Blake joining as EP.
The three will bolster the company’s senior team as Creative Director Nic Brown returns from maternity leave to take charge of the slate, and Brown said the move is testament to The Garden’s commitment to training up the next generation on its long-running returners.
“Shows like 24 Hours in A&E allow us to spread our work, give us new pools of talent and help people work at scale so are really important,” said Brown. Hay called these returners “talent incubators” at a time when UK TV’s ailing freelance community finds itself with its back against the wall.
Fixing the rig on ‘Squid Game’
Squid Game: The Challenge topped Netflix viewer charts for weeks around the world and a second season is already in the works. The show took the world’s most-watched TV drama and made it unscripted, bringing in 456 contestants and a record prize fund of $4.56M.
The Garden was successful in its bid to produce the series and was handed the keys alongside The Traitors maker Studio Lambert. While there were certainly teething problems, the pair have come in for praise for bringing their particular expertise to the smash show – The Garden with its fixed rig specialism and Studio Lambert with edge-of-the-seat constructed reality.
Hay, however, said The Garden’s contribution was “broader” than fixed rig and spotlighted its work making shows about people who find themselves up against the ropes.
“I expect half of the producers in the world were talking to Netflix about adapting Squid Game,“ he added. “There was a sense of creative cross-pollination, about what might spark creatively if you put people coming from different directions into the same conversation. We have plenty of experience with shows about characters under pressure, whether that’s having a major accident or being in a police interview room or trying to scratch a shape from a cookie.”
Hay said The Challenge was “like nothing else I have ever done and even Steven [Lambert, boss of Studio Lambert] said that halfway through.”
While the model of two production companies working together is more common in the U.S., Hay suggested that the UK industry will see more collaborations in the vein of The Garden and Studio Lambert.
He backed Lambert’s recent proclamation that the success of shows like The Challenge could lead buyers to opt for premium unscripted over drama. “My sense is unscripted shows at scale are delivering big audiences,” he added. “People keep buying what works so there will be appetite for it.”
Brown, who was on set in Barking for weeks, revealed she gave birth just four hours after the cameras were turned off. “I was thinking to myself ‘just get to the end of the shoot’,” she said.
While UK TV is in a “tough moment” with a commissioning slowdown that has hit Hay’s former employer Channel 4 particularly hard, Hay said “the potential opportunities out there are exciting and having both terrestrial buyers and streamers in full play gifts different kinds of opportunity,” as he contrasted the size and scale of The Challenge with a highly-rated episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody about male rape that was “pure PSB.”
Also on the horizon for The Garden is Channel 4’s Dark Phone, telling the story of an extraordinary police operation to access an encrypted phone network used by organized crime groups around the world, which took place four years ago.
Although The Garden is “desperate to get it on air,” Brown revealed that premiere has been pushed back due to legal proceedings.
For 74 days, the messages sent and received on 60,000 handsets were covertly captured by police and Brown said the mundane messages contained in the “treasure trove” are as interesting an insight into criminality as the standout ones.
Hay added: “The everyday chatter takes you there in a way that nothing else ever would and as ever proves that unscripted is weirder than scripted in that world. There’s a real sense watching it what it must be like to be in their heads.”
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