The masterminds behind Succession – TV’s most brutal comedy
And so, the end is near for Succession – a show devoured and adored by those who loved it, including the people it most savagely mocked, whilst not being hugely watched by almost everybody else. At least, for now.
So why do those it abused venerate it so much? Why does a show initially prompted by a book about Rupert Murdoch lead his daughter Elisabeth to sport a “Team Shiv” T-shirt, referencing the fictional Logan Roy’s canny but abusive daughter.
For the casual, non-millionaire element of the audience, there’s the voyeurism. There’s something about the grim, almost sticky-fingered world it depicts that feels like a slightly dirty place you’d sort of love to inhabit if only to watch it burn.
For the rich, it’s a documentary – the in-depth research is phenomenal – with the bonus of playground level insults and backchat that you imagine everyone is screaming inside but never quite gets round to articulating.
At the heart of it, of course, is the superb acting. Brian Cox as the ferocious, canny media billionaire Logan Roy. Roy’s offspring jockeying to be the chosen inheritor of daddy’s wealth and power, Shiv, Roman and Kendall – played by Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong. Matthew Macfadyen’s oily but superbly named Tom Wambsgans. And the tension of the final season begins with the unexpected result of Tom betraying the siblings – he’s in, they’re out, it’s war.
Seen through Roy’s rags-to-riches eyes, the affluence he has created looks vaguely diseased and unsatisfying – and the show’s artful blend of story, script, research, music, titles and budget deliver convincingly on creator Jesse Armstrong’s ambition to show that “for people who come from powerful families, there is nothing in life quite as interesting as being at court and to be excluded from the flame of money and power would feel a bit like death”.
But Armstrong didn’t build this world on his own. Here, then, are the twisted minds who make the most brutal comedy on television feel like a savage reality show.
Although Succession has a writers’ room, Jesse Armstrong, 52, wrote the pilot alone, based on a script he’d written in 2010 loosely inspired by Michael Wolff’s unauthorised Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News. It followed Rupert trying to convince his elder children to give his two youngest by his new wife corporate voting rights.
He’d already created Peep Show with writing partner Sam Bain and worked for Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It – a number of writers from The Thick of It including Tony Roche and Georgia Pritchett work on Succession – but caught the attention of Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Anchorman. McKay commissioned Armstrong to write a movie about Republican strategist Lee Atwater, which reached Frank Rich, producer of HBO’s Veep. Armstrong had written an episode of Veep and met Rich who bulldozed HBO into commissioning Succession in 2016.
Armstrong – who worked as a researcher for Labour MP Doug Henderson before making it as a writer – comes from Oswestry, lives in South London in the same house he’s owned since 2004, has a rented office in Brixton, is married to child psychologist Milly who he met at Manchester University and, when asked by The New Yorker if he planned to splash the $1 million per episode he gets from Succession on a new home, replied “we might do a new kitchen. So that will be corrupting.”
The writers’ room
Succession’s writing team is a somewhat rag-tag mix of sweary British comedy nerds, decorated playwrights and US TV veterans. There’s Tony Roche, the swearing consultant on all Armando Iannucci’s shows and inventor of the word omnishambles; Ted Cohen, who cut his teeth on Friends; Georgia Pritchett, whose CV includes Spitting Image, Waterloo Road and Veep; Will Tracy, from US satirical news site The Onion; Hawaiian playwright Susan Soon He Stanton; Jon Brown, who’s written for James Corden, Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Dead Pixels; Killing Eve’s Anna Jordan; and Lucy Prebble of Enron, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and I Hate Suzie fame. Together, they’re responsible for world-class insults such as this: “F--- you, too, you pusillanimous piece of f------ fool’s gold, f------ silver-spoon a--hole.”
Ensconced in a Brixton office lined with tomes on the lives of Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdoch and Walt Disney, the writers do heavy lifting on the research. Stanton oversees yacht scenes, Brown trawled elite sex parties for Tom Wambsgans’s bachelor party in season one and Prebble is the mastermind behind the twisted flirtation between Roman and his elder colleague Gerri – originally written as a man. Roche handles the more baroque scenes such as the Roys’ game of Boar on the Floor (“Oink for your sausage, piggies!”). Prebble pens most of Roman and Gerri’s sexier interactions and tends to get the drug taking scenes, recently telling a journalist “it’s like ‘we want a cocaine scene, call Lucy Prebble.’”
The wealth consultants
Early Succession scripts got key details wrong: Marcia Roy would never cook Thanksgiving turkey, the staff would not be in maid’s clothes, and the family would not own winter overcoats. (“We were told, the rich don’t wear coats, they go from their cars or their jets to their building, their shoes don’t walk on the ground,” according to Pritchett.) So the production hired wealth consultants to ensure every detail is as close to correct as possible. Art curators, interior designers, stylists and service industry professionals advised on wardrobe and decor. Art curator Fanny Pereire chose Logan Roy’s Juan Gris and Egon Schiele artworks, while designer to billionaires Joan Behnke added panelled walls, comfortable seating and writing desks. Former staff explained they’d be wearing polo shirts and chinos as they served the Roys, and pointed out that when getting out of helicopters, the wealthy never duck.
Nicholas Britell is a Harvard-educated, world-class pianist who studied psychology, played in hip-hop band The Witness Protection Programme supporting Jurassic 5, worked as a currency trader at Bear Stearns just before the crash in 2007 and wound up managing a spin-off hedge fund then started scoring movies and was Oscar nominated for Moonlight within five years. It’s no wonder the dementedly catchy theme mixes classical phrases with a low slung rhythm that was subsequently sampled by the rapper Pusha T on his HBO-sanctioned song Puppets. “Sonically everything is in there,” Britell has explained. “A hard beat on 808 drum machines, a huge string orchestra, bizarrely out of tune piano, and even sleigh bells.”
Although the show has other directors – Adam McKay helmed the pilot – Mark Mylod shoots the lion’s share of episodes. Currently soaking up praise for his eat-the-rich hit The Menu, the south Devon lad started out on British sketch TV like The Fast Show, Bang, Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer and Shooting Stars. His first dysfunctional family show was The Royle Family followed by Shameless, which took him along when it transferred to the US. He worked on Game of Thrones and Entourage before Succession, where his friendship with McKay secured him the job on The Menu.
Season four of Succession is available from Monday March 27 on Sky Atlantic and NOW