The team on upcoming period drama series The Halcyon from Left Bank Pictures, the Sony-owned company behind Outlander, Wallander and Netflix's The Crown, doesn't mind comparisons with such hit shows as Downton Abbey and The West Wing.
After all, the creatives behind the show about a glamorous five-star hotel at the center of London society during World War II hope that the eight-episode first-season order will be followed by more. Stars Steven Mackintosh (Luther) and Olivia Williams (Anna Karenina) are joined by the likes of Kara Tointon (Mr Selfridge), Alex Jennings (The Lady in the Van), Matt Ryan (Constantine), Hermione Corfield (Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur) and Mark Benton (Eddie the Eagle). Set to a soundtrack of the music of the era, with singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum contributing two songs to season 1 and singer Beverley Knight making a special guest appearance, the drama shows London life through the prism of war and the impact it has on families, relationships, work and politics.
For Left Bank, the drama, expected to launch on ITV in Britain early in 2017, is this year's big focus at MIPCOM in Cannes, with an exclusive screening at the Palais des Festivals on Oct. 16, followed by a panel discussion with the producers. The drama was created by Charlotte Jones (Without You) and lead series writer Jack Lothian (Strike Back), is executive produced by Sharon Hughff (Strike Back) and Left Bank CEO Andy Harries and produced by Chris Croucher (Downton Abbey). Sony Pictures Television is distributing the show internationally.
"One could see that Downton was coming to an end, and one was being encouraged to - several production companies were talked to - think about finding a show that might fill Downton's boots," Left Bank CEO Andy Harries told THR about how The Halcyon came to be commissioned. "Of course, Victoria is one. We had this notion that a West End hotel during the Second World War was a really neat idea. Hotel series are a traditional part of television drama. But a posh hotel in the Second World War during the Blitz seemed to be a great setting for a drama."
During a London set visit this summer, members of the team behind The Halcyon emphasized the high aspirations and production value and their longer-term plans for the drama. And they didn't shy away from Downton Abbey comparisons.
"It's a similar beast actually," Croucher said when asked if the show was similar to Downton Abbey. "It's the same-size ensemble - 20 main cast. We probably shoot about 75 percent here [in the studio] and 25 percent out on several different locations, which is a similar ratio to what was Downton was. It's a similar beast to get your head around. The only different thing for me was that this one we started from scratch, from ground zero, whereas when I took over Downton, it was already a train that was well going in the right direction."
But Left Bank founder and managing director Marigo Kehoe emphasized that originally "we didn't set out for it to be another Downton." She explained: "Andy (Harries) and I have never done things that are just in a box. We have done Strike Back, an action-adventure series, and Wallander, with a deeply depressed Ken Branagh. It's a huge breadth of stuff. We had this in development for a long time actually," and the end of Downton just turned out to be the time when new ideas were needed.
What about the West Wing comparisons? "We talked a lot about The West Wing when we were designing the set, because it is all connected," Croucher explained, leading a team of reporters across the vast hotel lobby on set. "You can do these great walk-and-talks. That show also used a lot of practical lighting. So you got The West Wing meets Merchant Ivory."
Kehoe emphasized the show's mix of drama and fun. "It's a fascinating topic what was going on in the hotels building up to the war and then during the war itself. The parties and shenanigans...," she said. Added Croucher: "We all know what naughty things happen in hotels, and we definitely go there with our stories."
Asked about the sheer size of the set, Croucher said: "If you are going to try and sell a hotel, you got to believe it is a hotel. At one point, we were debating whether we were going to build a restaurant here as well and then we were obviously restricted by the size of the stages, so it made more sense to actually have the scale of the foyer here and the bar and the backstage, and we actually shoot our restaurant at a location."
Hughff said the team looked for a possible real hotel to shoot at - from Liverpool to Manchester and Dublin - before deciding on a studio space in London. "Of course, there isn't really just the perfect hotel anywhere that's just lying vacant," she quipped. "They all are quite interesting buildings, but nothing that would have suited us. We had so many conversations. You have an exterior that is this huge facade, and then you get in and it sort of looks like a B&B in Torquay. And then West London Film Studio was the last studio left in London that could offer us the space."
She added: "Everything has to feel grand. So we built this. It has to be that big, because it has to be a five-star hotel in London."
But the show had to not only feel big, but also dark enough. "We didn't want it to look shiny and golden," Hughff explained. "It needed to look more moody and a little bit more real."
The challenges of shooting in London clearly play into the production. Finding a free stage was not easy. "The space is brilliant. These days, studio space is absolutely premium," explained Kehoe. "Everybody is looking for studio space."
Some Londoners may recognize the hotel's exterior front as the Land Registry Building. Given it is in full operation and in a busy part of London, the producers can only shoot there on Sundays.
Asked about other challenges during the production's first season, Croucher cited "making the Blitz seem real." He explained: "We took one of the wonderful streets in Greenwich that are almost untouched - well it was still four days of build. The blackout was a particularly challenging thing, because if you stand in central London now at night, there is a light as far as you can see, cranes, buildings. There is always ambient light. We could control around 50 percent of the lights in our area, but you know that crane is going to be [edited] out."
Several of the people involved described the show's first season as introducing viewers to "London's most glamorous air raid shelter" during the war.
Sony is looking to sell The Halcyon in the U.S. and worldwide. "I think the themes of survival in tough times are pretty universal," said Harries. "American audiences will warm to that combination, I hope, of British and American stories."
The music is a key focus that he and his team think will help set the show apart. "What I thought was the most interesting area to pursue was adding an element of music," he explained. "In what were terribly tough times, there was a sense of if we are going to die tomorrow, we might as well party tonight. So music was really important to people's lives." And he added: "It does make it feel different and makes it a more original show."
No second season has been ordered, but Harries said: "We certainly will be very upset if we don't come back for a second season. It's designed as a five season show minimum. I'd be very disappointed if it doesn't make it." Added Kehoe: "We're keeping the sets. As a production, you have to take the risk. We believe in the show."
The show starts out in May 1940, and the first season finishes in late 1940, explained Houghff. "We are fairly non-specific where we end," she said. "It was going to be New Year, and then our research showed that no bombs fell on London on New Year's eve 1940. It would have been brilliant."
But the show "has scope for change and progression" in possible future seasons, Croucher echoed. "The war changes in London. Later on, the Americans join and you have the GIs. And the music changes as well. And the great thing about hotels also is that people are always coming and going through those doors, so there is a way to expand characters and bring people in."