CANNES, France — Set in the lap of luxury at the Halcyon Hotel in World War II-era London, Sony Pictures Television’s “The Halcyon” may prove catnip to some of the same audiences that warmed to “Downton Abbey” or, longer ago, “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
But if the early stretches of the first episode are anything to go by, “The Halcyon,” which world premiered Sunday evening at Cannes Mipcom trade fair, is faster-paced, music-laced and more multi-stranded than either of the series with which it will inevitably be compared.
Moreover, rather than showing how aristos adapt to changing times, “The Halcyon” looks set to chronicle how the occupants of a hotel — from the imperious owner, Lord Hamilton, to the minions toiling downstairs — get through the Blitz, just five months away when Episode 1 kicks in. Olivia Williams (“Anna Karenina”), who plays the cheated-on Lady Hamilton, said at a Q & A before Sunday’s screening that “The Halcyon” shows the intensity of life lived when there is no tomorrow.
The central relationship is the enmity between Lady Hamilton and the hotel manager, Richard Garland (Steven Macintosh, “Luther”), who share a dark secret. Other storylines that will play out through the first season is the initially unspoken love between Freddie, the Hamiltons’ elder son and a young Spitfire pilot, and Emma, Garland’s daughter, the hotel receptionist. The younger son, Toby, is secretly gay. Sonny Sullivan, the black leader of the band that plays at the hotel bar, carries a torch for its extrovert white chanteuse. The band’s songs take in jazz and soul, endowing the series with strong musical heft.
Then there’s the backstory, seen right at the outset, of a pro-appeasement cabal of big wigs who meet in secret at the hotel, worrying about the impact of war with Hitler on the British economy.
Commissioned by ITV, “The Halcyon” is distributed worldwide by Sony Pictures Television. It marks the latest drama offering from Andy Harries’ SPT-owned Left Bank Pictures, one of the U.K.’s heaviest drama hitters, producer of “Outlander” and Netflix’s upcoming first U.K. original series “The Crown.”
In industry terms, “The Halcyon” is also “in many ways emblematic of a new [TV] world and the way in which we produce and distribute TV shows,” said Keith Le Goy, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television. “Historically for a U.S. studio, we would make shows for U.S. consumers and treat the rest of the world as an export market. In this case, we are making a show with ITV, where the U.S. is an export market.”
Also embodying the new TV age, “The Halcyon” forms part of a drive by Sony to increase its drama footprint in response to a perceived rising demand for high-quality shows. Currently, SPT is producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 scripted series around the world, outside the U.S, under the leadership of Zack VanAmburg and Jamie Erlicht, presidents of SPT.
Le Goy said: “We are producing more drama now than we have ever produced, investing more in drama development in the U.S and around the world. We believe strongly in the strength of drama in the global market.”
SPT backing can help a U.K. company score an essential licensing deal in its home market, an increasing challenge as ever more drama producers target a finite number of primetime slots.
The studio’s support allowed Left Bank Pictures to go to ITV and offer something which has far more value than a series made just with the U.K. in mind, Harries said at the Q & A.
Le Goy agreed. “If you are ITV,” he said, “this allows you to have something in which you can take a lot of pride of ownership and get all the benefits associated with that: a budget level and a production level that is way in excess of anything they could do without the partnership of a global studio.”