EXCLUSIVE: Caryn Mandabach is a multi-award-winning veteran producer whose credits include hit U.S. series from The Cosby Show to Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Cybill, 3rd Rock From the Sun, That 70s Show and Nurse Jackie. More recently, Mandabach is the proud executive producer of period gangster epic Peaky Blinders. Created and written by Steven Knight, the series is made by Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect and concluded its fourth-season run on BBC Two in the UK on Wednesday night. Today, it became available on Netflix in the U.S.
Peaky Blinders’ Season 4 was BBC Two’s highest-rated drama this year and with a consolidated average (not including last night’s finale) of 3.3M viewers, it’s also been the most popular of all seasons — topping S3 by nearly 1M viewers. On the BBC’s iPlayer, each of this year’s six episodes has had more than 1M requests. And yet, for all the love that its rabid fanbase shows it, the saga has mysteriously never won a major award.
A transplant from the U.S. to the UK several years ago, Mandabach has more in common with Peaky than meets the eye: She’s the daughter of a Chicago “gambler/gangster,” something she elaborates upon below. We also discussed her experience working with Bill Cosby and her beliefs about how the current climate should be treated, and evolve.
After so much Stateside success, she tells me one of the reasons she moved to London was because in the UK she can own her own shows, much as she did with partners Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner via their Carsey-Werner-Mandabach shingle back in the day.
I recently sat down with the savvy and bold Mandabach to discuss what makes Peaky so special, and to take a turn through her career, which began when Norman Lear hired her because his wife Frances was “giving him sh*t” that he had no women on staff. Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: This season of Peaky Blinders has felt as though there’s an extra urgency and energy around it; and that anticipation is huge in the U.S. and elsewhere.
CARYN MANDABACH: It’s an international hit and I’m super proud of that, and obviously it all comes down to Steve Knight’s writing which is just astonishing. And also the support of the BBC. The double (Season 4 and Season 5) commission was a real coup and it demonstrates the continued support, and internationally, the giant mandate of all of the viewing platforms. You can tell the range of fans. In the UK, under 30s are way up with more viewers than any of the previous seasons.
You can feel it’s a hit which is factually supported by Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. But more than that, we hear from artists, other actors, people tweeting about it who are influential in their circles from José Maurinho to Howard Stern. We don’t see the Netflix numbers.
DEADLINE: Steve recently told me he was told it’s the biggest show on Netflix in Rhode Island and Montana. Randomly, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while but who has a house in Montana recently just started talking to me about how it’s his favorite show…
MANDABACH: (Laughs) Hah! That’s all we need to know!
DEADLINE: What is the relationship with Netflix?
Years and years ago, super long ago before Netflix had their amazing act together, the Peaky Blinders show being about a gangster family from Birmingham was a hard sell in the U.S. Who’s gonna buy that? Six episodes? So it’s an American acquisition and they called it a Netflix original but it functions as an American acquisition and they have the right to put it on all their platforms and they’ve been great partners.
DEADLINE: How do you quantify how it’s doing if they don’t share figures?
MANDABACH: I’m an independent company, I’m not Sony or Lionsgate or whatever, and we have even less info than other corporate entities might have about things that are quantifiable. So as far as I can tell, the ratings have gone up and up and up. It’s the highest-rated drama on BBC Two — that’s a big deal here, by the way — and the effect of the double commission set British people ablaze. And internationally all we can say is the support of the fans, it’s beloved.
If you read anything online, it’s so intensely beloved. That’s all I can say across all platforms, that’s all we can tell. We can’t talk about ratings in the context of the world, we certainly can’t talk about ratings in the context of Netflix, so all we can say is what we feel. I’ve been around long enough to feel that it’s very well appreciated internationally.
DEADLINE: And you own Peaky?
MANDABACH: Yes, I own Peaky Blinders. I’m an independent company. It’s hard for people in the U.S. to imagine, but in the UK there are companies that are part of the independent production community — and thank goodness the BBC mandated a few years back, which is why I moved, that there be more independent companies and fewer things bought directly from the BBC itself. So in a stunning opposite to what was happening in the U.S., where everything was becoming vertically integrated, the opposite was happening in the UK. Having come from a place where I was a partner in Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, we were the biggest in the ’90s and in the beginning of the 2000s there were no independently owned drama narrative companies. It’s all corporate. Weirdly and happily in the UK that isn’t true. My competitors in the independent production sector also own their own stuff unless they themselves are owned by a bigger corporation. In my case, I’m not owned by anybody, so it’s an incredible situation.
DEADLINE: There’s been so much consolidation. How do you manage to stay independent? Is it a choice?
MANDABACH: Yeah, it’s a choice.
DEADLINE: Back in the Carsey-Werner-Mandabach days, did you guys own those shows?
MANDABACH: Yes, back in the day. You have to go back awhile, but there were TV shows on called Happy Days, and Garry Marshall and his crew, though they worked for Paramount and Paramount distributed it, they were independents. Witt Thomas Harris, they owned The Golden Girls and Disney distributed it. In our case, Endemol Shine International distributes Peaky, but I own it. They distribute it and charge me money for it.
DEADLINE: Are you still developing for the U.S.?
MANDABACH: Yep. I really would love to do something in L.A. because now everything is international in scope. I’m trying to develop internationally appreciated product that is about financing out of L.A. and appreciated by Americans. These are hard targets to hit because in the UK you have to, if not be parochial, you have to honor the values of the license fee payers that pay for their TV so you have to say something about the British character and culture, which of course Peaky does, and then also appeal to the rest of the world. Fundamentally, (Cillian Murphy’s character) Tommy Shelby is a man before he is a man from Birmingham and before he is a gangster. So it’s how to be internationally appealing, and it can come from anywhere. It can come from the U.S. where they have more money and it can come from the UK as long as you’re not terribly parochial.
DEADLINE: You came from comedy. What about going back to that arena?
MANDABACH: I’d loooove to go back to comedy and I’m working on a couple of comedies. It’s nothing short of the most important thing to do is to do a hit comedy. I mean what could be better? For example, the things that do travel like The Office, that’s not terribly parochial. What a fantastic show — a hit in both places. Any of those kind of things that say something about the human condition, that doesn’t really matter where it’s set is the biggest goal ever, honestly.
DEADLINE: Part of the success is the universality of that and the ability for the show to be remade in other countries because everybody knows what it’s like to work in an office…
MANDABACH: Exactly. But you see, comedy is extremely parochial. The people who laugh at something in Italy don’t laugh at it in Spain. It is really culturally dictated unless you can figure it out. So it’s a great puzzle to try and figure out. Look at something like The Simpsons. Geez, it’s American but it travels. Giant forever and ever. The Simpsons was programmed against The Cosby Show at 8 PM on Thursday nights when it came out. So I was like, “I don’t really want to be a fan,” and then my kids loved it and I was a sucker; I love Jim Brooks.
Those are lofty goals and also in terms too of the goals we have here not only are we are really interested in, like Peaky, returning series because it’s a wonderful thing if only to create a habit and to understand the nature of the human condition in the form of, in this case, this handsome blue-eyed actor in Cillian Murphy’s character.
Thomas Shelby is important. You learn a little something about society, so that’s the goal with returning series. Kind of like Homeland, you look inside Carrie’s head, but you’re also learning a little bit about the world. That’s a wonderful feeling to have. So we’re interested in the returning series that appeal internationally and we’re also interested in, much like the independent film sector… you know independent films are meant to speak internationally and that’s the kind of short form we want to do as well. Like the wonderful four-parters that come out of everywhere — people are doing unbelievably great work that appeals to everyone around the world.
In the old-fashioned days, it would be those wonderful HBO minis they used to do and still do like Olive Kitteridge; great book adaptations that have internationally meaningful resonance. That’s another goal of ours and that can happen anywhere, you can do that from anywhere.
DEADLINE: But that’s more on the drama end.
MANDABACH: That is more drama, but the comedy thing is so hard and you’ve got to be really lucky and smart and I’m trying all day. We really monitor and think about it but, it’s getting harder and harder.
DEADLINE: How has it changed?
MANDABACH: Rather than betting on the writing, people are now betting on the actor-writers. So, that’s your Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sharon Horgan, Mindy Kaling. You rely on these actors that bring you to that.
Now, you would have thought The Cosby Show was written by Cosby, but it wasn’t. Or that Roseanne was written by Roseanne, but of course it wasn’t. So you’re not relying on the writer as much. Now I don’t know whether it’s fashionable or practical or there’s been more attention to marketing; I don’t really know what’s happening. But especially here in the UK, it is definitely performer-driven. That’s a fundamental change. So the problem is that the role of the writer has been diminished.
DEADLINE: Can we talk about The Cosby Show and the allegations that have surfaced against Bill Cosby in the past few years?
MANDABACH: I’d be happy to talk about it. I had no idea that anything like that was going on whatsoever. Zero. I was never treated with anything but the utmost respect, and I mean real respect, and artistically valued. There was no clue of his behavior for eight years. I didn’t know, I just wasn’t privy to anything.
DEADLINE: So given the state of the world we’re in right now, with the escalating allegations within the industry, and so many asking how those who worked around the accused could say they weren’t aware, how do you respond to that?
MANDABACH: It’s easy to say because I worked with [Cosby] on a set, Monday-Thursday. On a Friday he took off on his plane. He played houses, 60,000 people at the Illinois State Fair or whatever. I didn’t see him in the evenings. I only saw him at work and when I saw him at work it was absolutely wonderful, and he treated me as if I was a valued and important part of the process, which, as a 32-year-old woman, he didn’t have to do. He could have only listened to the old dudes who were around.
And as to the general question (of how to respond), it is my opinion that if you own something you’re better able to control it, and Marcy (Carsey) was the woman, along with Tom (Werner) and myself, who owned our shows. Because of the British system, I own Peaky Blinders, but if you don’t own it and you’re part of a giant corporate system, of course you don’t have any control over it. Bad things happen, and all you have to turn to is a human resources department.
However, in terms of the comedy business, back in the day, everybody knew everything always. That happens at night, that’s not in an office. Always, everywhere you looked there was quid pro quo.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
MANDABACH: Meaning [someone saying], “If you want to get on at all, if you want your set to appear anywhere before 2 AM, I think you better talk to me privately.” Everybody knew that then. That’s back in the day of the stand-up comedy business, but later it evolved into a more comprehensive iteration of, “If you don’t do this, then that.” That became an industry problem, day or night. It just didn’t happen on my watch in my world.
DEADLINE: Not on your watch, but it was already prevalent in the ether?
MANDABACH: In the industry for sure. Don’t forget, way back in the day there were no women in positions of power. I was hired by Norman Lear just because I was a woman. His wife was giving him sh*t. Frances was a feminist and had a magazine called Lear’s. She’d said, “You better get a woman in there Norman.” That’s how I got started.
All the comedy writers were men; it was very much as was depicted by Rose Marie in The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was sexist, beyond.
DEADLINE: Did you see it evolving in the ’80s and ’90s?
MANDABACH: I was only where I was, and my company was small, so no I didn’t see any of it. Was I aware? I was aware of all kinds of terrible things. People were horrible to each other, horrible. That has changed so much, women are so much more involved.
DEADLINE: We’re in the middle of the hurricane still, but with all the sexual abuse and assault allegations coming out, what do you think the result is?
MANDABACH: The hope of female ownership, or any kind of ownership, in the U.S. is long gone. What I get to experience here (in the UK) is if you hold the money, you can control any situation. And I think it’s wonderful that we can be powerful without being controlling.
Basically, what I would advise if a woman said, “He touched me” is that she should tell him to f*ck right off. But, as someone who has been in the business forever, the quid pro quo is where we should draw the line. If there’s one hint of quid pro quo, “If this, then that” or “If you don’t do this, then not that” out you go. Draw the line. Rape and other things that are codified in law are separate to this rule, of course.
I think there’s an absence of shame on rampant male behavior these days. If we all stood up as one and went “Shame, Shame, Shame” that would be a good start, and more importantly, if the men equally stood up and said “Shame, Shame, Shame” all strategies for change would be more effective.
Shame on you, and if there’s quid pro quo you’re banished from my industry. I don’t want to see you come back. You picked the wrong time to be insensitive to your co-workers, and women and girls in general.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about Roseanne Barr who was a trailblazer for women in comedy.
MANDABACH: She was a trailblazer in every possible way and we gave her that opportunity. Back in the day, we had all three networks looking at Roseanne to see whether or not they wanted to buy it. We had a deal with NBC, we kept jumping networks.
Cosby was supposed to be at ABC, but they passed, so we went to NBC. So we were at NBC, and NBC passd on Roseanne. We invited all three network heads to see her act at the Universal Amphitheater, and Roseanne ended her act by saying, “Yeah well if you don’t think I’m feminine enough, you can suck my d*ck.” You could see everybody just shrink, and all those guys were going “Sh*t!” To his credit Bob Iger was brave enough to say “OK.”
DEADLINE: Are you involved in the reboot?
MANDABACH: No, except my darling friend Tom tells me what’s going on. I’m sure it will be a giant hit. I really am sure, I’m very happy for him and her and them.
DEADLINE: Are you really the daughter of a gangster from Chicago?
MANDABACH: Yes, more like a low-level gambler/gangster. My father had a big debt to somebody in Chicago and then disappeared in the Philippines for 10 years and came back after the heat was off.
So being working class, I’m more kindred to Peaky than the average privileged type. Because of my luck, the point at which I needed to learn about whatever it was I call my business, I managed to go to super universities and come to London to study theater when I was 18. I studied under Olivier at the National and I worked for Peter Brook. I was properly trained in the theater and simply because I got lucky and got adopted by the Sneider family who themselves were working class but lucked into a little bit of money and put all the money behind my education.
So relevant to today, I always like to talk about that because it isn’t like you come from the club — and there is a club, an unspoken kind of club everywhere, and I’m not part of it.
DEADLINE: What was your first producing job?
MANDABACH: A friend of mine said I should produce Miller Beer commercials for Saturday Night Live. I had been a jobbing production manager and was always at the comedy clubs. I met a bunch of comics so I had street cred and I owned my own shop and paid my own taxes. The first show was, may she rest in peace, with Madeline Khan on a British adaptation of Pig in the Middle, then it was Cosby.
DEADLINE: Looking ahead, do you see ownership rules changing?
MANDABACH: I don’t see them changing in the U.S. Everything is big bigger biggest. Any minute now, I’m expecting Apple to buy Netflix. There is a giant move towards vertical integration. Look what’s happening to Fox. That’s not happening to Fox, it’s what Fox wants to happen, and there is a giant push to getting bigger. So, no I don’t see anything changes. In the UK, I think eventually it will change. I think it’s alright for now and God bless the BBC.
DEADLINE: In general, is it a good time to be working in television with all this change afoot?
MANDABACH: Well, if you can take it, I think it’s a great time. I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for the next generation to find their way because of the corporatization factor and you kind of have to fail a lot and you have to be able to take a lot of risks — and I think now the risk appetite is low. I’m afraid for them about that.
DEADLINE: Circling back to Peaky, Season 5 will be next to shoot, but what’s happening with the musical?
MANDABACH: It’s going great, bumping along. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we’re actively meeting about it and having a blast. You can only imagine those meetings are real fun. Steve said he’d turn in the treatment of what would happen in February, so we have that to look forward to. I have no info further about the movie, I can only say we have continued support from extraordinary artistic forces.
DEADLINE: The series’ music this year took a deep, intense turn.
MANDABACH: Yes, we have Nick Cave with a spectacular cover of his own Mercy Street, Laura Marling, Iggy Pop, Flea, Jarvis Cocker, The Savages; a bit of folk with Rachel Unthank and the Winterset doing a version of folk song I Wish in Episode 3; a beautifully deployed Radiohead track; and an amazing rock score by Antony Genn and Marin Slattery. And a great Bob Dylan cover.
DEADLINE: And now audiences in the U.S. are going to be bingeing over the holidays after what has been a universally well-reviewed UK run.
MANDABACH: The reviews are crazy. The most interesting one is from The Socialist Worker. So on the same day as they reviewed it, the Daily Mail reviewed it in equally glowing terms. I’m happy about that and looking forward to see what the U.S says. I’ve never had such good reviews.