Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we present Simon Heath, World Productions CEO and exec producer of Line of Duty, the biggest UK TV drama of the decade.
Line of Duty, Vigil and The Pembrokeshire Murders. The three most-watched dramas in the UK last year were all united by one common denominator: World Productions.
By World’s own standards, the ITV Studios-backed drama powerhouse had a phenomenal year during what was a difficult 12 months for the industry, with Covid never far from the mind and a highly-publicized skills crisis making TV production trickier than ever.
“You couldn’t really ask for more than having the biggest shows on BBC1 and ITV,” Heath tells Deadline during a rare in-person interview at his Central London offices, although he acknowledges the trio of shows only aired in the same calendar year due to Covid delays.
“You don’t want a big hit like Line of Duty to become an albatross so the fact we were able to follow up with Vigil was really important and we did it with a completely different creative team, and I had no idea Pembrokeshire was going to rate like it did.”
Heath struggles to identify the secret behind World’s hit-generating success (“If I knew the formula, I’d sell it”) but he points to the need to pay close attention to feedback as a show develops through the seasons, focus on the best writing talent (not necessarily those in front of the camera) and the growing importance of marketing.
He heaps praise on the BBC for the way in which it promoted Vigil, for example. The Suranne Jones-starring submarine thriller’s final episode was viewed by more than 10M people and rated highly by critics, with writer Tom Edge recently teasing a second season and Peacock acquiring in the U.S.
While UK drama execs such as Left Bank’s Andy Harries, Sister’s Jane Featherstone and Bad Wolf’s Jane Tranter have well-known public personas, Heath, who wrote on BBC Children’s hit Byker Grove before joining World in 1997, tends to shun the limelight. To Deadline’s surprise, he reveals early on in our interview that this is his first career profile.
“[World Productions founder] Tony Garnett ‘didn’t do press’ and if you’ve got a boss like that you tend to follow the tradition,” he explains.
“Tony’s mantra was to let the shows speak for themselves but as I get older I realize you have to back that up by talking about what a show is doing and letting people know about your company values.”
Heath candidly acknowledges that the globalized TV world is changing fast and being better known on the other side of the Atlantic is no bad thing. “It’s high time I have that indirect conversation with potential partners.”
Line of Duty, on the other hand, needs no introduction.
Following a team of anti-corruption officers, the populist investigative thriller has been a BBC staple for a decade, making global superstars of leads Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar and featuring heavy hitters like Stephen Graham.
What started out as a small BBC2 cop show has grown each season into the nation’s most popular returning scripted show and one of its greatest exports, although all are remaining tight-lipped over whether creator Jed Mercurio will pen any more.
“The great thing about doing returning series is you can listen to the feedback,” explains Heath, when pondering the six-season show’s colossal success. “People loved the interview scenes, so they grew and grew. People loved action sequences, so they grew and grew, and people clearly responded to the three AC-12 investigators , so they became much less peripheral.”
It’s not always been plain sailing, however, with the ending of last year’s sixth season causing consternation among certain fan pockets as the identity of serial criminal ‘H’ was revealed to be the oaf-ish DS Ian Buckells.
“Line of Duty fans rage over final ‘H’ reveal,” read the headline of a typical article in UK tabloid The Daily Express the morning after the finale, which had been watched by almost one quarter of the nation by the following weekend.
Heath wasn’t overly fussed by the fan reaction but he and Mercurio were irritated with “the over amplification of a small-ish minority by the press,” which went against the “overwhelming” response from audience research carried out by the BBC.
“For fans of the show, [the ending] made perfect sense,” Heath elaborates. “Some people misunderstood and thought there was a moustache-twiddling villain masterminding everything but Buckells’ corruption was built on greed and avarice. He represented the criminality of middle management.”
Bad ending or not, UK viewers won’t be seeing Line of Duty on BBC TV screens for a while, if ever, with Mercurio turning most of his attention to Hat Trick Mercurio, the Bloodlands and Trigger Point producer he runs with beloved UK comedy exec Jimmy Mulville.
Deadline is keen to ascertain how Heath feels to see shows labelled “from the production company behind Line of Duty,” as is often the case for many of World’s projects such as Vigil or the Stephen Graham-starring Sky thriller Save Me.
Describing the label as a “twist of modern-day marketing,” Heath stresses that World’s drama range is much broader, having made a name for itself with social realist offerings such as Ballykissangel and United.
Although its audience paled in size when compared with Line of Duty, Heath was delighted by the critical response to ITV drama Anne (pictured – right) earlier this month.
The Maxine Peake-starring biopic told the story of campaigner Anne Williams, who fought tirelessly for justice following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 97 people including her son Kevin were killed after a crush at a football match.
“I had a number of messages after Anne came out saying how proud Tony Garnett (who passed away in 2020 aged 83) would have been,” reveals Heath, bringing his old friend and mentor into the conversation.
“Nobody wants to be defined by one hit. Range is crucial so it’s nice to start the year with Anne, which we’ve always done but people tend to forget.”
Going forwards, World, which grew its revenue by £5M ($6.8BN) to £13M ($17.7M) according to its most recent accounts, is treading on previously untrodden ground by producing two book adaptations for the first time: ITV double Karen Pirie and The Suspect.
The former, a series of books about a cold case detective by Val McDermid, is being adapted by Save Me Too’s Emer Kenny and introduces Vigil actor Lauren Lyle in the titular role, breaking the mould of traditional detective shows by having a young female lead in a genre “dominated by middle-aged men,” says Heath.
Meanwhile, Gangs of London’s Peter Berry takes on Michael Robotham’s Hitchcockian psychological thriller The Suspect, with Aidan Turner playing the lead.
Heath, who is exec producing Karen Pirie alongside McDermid and Kenny, enjoys an adaptation process that features a “constant dialogue about where to be faithful to the book and where to break away.”
The Karen Pirie team has, for example, moved the story forward by two decades so that it takes place in the present, with Pirie solving a murder from the mid-1990s.
Karen Pirie is being filmed in Scotland and speaks to Birmingham-born Heath’s desire for more UK drama to be made outside the UK’s London powerhouse, an issue he returns to with passion on several occasions throughout our 60-minute chat.
Pointing out that “filming in London is a nightmare”, he says one of his major desires for the coming year is to build up World’s offices in Scotland and Wales, growing a team that features talent sourced locally as the major UK broadcasters figure out how best to expand beyond the capital and better represent the country in its entirety. World employs around 20 staff, of which the majority are based in London.
Grabbing the streamers’ attention
From the mean streets of Glasgow to the techy plains of Silicon Valley, another of Heath’s strategic priorities is to secure an original commission from a U.S. streamer, although several of World’s shows have been co-produced or bought by the West Coast giants.
World’s slate features a number of shows intended to be pitched solely to SVoDs, reveals Heath, who is delighted that the number of potential buyers with “genuine British commissioning bases” is growing rapidly and is eagerly anticipating the launch of the next wave outside the U.S.
“When we were first pitching to the streamers we were really pitching to the U.S but what’s exciting now is you’ve got Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ all here,” he says. “Add to that a few others plus six British networks and suddenly there are a dozen places to pitch ideas to. When I first started at World it was three (the BBC, ITV and Channel 4) and out.”
Those three traditional British broadcasters are facing a perilous time of it, with Channel 4 likely to soon be privatized, which would completely reshape its relationship with the production sector, and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries flirting with scrapping the BBC license fee.
For UK drama, however, Heath believes the industry has overcome a plethora of Covid-induced issues and is “probably as strong as it’s ever been,” while accepting that “in certain circles that statement would be controversial.”
His Dark Materials and The Help writer Jack Thorne, for one, recently raised concerns to Deadline that an influx of international money in the UK space is killing social realist programming.
Heath has the “utmost of respect” for the prolific Thorne but thinks “we have to be careful of nostalgia.”
“When I started out in 1997 everyone was harking back to [1970s BBC anthology series] Play For Today and it feels like we’re still having the same conversations 25 years on,” he adds. “There are ways of navigating the co-production problem. If you take a show like Anne it spoke to a UK audience in a way that you wouldn’t expect to attract international investors, so we made it for the lowest end of a high-end drama budget.”
Whatever it holds, the future looks bright for World as Heath enters his 25th year with the company and 13th as CEO.
Questioned on what he believes has changed most about World during his tenure, he muses for a while, eventually considering that, other than seismic shifts well beyond his control, along with “having some hair back then,” a basic focus on the best behind-the-camera talent has been the steady ship that has got the company to where it is today.
Line of Duty may be over, but “the production company behind Line of Duty” marches on.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.