Sally Woodward Gentle, who runs Killing Eve producer Sid Gentle Films, is a mischief maker with a hit on her hands. Her BBC America spy thriller is a ratings success story and she has a development drawer full of “quietly subversive” projects.
Sitting down with Deadline to discuss how the Phoebe Waller-Bridge-penned series went from development hell in Britain to a U.S. cultural phenomenon, and on how she’s getting on with season three to take advantage of the British drama boom, it’s clear that Woodward Gentle is a rabble-rouser surrounded by renegades.
Woodward Gentle has worked for some of the biggest names in British scripted television as creative director of the BBC’s in-house drama division, Broadchurch producer Kudos and Downton Abbey producer Carnival before setting up her own shop in 2013. She has worked on controversial shows, such as the BBC’s Tipping The Velvet, and movies you wouldn’t expect: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (where she started as director Steve Barron’s assistant).
But arguably Killing Eve is her most significant contribution to the landscape. When Woodward Gentle optioned Luke Jennings’ graphic novel Codename Villanelle, she was aware that there were other female spy stories in the ether including The CW’s Maggie Q-fronted Nikita and Amazon’s Hanna and “wanted to give it a different spin.”
She then met Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was best known as a playwright before her one-woman play Fleabag had made it to screen. “I’d met Phoebe and I just loved her energy, loved the fact that she loves telly, she’s really funny, really dark, a bit rude and a bit naughty,” she said.
Woodward Gentle said that the Killing Eve series, which stars Jodie Comer as Villanelle and Sandra Oh as MI5 agent Eve Polastri, had been developed at British broadcasters including Channel 4 and Sky before meeting BBC America’s Melissa Wells and Gina Mingacci, who fast-tracked development of the project. She admitted that there was a bit of “panic” at the success of Fleabag, but ultimately it worked out as season one, which launched in April 2018, became a word of mouth hit. The first season became the first show in more than a decade that grew its ratings week-on-week in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos ending with 1.25M viewers in live+3, 86% up on its debut.
The success of BBC’s Fleabag, which airs on Amazon in the U.S., subsequently did have a major knock-on effect for Killing Eve when Waller-Bridge decided to write and star in a second season of the dark comedy. She stepped down as writer and handed the reins to her old friend Emerald Fennell. Fennell was best known as an actress on BBC and PBS drama Call The Midwife, but had published a number of novels. Woodward Gentle knew Fennell after she optioned her book series Shiverton Hall while she was at Downton Abbey producer Carnival Films and was confident that she understood Killing Eve. “Her tone is pleasantly naughtily gothic and she takes risks. She has an audacity that Phoebe has as well,” she said.
Season two, which saw Eve and Villanelle collaborating to track down tech bro Aaron Peel, who the team thinks is about to sell a mysterious weapon, delivered similarly healthy ratings. BBC America said that it had the highest season-over-season growth of any returning TV drama on U.S. television in the past three years, up 87% in total viewers and 78% in the key adults 25-54 demo from the first season, per Live+7 numbers from Nielsen Media Research.
The show was picked up for a third season the week its second season went out. This time round, Fear The Walking Dead writer Suzanne Heathcote is taking over from Fennell as lead writer. The latter said, “I think it’s cool that this tradition has been built into this untraditional show”.
Woodward Gentle added, “I’d have loved Phoebe to have written all of them forever, but knowing that she wasn’t going to, you can ask ‘what can this represent’ and the idea of ownership by a different woman for each season is fun and genuine.” She doesn’t reveal much about season three, which must deal with the fact that [SPOILER ALERT] Villanelle has shot Polastri at the end of season two. Filming begins this summer and it will be shot across Europe. Woodward Gentle said they won’t hold back. “You’ve got to think of it in pure narrative story terms and then in practical terms. I’m still a firm believer that you don’t hold stuff back for future seasons, you throw it all in and make it as good as you can and then make it up again.”
Last month, the spy thriller was honored at the BAFTAs, taking home the best drama series award as well as gongs for Jodie Comer as best actress and Fiona Shaw for best supporting actress. The win, however, raised some eyebrows in Britain, as it was financed by BBC America, a U.S. network. The organization said ruled it eligible as “the majority of its creative contribution is British.” Woodward Gentle said, “Shows are getting made in a less conventional way; we had to bring sh*tloads of money to the table, we had to guarantee the rest of the money. It couldn’t be more British.”
While Killing Eve is Sid Gentle’s highest-profile calling card, the company is now looking to take advantage of its high-profile and score other U.S. series as well as work for British broadcasters and the SVODs. Last year, it brought in BBC America’s SVP, scripted Gina Mingacci as an exec producer.
“We are really keen, having done Killing Eve, which feels tonally original, to look at how we can get other shows on other broadcasters that feel like that. We can make shows out of the UK, that are set in the UK and work in the US, if we can get that across and get a couple more that’d be brilliant,” she said.
As revealed by Deadline earlier this week, Sid Gentle is developing a raft of tonally original projects. It has optioned Nicole J Georges’ canine graphic novel Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, set against the backdrop of punks in Portland, and is developing a Queer As Folk-style drama with Grindr poet Max Wallis. Deadline also revealed last year that it was adapting newcomer Bella Heesom’s play about female sexuality Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself for TV. It is now looking to team Heesom with “inventive filmmakers” to make it to screen.
Woodward Gentle said that the company has around 25 projects in development but that it doesn’t want to take on an “unmanageable” slate. “If someone is talking to us, it should feel like theirs is the only project we’re working on. At any point, if it feels like we’re not doing that we need to sort it out,” she added.
In addition to U.S. opportunities, Sid Gentle is keen to continue to work for linear British broadcasters. “What I really like to believe that there are buyers in the UK that would be as ambitious and bold and do things as different as Netflix is perceived to do. The BBC are doing some really interesting things as are Sky. There are great commissioners that believe in great work and I hope they are there for the medium term so they’re invested.”
The company wants to build on the success of ITV family drama The Durrells. Although the Corfu-set show, which stars Bodyguard’s Keeley Hawes, is ending with its fourth season, Woodward Gentle has revealed that it is already talking to writer Simon Nye about another iteration. “There are other books,” she said. “We’ve been down to Bournemouth to meet [Gerald Durrell’s] granddaughter. We’ve got a strong idea of what we’re going to do and Simon’s starting to work on it.”
Woodward Gentle says, knock on wood, that it feels like a “great time to be a British drama producer.” She admits that making British drama often feels more like making independent feature films compared to the U.S. studio system and laughs at how some Americans perceive the business on the other side of the pond. She says writer exclusivity has been its “biggest tension” with the U.S. “[People say] why the f*ck didn’t we tie Phoebe down? We just don’t do that over here. It’s not about that. They don’t understand that most writers have three or four projects on the go at the same time. It will always be like that here and I hope it stays because it’s healthy.”
There’s a slew of other projects for the Bloomsbury office. It is still working on an adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s period novel The Cazalet Chronicles with Amelia Bulmore and has projects on the go with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and The Eddy and The Aeronauts writer Jack Thorne. It feels as if Woodward Gentle and her gang will remain “quietly subversive” for some time.