The Masked Singer has been a huge hit for Fox in the U.S. with its third season kicking off after Super Bowl LIV in February. British broadcaster ITV will be hoping for similar success when it launches this weekend on Saturday, January 4.
However, the story of how the crazy Asian reality series made it to UK screens is not a straightforward one, involving tight deadlines and multiple calls to non-English speakers in Korea.
The British version is produced by fledging Scottish producer Bandicoot, which was set up in association with production group Argonon by former NBCUniversal entertainment chief Daniel Nettleton and Derek McLean (below), who has worked on shows such as Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and Bravo’s The Singles Project.
The format was originally created by Korean broadcaster MBC, where it was known as The King of Mask Singer. McLean had been out in the U.S. pitching Bandicoot ideas to U.S. broadcasters when it emerged that Fox was developing an American version of the show.
He told Deadline, “I had to try and track down the format owner in Korea, I was setting my alarm for 2am in the morning to get up and call them. Fortunately, after about a week, I found an English speaker in their office and managed to get connected to the person for the format. I knew that other UK production companies were chasing this, so I wanted to do the deal. I was really pursuing it. I got a call two or three days after we did the deal [from a rival producer] saying ‘you absolute bastard’. It was honestly the most bizarre experience, thinking back it would have been so easy to give up.”
Nettleton added that the harder it was to track down the rights, the more desire the pair had to land it. After scoring the UK rights, he headed out to the U.S. to watch the final of the first season and speak to exec producer Craig Plestiss.
It was a tough decision for the young company. “We are still a start-up and the money that the option cost was a real dilemma for us because it was money that we could have used to pay a development researcher rather than option a crazy Asian show that might not even go. It was a big decision for us that it might not have been for a bigger company. I’m so grateful that it’s paid off,” added McLean.
The pair subsequently took it around broadcasters in the UK, where it landed at ITV, although not after Channel 4 content chief Ian Katz reportedly considered filling it with homeless contestants. “It’s interesting how having a show that was a very successful ratings winner in the States makes people interested in the format. Had we sold the show earlier before the American was a hit, we could be making a very different, much smaller show. What comes with the success of the format internationally is the expectation. There was no way that we were going to get away with delivering something that was less than the American version. We knew that from the get go.”
The show, as in the U.S., features twelve celebrities dressed in elaborate costumes singing and their identities are kept hidden on and off stage, while a panel (right), which features pop star Rita Ora, chat show host Jonathan Ross, ex-Big Brother host Davina McCall and Ken Jeong, who is involved in the U.S. show, have to guess who the contestants are. In the first episode, hosted by comedian Joel Dommett, the first six masked singers battle it out, Queen Bee vs Duck, Unicorn vs Butterfly and Chameleon vs Hedgehog.
McLean said the make-up of the panel was essential to the success of the show. “The chemistry between the panel was great and we knew we wanted celebrity detectives and they needed in different ways to navigate the world of celebrity. Jonathan had everyone on his chat show, Rita has an amazing address book and collaborated with some many wonderful artists, Davina has been part of pop culture for so long and Ken is just part of the DNA of the show.”
Ora said that the show was “completely unique”. “It’s fresh, original and there’s no other show like it. The costumes and stage production add a big theatrical element to it. I’m very excited that we were given the opportunity to bring the show to the UK. Jeong added, “I have always wanted to do a show in the UK and the offer to be a part of the UK Masked Singer was too good to pass up. What’s remarkable about the UK Masked Singer is how similar the dynamics are than what’s obviously different.”
One of the challenges, as highlighted by ITV director of television Kevin Lygo at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, was the quality of celebrities given that in the U.S. it is filled with A-list names such as Gladys Knight. “That is always the challenge for shows like this. We still had to try to persuade suspicious agents to put their talent in crazy costumes. We wanted to make sure we had household names, you want international names but sometimes an ITV name is far more important to have in the mix. I think we have a good mix. There will be lots of surprises.”
Given that the show has a primetime Saturday night debut and runs for eight, 90-minute episodes, Bandicoot is hoping that it brings a “halo effect” to the company’s own original developments. “Looking at our track record, we’re a Scottish indie that’s less than three years old. We have been furiously developing new stuff, but we hope there’s a halo effect from it. The craziness [of The Masked Singer] allows us to take that into other shows and areas, we want to take that bonkers DNA.”
Nettleton added, “It cannot be overstated the number of times people said that this was the weirdest show they’d ever been part of.”