EXCLUSIVE: Former BBC Studios scripted chiefs Hilary Salmon, Radford Neville and Nick Betts set up their new production venture The Lighthouse in October last year, boasting a shared roll call of credits that includes Luther, Doctor Who, War And Peace and Emmy-winning The Night Of.
But even with this greatest hits list, securing all-important backing for their new venture during a catastrophic social and economic crisis gave rise to some nervy moments. It’s why the trio were “hugely” relieved to get Sky Studios’ investment over the line this week at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sky will take a minority stake in The Lighthouse following months of talks with the company’s co-founders. The financial details of the investment and the size of the stake were not disclosed, but Salmon, Neville and Betts were impressed by the flexibility of what Sky offered. They are free to work with all global networks and streamers and are not tied into an exclusive distribution deal with the Comcast-owned European pay-TV giant.
Sky Studios’ growing confidence in the drama space on the back of shows like Chernobyl was also attractive, as was the group’s ambition to grow its scripted production footprint. Sky has previously invested in His Dark Materials producer Bad Wolf and is developing a major studio at Elstree with the backing of its parent company Comcast.
“Sky shone through from day one, and it wasn’t long before we went into exclusive negotiations with them,” Betts told Deadline. “We got a long way before the current coronavirus situation hit, but we are extremely grateful and pleased to get it through when there is such enormous change happening in the world.”
Betts added that being able to talk to partners and writers about Sky’s financial support should inspire confidence during the COVID-19 pandemic and help boost development. “Those conversations are always difficult and more complicated when you can’t say who your partner is going to be and where your financing is coming from,” he said.
In a happy fluke of timing, The Lighthouse is using 2020 to build its development slate and never planned to be in production this year, meaning that it has been unaffected by the industry-wide scripted shutdown. Salmon wants The Lighthouse’s output to be “intelligent, modern, authentic” and “have something to say about the world we live in.” She said diversity on screen will also be important: “We’ve shown with shows like Luther and Silent Witness that diversity can be front and center, and that will definitely be one of our trademarks.”
Neville added: “Me and Hilary have both made shows that appeal to younger audiences, whether that’s Our Girl, Youngers, or Luther. That’s something we will continue to focus on. That’s about the audience but also about the writers we work with. I have to make a show that my teenage daughters will like.”
The company’s first project is an adaptation of notorious British drugs baron Howard Marks’ autobiography, Mr Nice. The book was knocking around at the BBC for years and a number of producers tried to get it away with BBC Two, but Salmon said it was “too epic” for television at the time. It was eventually made into a feature in 2010 by Independent Film Company with Rhys Ifans in the lead role. Salmon approached Independent about the TV rights and they are now partnered in its development. Neil Forsyth, the writer of BBC Two’s Guilt, has penned a script and The Lighthouse is preparing to pitch it to broadcasters. “It’s such a rollicking story,” Betts added.
The Lighthouse’s plan to move into offices in central London was nixed by the lockdown, so for now, development conversations will continue to happen over Zoom. “It’s sitting there waiting for us and it will be very exciting when we can all be together,” Neville said.