A dramatic change

Channel 4 is spending £6m on a sequel to its ground-breaking Eighties drama, Traffik. Does this mark the station's return to gritty television?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Channel 4's 1989 drama Traffik has legendary status at the network's London headquarters; a station-defining piece of work that inspired a blockbusting Hollywood feature film on the international drugs trade starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Albert Finney. So influential is the original piece of work that the former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson, now working in the United States, has just commissioned a version for American television audiences.

Channel 4's 1989 drama Traffik has legendary status at the network's London headquarters; a station-defining piece of work that inspired a blockbusting Hollywood feature film on the international drugs trade starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Albert Finney. So influential is the original piece of work that the former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson, now working in the United States, has just commissioned a version for American television audiences.

Now Channel 4 itself is trying to recapture the same magic by investing an unheard-of £6m on a sequel, only this time the subject matter is not narcotics but the trade in young Eastern European women. John Yorke, C4's head of drama, says: " Traffik is an iconic programme round here. It is one of those few quintessential dramas that define a channel and that people still talk about now. You will never knock that off its perch but it would be fantastic if this is talked of in the same breath."

Channel 4 researchers spent three months in Romania gathering material for storylines. Yorke says: "When you consider the scale of this [trade] it is shocking how little is known about it. That is largely because the girls are too scared to talk about it." He cites a case of a trafficked young woman being sent her baby's hand through the post as a warning not to try and escape.

Sex Traffic tells the tale of two teenage Moldovan sisters who are promised restaurant work in London but find themselves sold into sexual slavery. "They are sold from pimp to pimp to pimp. One of them finds herself in a brothel in Hounslow," says Yorke.

Finding the right actors to play the starring roles was enormously difficult. The casting director, Wendy Brazington, scoured Romania for suitable stars. "They had to be 17, 18 or 19 years old, they had to be attractive and had to act in three different languages and be completely understandable in English. We thought we were never going to find such people," says Yorke.

Brazington eventually settled on Maria Popistasu and Anamaria Marince. The latter had only done school and amateur work and had never been in front of cameras before. When Yorke gave his approval to the two actresses, he was told, "Thank God you said 'yes' because there was no alternative."

After five weeks filming in Romania, the crew completed the production in London and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which doubled for Boston. The finished product - to be shown in two two-hour films - combines three storylines that (as in the original Traffik) become entwined. In "style and tone", Yorke says, it will be more similar to Steven Soderbergh's feature film than the original television drama. John Simm ( State of Play) has the starring role as a charity worker investigating the trade who becomes emotionally involved in the plight of the sisters. "He has created a very entertaining, slightly comic character," says Yorke. "His performance really lightens what could be an overwhelmingly dark tale."

Yorke wants C4 drama to be infused with shards of "hope" so that the subject matter does not descend into "brutal nihilism". That has been the Yorke philosophy since he took up his post a year ago and began remoulding the drama output at Channel 4. His strategy has been a two-pronged one. He has secured a Tuesday-night 10pm slot for long-running drama series such as Shameless and No Angels - programmes that often deal with gritty issues such as dysfunctional families and the problems of the NHS but in a "colourful, bright and humorous" way.

Yorke says that these returnable series have always been regarded in Britain as "the fag-end of drama", the poor cousin of "films or six-part serials". He refers to the "Curse of Fawlty Towers", which survived only 12 episodes, and notes the short life-span of The Office. "There is a feeling that everything should be perfectly-formed and get out quick while you can get away with it. I understand that. But it's slightly distressing they made about 500 episodes of Cheers and only 12 of Fawlty Towers."

"We are very keen to learn from what the Americans have done and apply it here for the first time," he adds. "It's the West Wing trick of being entertaining and clever at the same time and having loveable characters that you want to come back to."

The other half of his strategy is to do around four "urban and contemporary" set-piece dramas per year, of which the most important in 2004 will be Sex Traffic with others based on Princess Margaret and on the comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Before Yorke arrived, he says, C4 drama was "slightly darker in tone". "One of the things I've tried to do is make it more accessible without dumbing it down," he says. "It was doing good shows like Buried and 40 and Bodily Harm but it was quite bleak in tone and it's harder to get an audience for that type of work."

The popularity of Shameless has helped to ensure that, for the first time in years, C4 will seek to challenge BBC1's dominance of the Christmas schedules. A 90-minute special of Paul Abbott's Manchester-based drama will be filmed in two weeks' time. "Paul just wanted to do the Gallaghers at Christmas; I think he got really excited about it," says Yorke. "He thinks Frank [Gallagher] should be making the Channel 4 alternative Christmas message as well."

The channel has also asked for a Christmas special of the hit drama series Teachers. Yorke says that his colleague Kevin Lygo, C4's director of programmes, had decided that the channel should "make more of a splash at Christmas" and that there had been a tendency to "hold up our hands and let the BBC get on with it".

The Peter Cook and Dudley Moore drama is also likely to be shown during the same holiday period. "The danger is that it gets lost but I think there is a market for Channel 4 shows at Christmas. It is Channel 4's job to be fresh and innovative and hopefully we will do that."

Drama has returned to being a flagship genre for Channel 4. "In recent years it has been about reality programmes and specialist factual programmes, which they do brilliantly," says Yorke. "The channel went off drama when Brookside didn't get the ratings. They found that by putting Location, Location, Location or Wife Swap in its place they got six times as many viewers for six times less money."

He said Lygo and the chief executive, Mark Thompson, acknowledged that "drama has an effect beyond its ratings". "In terms of branding a channel, drama is much better than anything else. Shows like Traffik, Shackleton, Queer as Folk and The Deal, make you think 'Ah, yes, that's Channel 4'."

He will be hoping that Sex Traffic provokes a similar response.

'Sex Traffic' will be shown on Channel 4 in the autumn

Comments