Kate Modern: Making a drama with a minimum of fuss

Sophie Morris has her 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame in an episode of Bebo's teen drama KateModern, which attracts millions of hits
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tucked away at the top end of London's Caledonian Road, behind King's Cross Station, is a small independent bookshop called Housmans, which describes itself as "London's premier radical bookshop". The scene inside today is certainly radical: we are shooting a scene for KateModern, one of Britain's most popular teen dramas with millions of viewers every week, though there are no cameras, lighting rigs or sound booms in sight. Nor are there any trailers parked outside the shop, or make-up girls on hand to touch up the actors before their cues.

The team is made up of four actors, the director, Yusuf Pirhasan, and a runner. Anyone browsing the shelves of political and revolutionary literature and magazines is politely ushered out on to the street with a minimum of fuss. One of the actors then takes a seat in a reading area near the back of the shop, in preparation for filming.

You won't have spotted KateModern in the TV schedules, because it is an internet drama. The show is served up between three and five time a week to users of the social networking site Bebo. It quickly became an internet phenomenon, attracting 100,000 hits on its launch weekend last August, even though the show had not been marketed.

If you haven't been following the show, which has just begun its second season, the eponymous heroine, Kate, is now dead, murdered on New Year's Eve. She had a rare blood type with superhuman life-giving qualities, and her friends Julia and Lee, and ex-boyfriend Tariq, suspect The Order, a cult of evil baddies who control the world, is to blame.

In the episode about to be filmed, Rupert van Helden, the media-friendly frontman of the Hymn of One, a religious group with questionable motives, is preparing to give a series of fictional media interviews. I have been cast in a cameo role as a television journalist and have a single line to learn.

The show's occult overtones recall another internet drama, the YouTube sensation LonelyGirl15, which ended last summer after 260 episodes. That American internet drama, dreamt up in 2006 by a small production team including Miles Beckett and Gregg Goodfriend, featured intimate vignettes of a 16-year-old girl's angsty life, pretending that she was real and posting video diaries herself. The ruse was uncovered four months into the show, but its popularity soared as a result and it continued for another 10.

The KateModern team came clean from the outset that it was a fictional drama made by professionals. Try telling that to some of the fans, though. The series producer, Pete Gibbons, who was hired by Lonelygirl15 Productions to reformat the concept for Bebo and its 11 million British users (it can be viewed by the site's 40 million users worldwide) spends part of his day posting replies to confused viewers on the KateModern profile page on Bebo, explaining that Kate is played by an actress, and is not a real person who has just been murdered.

Gibbons, 29, says he was no internet pioneer when he met Beckett and Goodfriend through his friend, the actor Ralf Little, now part of the regular cast. He hadn't even heard of Lonelygirl15. "I made no secret of the fact that I was a bit of a beginner when it came to finding things on the internet," he says. "With YouTube I was a bit of a beginner and it's been a massive whirlwind of learning things and finding out what's popular and learning the language. People talk in a completely different language when they talk on Bebo or YouTube or MySpace." Indeed. One KateModern follower lists her music tastes as: "BaNgIn TuNeS ErM AlSoRtS rEaLlY ....NiChE.... EtC...... sTuFf At ToFfS!!!!!!!!!"

To get viewers involved with the progress of the storylines, votes are sometimes held to see what the viewers want from KateModern. Crowds of fans turned up to a recent interactive "plot point", where they can help to solve the mysteries and drive the plot along in the direction they desire. Gibbons calls it "a piece of street theatre". Two women in their late 20s took a week off work to participate and take cameo roles in the show.

My own appearance is done and dusted in under an hour. No lengthy hair and make-up or costume sessions; we simply run through my line a few times while the director, Pirhasan, walks towards me through the shop checking the angles on his handheld camera, followed by the other actors who are to burst in on the scene. "Lo-fi", as everyone involved describes it as, it certainly is, but it polishes up nicely once each episode goes online. The comparisons to Hollyoaks are well-founded: both are styled to appeal to teenagers and people in their early 20s, who could well imagine themselves in similar situations to those experienced by the characters. Gibbons agrees, but says that his show is much more of a drama, and Hollyoaks is a soap. Hollyoaks regularly attracts 4 million viewers an episode, while KateModern scored about 3 million views in the first nine days of its second season. It has some way to go to challenge its main television competitor, but is clearly growing – and retaining – a substantial fanbase.

The episode we filmed in the bookshop was posted three days later. The phrase "snack tv" is becoming common parlance to describe this type of 3-5 minute video clip. Judging by the speedy, no-frills way in which KateModern is made, it might well be the Pot Noodle of television. It takes, after all, a similar amount of time to watch an episode as it would take an average student to heat up their dinner in a microwave. But while KateModern may be lo-fi and on the whole low cost, its production values, thankfully, are somewhat more sophisticated than those of a Pot Noodle.

Watch the episode of Kate Modern featuring Sophie Morris' cameo as a television interviewer

To watch more episodes of Kate Modern click here