Anne Mensah: Why Sky's drama supremo worries about her customers, not her viewers

The Media Column: Sky has committed to spending £600m on original content

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The Independent Online

When gambling on a £25m Arctic thriller series starring Stanley Tucci and Sofie Grabol, it’s no surprise that Anne Mensah, Sky’s head of drama, wanted to protect her investment.

“I did keep saying, ‘Can you put some more colourful jackets in it?’” she admitted, after the initial footage of the bleak, frozen wastes looked just a little too bleak.

With Sky’s commitment to spending £600m on original content and four channels to fill, Mensah now presides over one of the biggest drama budgets in British television. Returning to her post after maternity leave, Mensah, one of UK broadcasting’s few senior black executives, hopes to benefit from a boom in home-grown drama, which has never been so popular on the world stage.

Traditionally a quiet month, January has already witnessed the return of ITV’s Broadchurch, soon to be followed by Fortitude on Sky Atlantic, Russell T Davies’s new Channel 4 series Cucumber and BBC1’s hotly anticipated adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

 

“It’s such a healthy time for the UK drama industry,” said Mensah, 42, a former BBC executive poached by Sky in 2011. “Sky’s challenge is to do something our customers cannot get on any other channel.

“Jeremy Darroch (chief executive) told me, ‘You’ve got to be ambitious, think big’, and they haven’t flinched yet. We give people creative freedom, even if they want to make a drama with polar bears.”

Mensah’s use of the word “customers” rather than viewers is not accidental. Unlike her former BBC colleagues, Sky’s shows do not live or die by overnight ratings.

Where Sky once relied on exclusive sports rights and films to tie in subscribers, its pay-TV dominance is now threatened by BT, which has snapped up Premier League football, and video-on-demand services such as Netflix, which has carved its own niche in high-end drama with Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards.

Although the best US imports, such as Game of Thrones and True Detective, have found a home on Sky’s channels, it is now investing heavily in producing similarly talked-about domestic hits. “Drama defines channels. For us, it’s not about ratings but cultural impact,” Mensah said.

She has pursued co-productions with international broadcasters to deliver series on a bigger scale – Penny Dreadful, a Victorian psychological thriller series starring Josh Hartnett, is a co-production with Sam Mendes’s company and US network Showtime. The Tunnel, an acclaimed adaptation of Scandinavian drama hit The Bridge, is part of an ongoing partnership with French broadcaster Canal+.

Today, Mensah is announcing two fresh commissions. Stephen Mangan (Episodes) stars as a heavily pregnant man in Birthday, a Sky Arts drama adapted by Joe Penhall from his 2012 Royal Court play and directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill).

The Five, headed for Sky Living, is a roller-coaster thriller penned by the best-selling US author Harlan Coben, his first original story written for television. The story, which follows a group of friends who are united by a terrible incident, will deliver the kinds of twists and turns viewers enjoyed in 24, Mensah promises. The executive, whose BBC credits include Wallander and Waterloo Road (“all the series beginning with W”, she jokes), is venturing into territory more commonly associated with her old employer.

Critical, a “groundbreaking” new Sky 1 medical series, written by Jed Mercurio and starring Lennie James, will address topical concerns about the NHS’s ability to cope with major crises. “I don’t think you can set a drama in the NHS at the moment without reflecting that,” she said.

A version of Raymond Briggs’ well-loved story Fungus the Bogeyman is primed to challenge the BBC’s Christmas dominance at the end of this year.

Despite her intervention in Fortitude’s colour palette, Mensah says she resists temptations to “meddle” in her productions. “With Fortitude, I thought that, although Sky dramas have dark moments, we tend not to be grim – our shows have colour and vibrancy. A little blue sky helps.”

She defines success as “dramas that don’t sit on your Sky box because you think you ought to watch them eventually, but programmes you actively want to view live or on demand”.

Don’t be surprised if Mensah rings you up to check what you’re watching. “At Sky, the execs try and speak to viewers once a month for feedback, and once we rode with the engineers and went into their homes. You get much more honest views from customers than people in the media, who temper what they say with politeness. Why shouldn’t we talk to the people we make programmes for? It would be rude not to.”

Last week, Channel 4 published a “diversity charter” which requires its dramas to feature one lead character from an ethnic minority background or another under-represented group, if the programme fails to meet other “diversity” criteria.

Born to a father from Ghana and a mother from Canada, Mensah admits that a deficit in ethnic minority representation both on- and off-screen requires radical action. She regrets that the offspring of television insiders have a head start when industry breaks are on offer.

Sky has pledged that, by the end of this year, at least 20 per cent of the stars and writers of its UK-originated TV shows will come from a black, Asian or other minority ethnic background. “It can’t just be about paying lip-service and box-ticking; we have to say, ‘We’re just going to do it’.”

Mensah has picked up Venus Vs Mars, a hit web comedy-drama about a young black woman looking for love made by a black production team, which is being readied for Sky Living. She hopes it will sit comfortably alongside Scandal, the Washington DC-set drama from Shonda Rhimes, a leading US black drama producer.

“It’s not just about race, it’s about class, disability and looking beyond the pool of people who just represent you, to make programmes which are better for bringing new viewpoints to the channels.”

It is easy to see why she has no regrets about leaving the BBC. “The audience is fragmenting and the old rules don’t apply. To do something that hasn’t been done before, that is incredibly exciting.”

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