Television Kudos: How we messed with Mossad - and survived

Kudos has cornered the market in quality independent drama for the BBC, making 'Spooks', 'Life on Mars' and 'The Amazing Mrs Pritchard'. Raymond Snoddy talks to its MD, Jane Featherstone

The most recent episode of Spooks, in which Mossad agents posed as al-Qa'ida operatives to mount a siege and try to kill off a British nuclear energy deal with Saudi Arabia, was riveting viewing but not universally admired. The BBC received a call purporting to be from the Israeli intelligence arm complaining about how they were portrayed.

"They suggested that we should have phoned Tel Aviv to get permission," says Jane Featherstone incredulously. "Are you serious?" Featherstone is joint managing director of Kudos, the company that makes Spooks and the executive who has been involved in every episode of the hit spy series. "The Mossad thing was just because we'd had a go at every other intelligence agency. It was Mossad's turn."

The first part of the Mossad drama peaked at 5.8 million with 1 million immediately switching over to BBC 3 to watch the conclusion. Before the current series is over, production will already have begun for a sixth.

"We make it all up, but we are interested in what is going on in the world so we extrapolate and sometimes get a bit close to the wire," Featherstone says. "We find the germ of a story that hits the news two years later," she says.

Not everyone agrees. On a BBC radio programme two years ago, Featherstone was tackled by the journalist Peter Taylor, who suggested that a Spooks story about a British-born suicide bomber was completely implausible.

As for MI5 and MI6, Featherstone says they find the series both amusing and irritating. At first the intelligence services thought it might help to recruit new spies. Then they were deluged with people who thought the job involved walking around in Armani saving the planet. "They wanted anoraks who spoke Arabic," says the forceful Featherstone.

Kudos founder Stephen Garrett, and the other joint managing director, came up with the idea when Channel 4 asked for a new "precinct drama" which couldn't be about cops or hospitals. He came up with the idea of spies and researched a list of potential threats to the country.

"It couldn't all be the Irish," Garrett recalls. "Halfway down our list was Osama bin Laden." The Channel 4 commission went to North Square, the law drama that rapidly faded in the ratings. Everyone turned down Spooks, although the original idea focussed more on the private life of spies than the present version.

But the new regime at the BBC - essentially the then BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey and drama chief Jane Tranter - seized on the idea. Spooks, which has now been sold to 50 countries - it is called MI5 in the US - was on its way.

"With hindsight it turned into this channel-defining success, but all credit to them for making the decision," says Garrett, a former controller of youth programming at Channel 4 who also launched Rapture, a youth TV channel. "It was quite brave."

With its £800,000-an-hour production values, the series has also defined Kudos and underpinned its reputation, leading to other high-profile BBC 1 dramas.

Earlier this month the independent producer had dramas on three successive evenings on BBC 1.

Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, was followed the next day by Spooks, and then, the day after that, by The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, the story of an ordinary woman who becomes Prime Minister. Those who loyally watch Mrs Pritchard, including politicians, like it very much, but her ratings are falling. The audience for last week's episode dropped to 3.4 million. The paradox at the centre of the drama, Featherstone notes, is that it is about political apathy, but many viewers may also be too politically apathetic to watch it.

Kudos is now putting the final touches to Tsunami, a three-hour BBC-HBO drama portraying the lives of a group of characters in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 disaster. Early in the New Year there will be a second - and last - series of Life on Mars, followed in the spring by a new series of Hustle.

The irony is that the young up-market audiences attracted to BBC dramas such asSpooks, Hustle and Life on Mars are just the sort advertisers most want. Yet Kudos has had little success in winning commissions from ITV - until now. A deal is close on an ambitious new series.

Garrett, who specialises in the business side of Kudos as well as feature-film production, has just had a new film "green lit." Production will begin in April on Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, based on a largely forgotten novel. Kudos also has the film rights to the Julian Barnes novel Arthur and George.

Now the 30-strong company is thinking about the next step forward so it can expand both internationally and more strongly into new media. Financial adviser Long Acre has been brought in, but Featherstone and Garrett, who each own 50 per cent of voting shares of Kudos, have virtually ruled out a stockmarket float and are instead concentrating on trying to find the right kind of partner.

They are convinced that however tough the broadcasting environment is short-term, there will always be a market for high-end, fast-moving dramas, even though they never come cheap. "It is a really difficult, challenging and exciting time," says Featherstone. "But there will always be an appetite for those dramas. People will always want their stories told to them."