This week saw the launch of Uncommon's ambitious campaign for ITV, Great Characters Make Great Drama, and the agency's first work for the broadcaster since being appointed last year didn't disappoint on concept or craft.


Exploring the power of character archetypes, the two films - The Patriarch and The Guvnor - have a sweeping, cinematic feel that owes much to the choice of James Marsh - the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind The Theory of Everything and Man on Wire - as director. Both spots feature central characters from current ITV drama series, who epitomise two 'classic' TV drama personas. Extracted from their usual contexts and placed into new, dramatic settings, they speak directly to the viewer, musing on and unpicking the timeless appeal of the archetypes they represent.  


Read on for an exclusive Q&A with Uncommon's co-founder, Nils Leonard and James Marsh, about the making of the campaign, plus some behind-the-scenes images.




Nils Leonard, co-founder, Uncommon

This is Uncommon's first piece of work for ITV since being brought on board last year as part of a strategic refresh. What was the brief for this campaign? 

Nils Leonard: We partnered with ITV to drive reappraisal. To engage new viewers and provoke people to look again and see ITV as a creative, ambitious and modern company that make some incredible programmes and experiences. ITV really doesn’t get the credit they deserve for their craft and creativity. This campaign is the start of that journey, really landing something with scale and emotion to match the level of the programming. 



Where did the inspiration for the Great Characters Make Great Drama concept come from?   

NL: Drama has real power to compel us. We began immersing ourselves in the genre and looked at the stuff that moved people most. When you get beneath the storyline, it is always down to the characters we fall in love with. These characters live beyond the screen, they remind us of the people we love, the people we hate and sometimes even ourselves. That’s what the most influential shows like Game Of Thrones, The Night Of and Endeavour truly understand. 

"Archetypes are genderless, ageless and don’t care what colour you are."

We focussed deeper on what makes these characters so captivating. We saw that the characters often play out a recognisable archetype: the Patriarch, the Witch, the Villain, the Siren, the Guvnor. It’s amazing when you think about how many of these archetypes exist in many of the stories you love. Having the archetypes explain themselves felt like a fresh place to go with the work. Written and crafted carefully, we knew it could unlock some incredible performances.


 Roger Allam as Endeavour's DI Fred Thursday in The Patriarch. Image: Dan Kleinman @ Third Eye Deer

Tell us a bit about the creative process. Why and how did you decide on 'The Patriarch' and 'The Guvnor' as the two character archetypes? Did you start by looking at ITV's drama programming and choosing Fred/Vera and then working out which archetypes they best represent, or vice versa?

NL: We started with the archetypes we thought might tell the most emotive stories. We then looked at who might deliver the most powerful performances, Fred and Vera came out straight away on top. With The Patriarch we really wanted to not just play out the archetype but get to the heart of why they have the power to move us. We essentially landed on the hardest but very beautiful truth: that we all dread the passing of our fathers. The Patriarch is touching in this story because the character really forces us to engage with our deepest family bonds. 

Archetypes are genderless, ageless and don’t care what colour you are. We loved that Vera was an original character that went against the older male that would usually play 'the guvnor’. Vera crushes it, in her inimitable style, she challenges the stereotype and goes against what’s expected.



Breaking the fourth wall can be a tricky technique to pull off - was it something you were set on from the beginning or did you explore any other ways of telling the stories? 

NL: Yes, the fourth wall is always dangerous in execution. It’s like comedy - it either really works or it tanks. The truth is that you need incredible talent onscreen to pull it off. I kept watching House of Cards looking for why it worked so well and ultimately, it’s all in the performance. If we couldn’t have worked with the incredible talent ITV have in Roger and Brenda, then we’d probably have walked away from the idea. 


Brenda Blethyn as Vera's DCI Vera Stanhope in The Guvnor

What made James Marsh, who's perhaps better known for his docs and features, the right director for the job? 

NL: We wanted this work to have the scale and ambition of a feature from the start, something that genuinely had the power that the dramas themselves have too. James is an exceptional talent, he has an excellent eye but also draws out remarkable yet understated performances from the talent he works with.


Tell us a bit about the choice of music for The Patriarch and how you brought Max Richter on board. 

NL: I had been listening to Max’s On the Nature of Daylight and reading the VO for months as we developed the idea. We always get to music early at Uncommon and we were desperate for the work to have impact and emotion. It was incredible to work with Max and to end up staying with such an iconic piece. I lost my shit when I found out he’d agreed, it’s such a huge part of the emotion on The Patriarch and I was humbled he felt the work was worthy. Similarly, the score on The Guvnor perfectly matched Vera's energy.




James Marsh, director, Pulse Films

You're best known for your feature films and docs - why did this job appeal? And what was your reaction on receiving the scripts?  

JM: It was such an unusual and exciting brief - to make short films based around beloved TV characters, with the added challenge of the characters talking to camera and revealing themselves in an intimate way. The scripts were really well written and put together. You could see that a lot of care and thought had gone into the words and the creatives had clearly conveyed the atmosphere and settings they were after. I was genuinely thrilled when I read them and I felt that my previous work with actors on features would be helpful. It was really the ideal job for a director with my background - the creatives wanted something original, truly cinematic and rooted in performance. And it was a really rewarding collaboration with the agency Uncommon - it was a genuine and ongoing exchange of ideas, all devoted to making the films as good as possible. We did all the post together, too, and kept challenging the work at every stage until the very end.


 Behind the scenes on The Patriarch. Image: Dan Kleinman @ Third Eye Deer

How familiar were you with the series from which the characters are 'extracted' - Endeavour and Vera? Did you watch much in preparation for the job?

JM: I’d seen a couple of the Endeavour shows but I was unfamiliar with Vera - largely because I don’t spend a lot of time in the UK. So I watched quite a few episodes of both shows to prepare - it was important to get a feel for the characters, their style, their body language, their way of moving and talking. And I really liked Brenda’s persona in Vera, she’s a really strong, powerful woman - just like Brenda herself.

"When you are with actors of this class and experience, my main approach is keep out of their way and support and encourage what they are doing." 

I also thought it vital that I spent some time with both Roger and Brenda before we did any shooting. And they were both kind enough to meet me and talk through the tricky challenge of talking to the camera in character. My pitch to them was: “I want to make something really good and memorable with these films and I want to have fun whilst we do it”. I loved working with them both and I think we did have fun doing them, despite hanging about in a rainy, cold forest at 6am in the morning. And the great outcome for me is that I now have two more great actors to call upon in my future work.


Still from The Guvnor

Why did breaking the fourth wall work in this context and what particular challenges does that bring for a director?  

JM: That was the great virtue of the scripts - to do something unexpected and audacious with these familiar characters. It’s really a device from the theatre - the soliloquy where the character reveals him or herself to the audience and both Roger and Brenda got that immediately. The challenge was theirs as much as mine - I was pretty confident that between us we could make it interesting and believable. When you were with actors of this class and experience, my main approach is keep out of their way and support and encourage what they are doing.

The trickiest part was keeping in mind the many cut-down versions that had to be spun out of the main films, given that that they are addressing the camera throughout and the light is ever changing on a shoot day. So you are tying yourself in knots trying to get coverage to cover the many iterations of the idea. 


Behind the scenes on The Patriarch. Image: Dan Kleinman @ Third Eye Deer

How did you go about creating the all-important cinematic feel of the spots?

JM: I hired my favourite DP, Benoit Delhomme! We’d shot a feature together and so there’s a shorthand in place and shared cinematic values. We decided early on to shoot anamorphic which is more expensive but it gave us the look and depth we were after. I also had great support from our locations manager, Eugene Strange who found us a beautiful, eerie forest within the M25 and Fiona Crombie, the designer.

My main reference points in cinema were The Conformist and Millers Crossing (both have memorable episodes in forests) plus the Steadicam style of Alan Clarke and particularly his film Road where characters talk to camera. It’s not readily available but I have a bootleg copy of the film, which is very precious to me. 


Behind the scenes on The Patriarch. Image: Dan Kleinman @ Third Eye Deer

Were the spots shot during the filming of the two series? If not, how did that work, in practice? 

JM: The short answer is 'no' and that actually suited the brief. We channelled their signature costumes and screen personas from their shows but these short films aren’t trailers or extracts from coming episodes. Our objective was to displace these well established characters into a more mythical, timeless setting and create a self-contained dramatic episode that was entirely different from the style of their respective shows.

Our spots were essentially designed to have a scale that could bear the scrutiny of a cinema screen not just a TV screen or iPhone, even if they would work perfectly well in those media. So I don’t think it would have been helpful to have abducted Roger and Brenda from the sets of their shows to do our films - I wanted them to approach our work in a different way, not as part of their ongoing work with a director they see every day or as some kind of ancillary PR duty, but a one-off challenge for them as actors to collaborate with me to make something different and special. They both really responded to that.

Naturally, we did confer with their show runners and had access to their costumes - and indeed hired their respective costume designers who were also excited to be a part of this unusual venture and made a great contribution. But the brief was loud and clear from the start  - make something original with these great characters and try and sneak in some more general ideas about how and why we need stories in our lives and how we engage with them through character above all else.


Behind the scenes on The Patriarch. Image: Dan Kleinman @ Third Eye Deer

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