How ‘Doctor Who’ Exec Producers Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner Helped Transform South Wales Into a Buzzing Hive of Production

The renaissance of “Doctor Who,” which started its latest season this week, is a 20-year journey that is entwined with the establishment of a thriving TV production scene in South Wales, where it shoots, and the meteoritic rise of the production company Bad Wolf

Published Time: 14.05.2024 - 11:31:28 Modified Time: 14.05.2024 - 11:31:28

The renaissance of “Doctor Who,” which started its latest season this week, is a 20-year journey that is entwined with the establishment of a thriving TV production scene in South Wales, where it shoots, and the meteoritic rise of the production company Bad Wolf.

This dates back to 2003 when writer Russell T. Davies was asked by the BBC’s then head of drama, Jane Tranter, to revive the show and to base the production in South Wales, an area hitherto known for coal mining and heavy industry. It was produced in 2004, overseen by BBC Wales head of drama, Julie Gardner.

When Tranter and Gardner relocated to Los Angeles to lead BBC Worldwide Productions and Adjacent Productions, they produced “Da Vinci’s Demons” for Starz, and again located the production in South Wales.

In 2015, Tranter and Gardner set up Bad Wolf, which takes its name from an episode of “Doctor Who,” and in 2017, they built Wolf Studios Wales, a production facility in Cardiff, with the financial support of the Welsh government. Here they shot “A Discovery of Witches” for Sky, and “His Dark Materials” for HBO.

When the BBC and Disney+, their new co-production partner on “Doctor Who,” asked Davies to return as showrunner for this latest season he made it a condition that Bad Wolf would produce it.

Bad Wolf, which also produces “Industry” for HBO and BBC, “The Winter King” for MGM+ and ITVX, and “Dope Girls” for BBC at their studios, isn’t the only production outfit to be part of the development of South Wales as a production hub. Hartswood Films, for example, shot much of the BBC’s “Sherlock” there, and Eleven shoots Netflix’s “Sex Education” in that neck of the woods. Netflix’s “Havoc,” starring Tom Hardy, is another recent shoot. A few years ago, Lucasfilm shot the Disney+ fantasy series “Willow” at Dragon Studios in Bridgend, South Wales, and filmed at 32 locations across the country. Production has also sprung up in other parts of Wales. Season 2 of HBO’s “House of the Dragon” shot at eight locations in North Wales last year, for example.

Creative Wales, the government agency responsible for the creative industries, reported in November that the TV and film sectors generated revenue totalling £459 million ($575 million) in 2022, an increase of 37% since 2017.

Sitting in Wolf Studios, Tranter tells Variety that when she and Gardner started Bad Wolf in 2015 they had a particular vision for the company that would set it apart from other independent production companies in the U.K.

“The vision was always to find a studio space. And that vision was because of two things. One was because, creatively, the things that I thought we would be able to do as Bad Wolf that weren’t already being done by every other U.K. independent production company was to do things which felt perhaps on a slightly bigger budget, that were more fantastical, maybe more world building. Because I wanted to use the skills and experience that we’d learnt when in L.A. and bring them back here. So that was partly thinking: ‘Alright, creatively, we’re probably going to be pushing to a more studio-based environment.’

“And the other reason for that is I had a vision: Wales is God’s own country – it’s the most beautiful place – and I thought, how amazing to build a studio somewhere where you drive through green fields, and the deer are running across them in the early morning mist as you’re there for your 6 a.m. start. But, actually, it’s like any of these things at the end of the day, you find the right space for you, and this was the right space for us.

“But when we started off, we were in one room in Bay Studios in Swansea. And you think: ‘Right, where do we go from here?’ And it really started as small as that. It was just me and one other person in a room in Bay Studios in Swansea, and, a week previously, I’d been in an office in Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. And you start with a blank piece of paper with the words ‘To do list’ at the top, and then you just start from there.”

Tranter adds that when they started Bad Wolf she was at a point in her professional life where she’d had one career as drama commissioner at the BBC, and then another career as a producer in Los Angeles for eight years, where she made “The Night Of” and “Da Vinci’s Demons,” among other shows.

“And then I came here. I’d had a very different set of experiences. I’d waited longer to do it. And so, it felt that I didn’t need to do that kind of like, ‘Right, I’m going to open an office in Soho in London, and hope someone gives me a half-hour comedy series’ kind of thing. I could start in a slightly different place. And I wanted to do something other than just have an independent production company. I wanted to be able to build a community really within Wales that could do all the things we wanted to do, like make high-end drama, that would be made in Wales and shown around the world.

“But our industry can be very tough. So I thought: How can we build an environment where your work ethic, how we treat each other, is better? How can you give people the very best opportunities? How can we do something new when the existing industries in Wales look like they’re going in one direction? How can we bring something new and grow jobs and a whole kind of culture?

“So, I think it takes confidence to do that. And I think I wouldn’t have done that maybe if I’d started the indie 10 years previously, but I was able to do it then. I’d had a lot of experience working in studios in New York, and seeing what that felt like and thinking, ‘We could do that in Wales.’ The experience with ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ and my experience of working in New York, you put the two things together, and this is what we started.”

The transformative effect that “Game of Thrones” had on Northern Ireland’s TV and film industry influenced Tranter’s thinking when she set up Bad Wolf.

“The big difference that I wanted Bad Wolf to be compared with ‘Game of Thrones’ was not to be one show that goes in and out, that literally helicopters in and helicopters out again. I wanted us to make a commitment to be here 52 weeks of the year. We are growing the industry from the ground up.

“And that’s why it was important not to just come in and do a show here, but to put your production company here and build a studio. It lights a fire if you like. You’ve built the studio, now you’ve got to fill it. You’re constantly thinking: ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s not me sitting in a room doing this. It’s all of us at Bad Wolf. Everyone’s thinking, ‘Okay, this is ours, what are we going to do?’ And then it just grows.”

Over the years the studios have enabled a host of ancillary companies, such as set construction firm 4Wood, to set up in the area supporting the productions – construction, prop makers, scaffolding, costume, dyers, and so on. “Everyone does better work as a result, and it feeds the local economy, and you feel that you’re making a difference. You feel more of a community,” she says.

Wolf Studios has also added its own editing suites and VFX review rooms.

Tranter says that although the studios -

are owned by the Welsh government and Bad Wolf leases it, the company kitted it out. “The key thing is that the studio was put together by producers. It wasn’t put together by property developers,” she says. “It’s not here to make a giant profit. It is here to make sure that Bad Wolf has got somewhere to make ambitious productions possible in Wales with a commitment to the area.”

A few years ago, Sony Pictures Television Intl. Production acquired a majority stake in Bad Wolf, but Tranter says it has retained its autonomy. “Their point and purpose – as you can see if you look at “The Crown” producer Left Bank or “Sex Education” producer Eleven, who are the other drama companies that Sony International have – they want those companies to stay doing the things that were the reason that they wanted to own them in the first place. So, they want each of the companies to retain their signature, that individuality. We all have different ways of working. We all have a different approach to doing a deal or a different approach to producing and that’s been kept, and they want us to keep it, they don’t want a homogeneity across those companies. And I think it is one of the reasons that president of International Productions Wayne Garvie’s area has been very successful with the investments they’ve made in some indies.”

Being part of a large group also gives Tranter the reassurance to continue to take on the risks associated with big budget productions. “I don’t want to ever not produce courageously. I don’t ever not want to get on that high wire of risk and creative excitement and adrenaline. That sense of ‘Okay, no one’s done it before so let’s give it a go then.’ And I thought I could feel myself during that first COVID lockdown beginning to feel much more cautious. And I thought, this is wrong. You don’t name a company Bad Wolf and produce cautiously.”

In February, Bad Wolf and the Welsh government signed a four-year deal worth £4 million ($5 million). It will ensure that at least four Bad Wolf productions are shot in Wales, with a minimum Welsh spend of £60 million ($75.1 million), in the period up to March 2027. It will also provide a minimum of 42 paid trainee placements on high-end productions, and 25 work shadowing placements.

The deal continues a long partnership between the Welsh government and Bad Wolf, which resulted in the setting up at Wolf Studios of education and training body Screen Alliance Wales in 2018.

Allison Dowzell, managing director of Screen Alliance Wales, explains that “the aim is to educate, inspire and give ambition to people from an early age.” From the age of 7, local children are introduced to the work of Bad Wolf and from 18 they are encouraged to consider placements and traineeships, and then eventual join as professional crew.

“Everybody who’s an entry-level trainee comes to us with no prior experience. So, it’s actually building the industry from the ground up, really,” she says.She lists multiple names of local people who have come through SAW and are now in their dream jobs in the industry. “So, you’re creating what I suppose is that train that once you get on at the station, you can actually finish your career in the industry that you love to work in at the top of your profession, and that was Jane’s vision,” she says.

Dowzell adds: “It all came about when ‘Doctor Who’ came to Wales and all the crew came from London. And then they got a local director on board and he said, ‘You don’t need to do that. We’ve got crew here.’ And so, it started the journey really.”

Dowzell used to serve as the head of the Wales Screen Commission and recalls going to Los Angeles to persuade the Hollywood studios to locate their shows in Wales. “You can trace it all back to those key moments where people had that confidence in knowing that if they bring in a high-end production to Wales, they can service it with local crew and facilities,” she says. “We still got a way to go. Probably the majority of the heads of department still come in from outside of Wales, but we’re getting there.”

Creative Wales was set up in 2020 as an economic development agency for the film, TV, publishing, music and gaming industries, explains Gerwyn Evans, its deputy director. “The Welsh ministers saw the creative industries as a growing sector, a sector for the future,” he says. The creative industries generated revenue of £1.4 billion ($1.75 billion) in 2022 and employed some 32,500 people, with a large freelance workforce on top.

Creative Wales has invested £19.5 million (£24.4 million) of production funding into 41 film and TV projects. This is in addition to the U.K. tax relief.

Creative Wales has placed original Welsh-language drama center stage in the past two years, supporting a slate of six original stories for BBC Cymru Wales as part of the broadcaster’s “Year of Welsh Drama,” including “Men Up,” Michael Sheen’s “The Way” and “Lost Boys & Fairies.”

In terms of its production funding, Creative Wales looks to see a 10 to one return on its investment, in terms of local spending on things such as hotels, catering, electricians, and hair and make-up, but now training is a growing priority.“When Lucasfilm shot ‘Willow’ at Dragon Studios a couple of summers ago, we gave them £4 million, but on the basis that they had to demonstrate £40 million spent on the local economy,” he explains.“But now more and more we’re looking to solve the skills issue. Talk to anyone in the U.K. in the screen sector, and they’ll mention skills. So, we put a lot of trainees on productions that we support. I think over 200 in the last 18 months, all youngsters coming into the sector. So, that’s a real focus for us at the moment.”

Evans warns that skills shortages are an issue, and that building new studios therefore is not something they want to do. He recalls how last year there was a particularly busy period. “We basically didn’t have any more crew left in Wales. They were all working on these really big productions. If we put another studio in here, we wouldn’t be able to crew it. It’s a fine balancing act.”

Nevertheless, Great Point Studios brought Seren Studios, which hosted “Sherlock,” near Cardiff last year, and plans to double its capacity.

The National Film and Television School has set up a branch in Cardiff, which will help alleviate skills shortages, and a company called SkillsCymru runs Creative Wales’ apprenticeship program.

Animation is a focus for Creative Wales, with companies like Cloth Cat doing well with kids shows like “Dave Spud,” and gaming is also expanding with companies like Wales Interactive Studio calving a niche for itself internationally with games like survival horror “Maid of Sker.”

Despite the challenges, Evans is upbeat about the strength of the creative sector in his country. “There’s definitely a buzz around Wales,” he says.

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