What’s the link between Call the Midwife, the next James Bond film and the National Theatre’s new and acclaimed King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale? It’s certainly not high-octane car chases or a shaken martini, but almost as unlikely. The answer is Sam Mendes.
Most of us know him as the über-talented theatre director who made a seamless transition to Hollywood’s A-list. But for the past ten years, the Skyfall director has also been running a successful production company.
Mendes’s multimedia Neal Street Productions was sent Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of being a 1950s midwife by her agent, with the idea he might film them. But Worth’s stories of everyday life in the East End were felt to be better suited to the episodic nature of a TV drama series.
“I knew as soon as I read Jennifer Worth’s manuscript that it would make fabulous Sunday-night telly,” says Mendes’s business partner Pippa Harris. The tricky part was getting the BBC to commission it. The head of drama was keen, but a change of channel controller meant the corporation dragged its feet. So Mendes got involved.
“Pippa asked me to play the 600lb gorilla,” he says, “so I made a call and asked them why they weren’t making the show. That seemed to work.”
After months of wrangling, the BBC agreed to give them the peak-time Sunday-evening slot. Call the Midwife went on to pull in audiences of more than ten million. Two more series were commissioned and two Christmas specials.
Heidi Thomas was asked to write the scripts, as they’d worked with her before. “We knew she’d be right for this project. It’s a perfect example of how one area of our work feeds into another,” says Harris. As well as TV, they have film projects, stage plays and two musicals on the go: Shrek the Musical and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Mendes set up Neal Street Productions ten years ago, following the success of his 1999 debut film, American Beauty, which won a clutch of Oscars, including best movie, best director, and best actor for Kevin Spacey. At the time, Mendes was running a small theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, with business partner Caro Newling. The two had turned a small, fringe venue in Covent Garden into one of London’s most exciting theatres, so setting up a film production company seemed an obvious next step.
The third founding member of the company was a friend of Mendes, Pippa Harris, who was running BBC drama at the time.
They named their company after the narrow street in Covent Garden where they have their offices. The discreet entrance is tucked between a couple of fashion boutiques; inside, the walls are covered with theatre bills, film posters and an RT front cover of actress Jessica Raine in Call the Midwife. For a multimedia powerhouse, it’s small and intimate, with wooden floorboards and large, comfortable sofas.
I find the three founders gossiping over cups of tea in Mendes’s office. When I ask how they first met, he points to a framed black-and-white photograph on one of the bookshelves. It’s of a group of shaggy-haired students on stage. “That’s Nick Clegg playing the guitar in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac that I directed at Cambridge. Pippa was the producer.” She corrects him to say they actually first met during their schooldays in Oxford, so they go back a long way.
Some years later, Mendes rang Harris up to ask if she’d like to join him and Newling as a founder of Neal Street Productions. She jumped at the chance. But they didn’t really get into television in a serious way until a couple of years ago. “We were concentrating on making films,” says Mendes. “We had a deal with Dreamworks in the US, so that’s been our focus until now.”
Neal Street’s ability to spot talent and nurture it is a recurring theme of our conversation. Benedict Cumberbatch is a perfect example. In 2005, they cast him as the nerdy quiz-team leader in Starter for 10, a British film about a group of students taking part in University Challenge. Several other emerging stars were also in the cast: James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall (later Mendes’s girlfriend), Dominic Cooper and James Corden. Two years on, when Neal Street made its first TV drama, Stuart: a Life Backwards, Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy were cast in the leading roles.
Neal Street also prides itself on promoting the careers of female directors. All those on the second series of Call the Midwife are female, including Philippa Lowthorpe, the first woman to win a Bafta in the “best director: fiction” category for the 2012 Christmas special.
“It’s a very exciting time in TV drama,” says Harris. “With people like Netflix putting money into original scripted drama, and Sky in this country, it feels as if there are many more outlets clamouring for high-quality work. British producers feel they can reach out across the Atlantic. Look at Downton Abbey, which is a co-production with NBC Universal.”
Mendes says he dreams of making a TV drama series equal in stature to The Sopranos. “That was one of the greatest examples of long-form narrative art produced in the past 25 years, with its own unique universe. Who wouldn’t dream of making something equal to that?”
In the meantime, Neal Street are pinning their hopes on a co-production with US cable channel Showtime. A psychological horror set in Victorian London, Penny Dreadful will weave together literary characters such as Dr Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. It’s being shot in Ireland with a cast including Hollywood star Josh Harnett, Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory and Billie Piper. The writer is three-time Oscar- nominated John Logan (Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator), who also wrote Skyfall.
To make sure it’s properly terrifying, they’ve hired the Spanish film-maker Juan Antonio Bayona, who directed The Orphanage, a very clever take on the classic haunted-house genre.
I ask Mendes if the high-wattage line-up comes down to his excellent contacts book, but he says not. “We’re asking these people potentially to sign their lives away for five years if it’s a success. It’s a vote of confidence in the script to get stars of that calibre signing up.”
He may be right, but I wonder how many actors say no to Mendes?
Call the Midwife continues on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1.