Being the king of Sunday-night TV, the reigning monarch of the most coveted slot on the schedules with not one but TWO rubies in your crown, can be heady. As the driving force behind BBC1’s Poldark and ITV’s Victoria, Damien Timmer could sit comfortably on his throne as flunkeys bring him sweetmeats, surely the only television producer in history to have two blockbusting drama series pitched against one another on rival channels.
London-born Timmer, 47, who studied history at Oxford University, could sit comfortably – but he doesn’t. That crown can be cumbersome, because it’s Timmer’s job to fret about everything. As executive producer of Poldark he must worry, among many other things, about the weather in Cornwall, whether cast and crew could be blown of a cliff, or whether Aidan Turner should really be up a ladder in a car park filming a scene. And in Victoria, he must worry about Jenna Coleman’s contact lenses.
It might not sound like much but Timmer, managing director of Mammoth Productions, had a moment of head-in-hands horror at the press launch screening of Victoria, about the teenager’s early years as queen. As an audience of critics, cast and crew watched the luminous Coleman light up a very big screen, we noticed something odd about her eyes…
“Jenna has brown eyes, and Queen Victoria famously had blue eyes,” says Timmer. After experimenting with scores of contact lenses to change Coleman’s eye colour, and after “teething problems we felt we’d rectified,” Coleman appeared. But, oh dear… “Despite everyone’s best efforts in post-production, the contact lenses were really obvious and strange – you could see these big plastic rims around her eyes.”
Timmer then spent three weeks going through all eight episodes, frame by frame, blurring any rogue contact lens edges. “It cost a lot of money and everyone was very cross with me.”
Then came what could have been the runaway boulder in terms of Victoria’s success – it was scheduled by ITV directly against series two of Poldark, a huge hit for BBC1 last year when it entered the nation’s cultural fabric thanks to Aidan Turner’s topless scything. Surely new, young Victoria would wither and die?
“We didn’t think it would be possible for both to find an audience. Victoria was coming late to the party; it always felt like a high-risk strategy.”
Damien Timmer, Daisy Goodwin and Jenna Coleman
Everyone in television sets much store in overnight ratings figures, but in these digital days, with catch up, viewing habits can adapt and no one has to miss anything. Which is bigger in terms of viewer numbers? Poldark or Victoria?
It’s hard to say, as iPlayer figures don’t take into account people saving up a series to binge-watch, and ITV has its catch-up channel. The first Sunday the two went head-to-head, Poldark had 5.13 million viewers, while Victoria secured 4.13(with 0.64 more on HD and 0.43 on ITV+1). A delighted ITV has ordered a second series of Victoria, its highest-rated drama of the year so far.
“Poldark fans were already massively engaged with the show, they love it. Yet Victoria has found its place, and they both exist happily.”
As the parent of both, Timmer can’t confess to having a favourite. Poldark transfixed viewers last year, winning the Radio Times Audience Award at the Baftas. And the original idea for Victoria was Timmer’s.
He explains why he alighted on Queen Victoria: “She was queen at an extraordinary time in British history, her personal life was ripe with intrigue and excitement and she’d never been the subject of a TV series. I thought she deserved to be at the centre of her own show.”
In a serendipitous meeting, author and producer Daisy Goodwin dropped by with an idea for a running drama series about the young Queen Victoria. “We pitched it to ITV who said that they had been thinking about what would happen when Downton ended.”
So Sunday night TV magic was born. As for Poldark, it turns out that RT had a hand in its creation. “I met Aidan at an RT covers party six years ago. Everything starts with Radio Times! I’d loved Being Human, and Aidan was like a proper Hollywood matinee idol. Then about 18 months later Poldark happened, and it came to life very quickly. In my mind Aidan WAS Ross.”
Timmer and his team are responsible for some huge hit shows: Endeavour, Parade’s End, Remember Me. And, after the success of last year’s And Then There Were None, there will be another Agatha Christie adaptation, The Witness for the Prosecution, this Christmas.
But the battle for Sunday nights has the potential to go on for years. How does that make him feel? “Really tired!”
Poldark continues tonight at 9pm on BBC1 while you can catch Victoria on ITV