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Introducing... UNDERCOVERS

After her 18-month adventure in New York, my filmmaking other half Lizzie is back in the UK and Spanner Films is officially back in action with our first post-Age of Stupid film project (I wouldn't say our first post-Stupid project, as we've spent the last few years giving birth to 10:10 and a couple of sprogs). Whilst Lizzie and I are cracking on every day, we'e also training up the next generation - our daughters Leila (right) and Eva (left) - to take over from us soon, though they are currently more interested in turning torches on and off than learning the finer points of film financing structures.

So, without further ado... fanfare please.... the next Spanner Films project is....


Is it a documentary? NO
Is it a movie? NO
Is it about planes? NO
Is it about climate change? ONLY PARTLY
Might it just possibly catalyse major social change? YES
Is it so absurdly ambitious it necessitates a new funding and distribution model? OF COURSE
Is it going to take up the next three years of our lives, more likely five, could even be ten? WITHOUT A DOUBT

- - - - - - - - -

UNDERCOVERS is a five-season, 25-episode television drama series based on the incredible true story of the police spies who infiltrated British activist groups over the last 50 years... and the women who unwittingly had long-term relationships and even children with the spies.

As gripping an identity thriller as Homeland... as complex a political drama as The West Wing... as devastating a betrayal as Atonement... UNDERCOVERS contains many of the elements of the very best TV dramas. And then it has one more thing which none of the biggest international shows have had before. Something which makes it genuinely unique and heart-stoppingly dramatic.

It is all true.

- - - - - - - - -

So, that's it, we're making a TV drama series. But seeing as how we've only made docs and one drama-doc before, we are going to be employing grown-up drama writers and directors and whathaveyou whenever we get out of our depth.

As I mentioned in my last message a few months ago, our friend Helen Steel from McLibel is one of the women who had a long-term relationship with one of the police spies, and who are now suing the police. (Listen to Helen on Women's Hour here, watch the Dispatches documentary here, join their campaign here, follow them on twitter here). After more than ten years hearing the twists and turns of Helen's horrifying story, it finally struck me that the most powerful thing we could do both to help her and to try to ensure it never happens again is to make a long-running drama series. Because a documentary would be too past tense ("twenty years ago I really loved him") and a 90 minute movie wouldn't give enough screen time for such a multi-layered, cross-generational, multiple-character, many-themed story.

Five seasons, five world-changing themes
UNDERCOVERS’ narrative is nothing less than the history of the last 50 years of Britain, told from the perspective of activists fighting for social change. The over-arching themes of the five seasons are some of the defining political and social issues of our time: the economy, climate change, food, race relations and war. Viewers will re-live major events - including 9/11, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, 7/7, the arrival of mobile phones and the internet, the McLibel trial, the killing of Ian Tomlinson and the global economic crash - but from the new perspective of the social change campaigners who were warning of the dangers sometimes decades before these tumultuous events.

After spending the last six months talking to the mainstream TV industry about the police spies, we've come to understand that we'd never get to make the series we want to make if we signed up to be bound by a broadcaster's editorial priorities and constraints. So, hey ho, we've decided to stay true to the Spanner spirit and make and distribute UNDERCOVERS independently. The situation is similar to that in which we were in 18 years ago, when we were trying to get a commission for a documentary about the McLibel trial, but Channel 4 and BBC were wary after their own legal run-ins with McDonaldl's. We took what was, back then, the very radical decision to go ahead and do it on our own with no money, no industry backing and no definite broadcast, in the hope of selling the film to telly (this was pre-internet) afterwards. With hindsight - and 26 million viewers later - that was a mighty right decision.

So all we have to do is do that again. Simple. Except the budgets for drama are MUCH bigger than for documentary. And that's if you're making one hour, when we plan to initially make 4 or 5 hour-long episodes, followed by another 16+ episodes if the first ones are successful...

Our first Tony
Square one: gather wisdom from the guru of political TV drama, Mr Tony Garnett - the producer of Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home and Kes, as well as Up The Junction and numerous other change-the-world classics. Now in his 8th decade, Tony is still lighting fires under television arses "If you want to make dramatic fiction for the screen you must first strangle your creative impulses." After some very tasty ravioli "My condition is that I buy the lunch, as a thank you for the excellent work you have done so far", we were not only 1000 times wiser as to the countless bear traps we were racing towards, but we also had our dream Executive Producer onboard!

Slumdog Simon
Sadly Slumdog Millionaire writer and Age of Stupid crowd-funder Simon Beaufoy is too busy to actually write the thing - what with his play of The Full Monty currently playing in the West End, as well as being commissioned to write both a 10-part series Telemark with Danny Boyle and another series based on the Len Deighton novels Hook Line and Sinker about espionage in the Cold War years - but he is definitely up for helping out in some as-yet-undefined creative role.

Crowd Funding Mark II
Looking back at our original funding document for Age of Stupid - or Crude as the film was called then - written in 2004 to help persuade would-be investors to part with their cash, we came across this very sweet quote:

"We would be very happy if, as a side effect of Crude, we inspired other filmmakers to copy this funding model, take on the big issues, sidestep the corporate control of the media and get millions of people watching films that matter. We will certainly take every opportunity to highlight our financing model when Crude is released."

Needless to say, "crowd-funding" is now utterly ubiquitous, with over 10,000 films looking for funding just on the Kickstarter website every year, and Kickstarter being only one of more than 50 crowd-funding platforms which are now used to fund everything from docs and movies to computer games and tech innovations.

But it's not quite right for UNDERCOVERS for various reasons I won't bore you with.

Instead, we're going for a model of crowd-funding meets equity investing meets tax break benefitting. Our friends Isabel Allen and Kevin McCloud have recently used the same scheme to raise just over £2milllion for their eco-social housing company HAB (Happiness Architecture Beauty), by selling 26% of the equity in their company. Highly impressive, not least because their original target was only £1 million, but they had so much interest they decided to extend.

So we're going to be offering equity in our new company, UNDERCOVERS TV LTD, in March-ish of next year, once we have the scripts and key talent (that's actors, director, writer to you) in place. Of course we'll be spreading the news far and wide once we launch.

For now, we've raised 2/3rds of the development budget needed to get the research done and the scripts written. Speaking of which, if there is anyone on here who pays £25,000+ income tax in a year, please could u drop us an email on as we'd like to ask a specific question? Thank you.

How will you see it?
145 million people watch video online in the USA, compared to 290 who watch TV.... And in Britain, 1 in 4 people watch more online than on TV. And that's in 2013 - by the time our series is ready for broadcast, the world will have changed even further. And as we'll own the rights to our series, we'll be able to sell it to Netflix or Channel 4 or Amazon or iTunes or all of the above or whoever we think will reach the most number of viewers.

These new forms of distribution are currently driving TV people wild - see Jeffrey Katzenberg's insane (or is it?) $75million offer for three additional episodes of US hit show Breaking Bad - which is why Lizzie was invited to speak about our UNDERCOVERS plans on a "Film Distribution In the Digital Age" panel with Philip Knatchbull (CEO of the Curzon cinema chain and Artificial Eye distributors), Andy Green (Founder of Distrify), Annette K Olsen (Director of Borgen), Ted Hope ("one of the 25 most powerful people in the independent film world" - Hollywood Reporter) and Alan Parker (legend). The general consensus was that our plans are sound and we might just do it - if we make a brilliant series which people all round the world want to watch.

In others' news

Command and Control
Our old McLibel buddy Eric Schlosser - he of Fast Food Nation - has finally finished his new magnum opus. "Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years." He's also made a four-minute film, with help from Radiohead, to scare the bejeezus out of us all.

Gaia Goes Greenscreen
Our future-world designer from Age of Stupid, Greg McKneally, successfully raised all the money for his documentary about eco-thinker James Lovelock, and has just spent an entire week interviewing the main man in his specially built green screen studio. Can't quite understand it myself, but the words that Lovelock says are in some way going to be interpreted in images behind him as he speaks, all very modern. See report here.

Bill and Kumi storm Europe - Two of the bravest and cleverest climate campaigners, Bill McKibben and Kumi Naidoo, are off on a joint-headline tour of the UK and Europe in the next couple of weeks: "The Fossil Free Europe Tour isn’t your typical lecture – it will include speakers from across social movements, powerful videos, and leaders, and will be joined on video by the likes of author Naomi Klein and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu." If you can't make any of the dates, they will be livestreaming the London show on 1st November.

Leave To Remain storms the London Film Festival
Remember the film about the child asylum seekers which Stupid exec producer Bruce Goodison has been dragging into life these last few years? The one starring successful actor Toby Jones alongside actual asylum seekers? Bruce has only gone and finished the thing and premiered last week at the highly prestigious and difficult-to-get-selected-for London Film Festival. Time Out gave it a three star review: "very watchable, frequently powerful". We are so proud. Next: securing a distribution deal. More info here:

So there we have it. We will keep you updated with UNDERCOVERS news as it happens. Until then, over and out.

With best wishes
Professor Franny*

* Yes, I seem to have become Professor of Film at Wolves University - but you can call me Prof.