Last updated : 13th November 1999
The following is an interview with David Wickes, producer of CI5 – The New Professionals, conducted during late October 1999. It actually took the form of a number of set questions forwarded to him for his consideration and his responses are reproduced here in full. There are certainly some well thought-out answers to many burning questions about the show and I am sure you will find them very interesting.
Many thanks to David for taking the time and trouble to respond and Heide Wilsher for facilitating the whole thing.
Q: Let’s start with your work prior to ‘The New Professionals’. Can you give us a quick run-down on your career and how it all started?
A: It all started at Granada in the 1960s. I was what they called a Production Trainee. This meant that I had to make the tea for everybody. I was very bad at it so I took a director's course at ABC Television (the broadcaster that merged with Rediffusion to become Thames). Documentaries, rock music shows, children's programmes – and a lot more besides – followed. Everything from World of Sport to Thank Your Lucky Stars and from This Week to The Struggle for Peace. Also I did more commercials than I can remember!
Then I moved on to network dramas like Public Eye, Softly,Softly and quite a few series that nobody remembers.
Q: Obviously we are aware of your past involvement with The Professionals and The Sweeney, and then on to films such as Silver Dream Racer and the excellent Jack the Ripper and Jekyll and Hyde. Any other productions which you are particularly proud of?
A:I'm very fond of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye starring Powers Boothe (Emerald Forest, Southern Comfort, etc.) which was the first drama ever made for America's giant Home Box Office. The other one I like is Frankenstein with Randy Quaid, Patrick Bergin and Sir John Mills. This was the first Western film to be made in Poland after the Cold War and Steven Spielberg's people used to ring us once a week agonising over whether it was practicable to shoot Schindler's List there. We said not if you want to stay sane. But they still did it. Crazy days.
Q: It seems to have been a very long time since Jack the Ripper and Jekyll and Hyde were last seen on British screens – any chance of them reappearing soon, do you think?
A: Ripper now belongs to Pearson and Jekyll now belongs to Granada. My guess is they don't even know they've got them in their libraries.
Q: When did you first have the idea of relaunching The Professionals?
A: In the mid-80s. After LWT pulled the show, I thought it left a big hole which was never satisfactorally filled. So I toyed with the idea for a decade. I think the doctors call it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Q: Edward has said that he was first approached about the series in mid 1995. Could you please clarify why Lewis was approached in preference to Edward in 1997.
A: We did not formally approach Edward with an offer until the summer of 1997. However, the casting department had put out tentative feelers to a number of stars earlier than this, asking about their availability, willingness to do long-running series etc, so that a shortlist of "possibilities" could be drawn up. Nothing sinister in this. It happens all the time and certainly doesn't indicate any kind of preference or pecking order. Lewis was on the list too, of course, but then so were several others.
Q: Given the huge success of the old series (both at the time and as it is repeated around the world today) fans were surprised that no broadcaster wanted to provide finance for the new series. Why do you think this was?
A: We never asked a broadcaster to provide finance. The original show had been so successful all around the world that the new series could attract sufficient money from the City. So that's what we did.
Q: Were you as surprised as the fans when Lewis dropped out? It seemed a very sudden decision.
A: Lewis' decision wasn't really sudden. There was no row or tantrum or anything like that. We had been talking to Lewis informally for several months before he finally decided not to do the show. This question really should be answered by Lewis himself but I got the impression that he may have felt that he had already "done" The Professionals and would prefer to go in a new direction.
Q: How many other actors were in the running for 'Malone' other than Edward? Any other famous names?
A:Yes. There were three other household names in the running. It would not be fair to name them because, to put it bluntly, we turned each one down in favour of Edward.
Q:Can you remember roughly how many actors screen-tested and were given serious consideration for the roles of Curtis, Keel and Backus? Any names we would recognise?
A: Finding Curtis, Keel and Backus was a nightmare. Just about every agent in London and half a dozen in Los Angeles submitted more names and tapes than we could count. Casting director Elaine Fallon, co-producer Paul Tivers, and myself, auditioned about 30 actors for Curtis and about 25 for Keel. An even bigger headache was Backus. After two and a half months of searching, we held an open audition at The Talk of London and almost 300 girls turned up. Then an obscure agent in Toronto sent us a tape of Lexa Doig. Bingo. We flew her over, screen tested her against a shortlist of Curtises and Keels, then offered her the part. You ask if there were any names that you might recognise among those who were turned down. Oh yes, and how! We had famous theatre actors, up and coming movie names, and even a children's television presenter! Everybody and his brother wanted to be a Professional.
Q: It is obviously frustrating for both yourselves and the fans that no UK terrestrial broadcasters have bought the series (yet). Why do you think this has happened?
A: A few years ago, all independently produced television series were made for a specific broadcaster – BBC, ITV, Channel 4. And that was it. End of story. Today, there are dozens of channels in the UK. The same is true of many other countries. All over the world, you now sell what are called "windows" for a specific period of time to several channels – one after the other. In the UK, the show is going out on satellite first and will then transfer to terrestrial for its second window, then comes the video release, then it goes on to cable etc, etc. The New Professionals is currently at stage one, having its first window on Sky. Watch this space for future developments.
Q: Press reports claimed that ITV and Channel 5 were interested, but both felt you were asking too much money (mind you, have C5 actually got any money anyway?!?!?). Any comment?
A: All Channels haggle these days but one should never believe everything that's printed in the papers. Rumour and speculation are food and drink to armies of reporters who need an "angle" to get an article printed. There is a lot of interest among the terrestrials, but we're going out on Sky first. That's how it is.
Q: The figure quoted by the press was 75,000GBP per episode. Is that about right or is it way off the mark?
A: I always wondered where the figure of 75,000GBP came from. Depending on the show and depending on the channel, UK license fees vary from 60,000GBP to 600,000GBP per hour. There is no benchmark or set fee anymore. It all depends on what they're buying – is video included, does it cover all of Europe, is it for one showing or unlimited showings, etc etc ? In this case, 75,000GBP per episode is way off the mark. Thank heaven!
Q: What is the nature of the deal with Sky in terms of repeat runs (if any?)
A: There will be a limited number of repeat runs on Sky.
Q: Obviously we are all annoyed about the way Sky One are cutting certain scenes. Presumably there isn’t a lot that either yourselves or the fans can do but would you care to pass comment on Sky’s actions?
A: Maddening, isn't it? Considering that the show was edited by men like John Grover (9 James Bond films) it is very disappointing to see crucial and intriguing things cut out of the shows. I wince every time the scissors go in. I'm as upset as you are.
Q: Inevitably the fans are drawing up comparisons between the old and new series. Is this something you are happy about or do you prefer The New Professionals to be seen as a completely separate entity?
A: Hey guys, it's almost the year 2000. The original show worked wonderfully in its day. We all loved it (I still do!) but it can't be cloned. The world has moved on and the show must move with it. For instance, in today's climate, it would be strange to have no regular female agent. And world audiences wouldn't feel as comfortable as they once did with the hundred percent British "feel" that the original show had. Love it or hate it, globalisation is here to stay. If we are to compete with the big American shows, we have to enter the same arena. So the answer to the question is no – the new series is not a separate entity, but it is inevitably going to be different. James Bond has come a long way from Dr No. Why shouldn't The Profs develop and evolve?
Q: What do you see as this first season’s strengths and weaknesses?
A: I think one of the strengths is the bigger scope of the stories – international concerns like Balkan war criminals, the slaughter of elephants, and crazy American militias. As for weaknesses, our feedback so far is that the audience wants more of Lexa Doig and there should be more banter between Colin and Kal. Okay, everybody. We've made a note.
Q: Although fans generally agree that the action scenes are excellent, there has been a very mixed reaction to the plots and scripts. Any comment?
A: You know, it's funny. We've had some great reviews and a few stinkers. And the mail bag has been quite similar. One viewer wrote a long and scholarly thesis, with a chapter on each new episode, praising elements that some viewers didn't like at all – but slamming everyone's favourite (Lexa) at every turn! Not surprising when you come to think about it. Those who are old enough to remember will know that exactly the same thing happened when the original series first came out. Last week Brian Clemens reminded me of the hostile press in 1977 (things like "preposterous plots" and "scrofulous dialogue"). But nowadays the original Professionals is revered by some of the same critics! We honestly do our best with every plotline and we carefully consider every spoken word in every script, but you can't please all of the people all of the time. All we can do is keep on trying.
Q: And there has been almost unanimous agreement that Lexa Doig (“Backup”) is badly underused in most of the episodes with comments along the lines of “token female” and “missed opportunity”. Care to comment?
A: Fair enough, but consider the problem. Every screen minute given to Backus would be a screen minute taken away from Curtis and Keel. Already, there have been complaints that the boys don't get as much time as Bodie and Doyle did. As for "token female", isn't The Professionals largely about a pair of guys? And what's wrong with that? Would anyone have complained about a token male in Cagney & Lacey ? Anyone suggesting such a thing would have been branded a "sexist" for even thinking about it. We should have more of Lexa because she's good, not because she's female.
Q: In 'Back to Business' Keel remembers the massacre at his wedding, yet it is never actually explained in the series what that was all about. Was this an idea that was going to be developed but later dropped?
A: In a word? Yes.
Q: You have said that when you approached major US broadcasters, they demanded a minimum of 22 episodes. We are under the impression that you need a good US (and/or UK terrestrial) sale in order to finance further episodes anyway. If that’s true, is it, therefore, fair to say that you’re in a ‘Catch 22’ (ironically enough!) situation? ie you need more episodes to make a US sale, yet you need a US sale to be able to finance more episodes.
A: Only partly true. We are well advanced with plans for further episodes. We don't have to deliver 22 episodes before an American broadcaster will sign on the dotted line. We already have 13 so they know what they are going to get. Added to which, there will be a UK terrestrial transmission. As mentioned above, the Sky window is the first window, not the end of the story.
Q: Assuming the show does go to a second season, what, if any, changes and improvements would you look to make?
A: Every producer of every TV series wants to do better, make it faster, funnier, more original, more exciting. All I can say is that we're no exception to the rule. We'll just try harder.
Q: Do you feel it's important to get a second season in production as soon as possible to "keep up the momentum" or is there no problem if, say, it takes another 18 months to acquire the financing?
A: Momentum is good. But it's not everything. The important thing is to coordinate the air dates in as many countries as possible. Why? Because it's no good supplying Britain and France with new episodes this year if Germany or America can't schedule them until a year hence. The interest payments in the waiting period would be horrendous. We are moving as fast as we can on a new series, but it's like playing 3-dimensional chess – a few uncoordinated moves could lose the game altogether. And we've got some tough competitors. Softly-softly. Easy does it.
Q: Along with the London Postcard Company’s excellent postcards, are there plans for other items of merchandise? (Posters, T-shirts, CDs, videos, etc).
A: Yes. Copyright Promotions Ltd have plans for a whole bunch of merchandise items. They are experts in this field and will choose their moment. But if any fans want to know more, Copyright Promotions' email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a post-script to this, the show never went to a second season.