Israeli drama takes on The Killing

Israeli drama is a rich source of talent


For the past couple of years, Saturday nights on BBC4 have been the home of Danish drama The Killing – the atmospheric, slow moving but compelling thriller which has acquired a cult audience regardless of the subtitles.

But now there is a new kid on the block. Saturday evenings on BBC4 have been given over to a different type of foreign language drama – Hostages – an Israeli thriller just as gripping as The Killing although in a very different way. The series tells the story of an Israeli surgeon whose family is taken hostage the night before she is due to perform surgery on the Israeli prime minister. She is told that her husband and children will be released only if the prime minister dies while in hospital.

You may already have seen the American adaptation of Hostages, although If you did you would probably have been underwhelmed. Viewing figures tailed off steadily through the series and it was cancelled after the first season. But reaction to the original Israeli version has been altogether different. Reviewers have raved about the acting, directing and the build-up of tension.

If Scandi drama is characterised by stark drama under grey skies, the two most popular examples of the Israeli genre – Hostages and Prisoners of War, which was adapted in the US as Homeland – are both political thrillers. And they are both far superior to the multi-million dollar, star-studded adaptations they spawned. This is because whereas the American adaptations rely on fast cutting and action sequences to draw in massive audiences by appealing to the lowest common denominator, the Israeli dramas tak e time to develop characters and add real depth to the drama – a formula which has been used in the best Scandi dramas and a select few American series like The Wire and Mad Men. The Israelis, by trusting their audience, have made their shows so absorbing that audiences become hooked for the duration,

What Hostages and Prisoners of War demonstrate is that Israeli TV drama is blossoming - and in the past 10 years it has been recognised as such a rich source of talent that as of last year one production company, Keshet, had six series in development with US channels.This would have seemed an unlikely scenario to anyone who visited the country in the 1970s. Back then there was one channel, broadcast in glorious monochrome. Once you had caught up with the news in Hebrew and Arabic, there were a few British costume dramas and American cop series to watch and not a lot else – bad news for any budding programme-makers who were coming through. So how did a country whose inhabitants wisely spent little time in front of the box develop into a hotbed of creativity which became the surprise success story of TV drama in the 21st century?

The answer can probably be found in the attitude of Israelis to new businesses. Israel has been characterised as the ultimate start-up nation. Here is a country which has had to fight against overwhelming odds for its very survival. This experience combined with the precariousness of day-to-day life seems to have bred a maverick quality into the country's young entrepreneurs. Taking risks is a part of daily life and that translated into an adventurous business mentality which has worked well in Israeli TV production, where creativity is crucial and risk-taking fundamental. Another aspect that works to the Israelis' advantage is that to be produced in Israel, programmes have to be delivered to a tight budget. This means if the idea is good, overseas broadcasters can also develop the format without spending a fortune.

However, this does not explain how Israel managed to develop such a vibrant TV sector in first place. Critically acclaimed film-maker Eytan Fox sheds some light on it. Back in the 1980s he was in a class at Tel Aviv University with Oscar-nominated director Ari Forman as well as the creators of B'Tipul - the first big Israeli drama to be adapted for American TV 10 years ago.

He recalls: "There was nothing for us when we graduated.There were maybe seven films made per year and only one TV channel. A few of us started a little production company and suddenly things began to change around us. Suddenly there was commercial TV, then satellite and cable. A new law was passed in 2000 which ensured a specific percentage of revenues would be injected into Israeli cinema. So suddenly all these good film schools began to develop and the talent which had been there from the start had a chance to make movies and TV series."

The output looks set to continue. In the American pipeline are both drama series and game shows. And the BBC has bought the rights to the award-winning series Yellow Peppers, on which filming is due to start this year with screening scheduled for early 2016. The theme of the drama is not politics this time but autism - proof that the Israeli industry is developing TV which is as varied as it is acclaimed. As Fox says: "We have always had amazing stories here in Israel, but now we are getting a chance to make them."

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