BBC iPlayer has unveiled its first original feature film.
The announcement marks another step in the Beeb’s flagship site evolution from catch-up hub to fully-fledged VOD service. Indeed, it arrives hot on the heels of the premiere of Orphan Black Season 3 online – a show that has been relegated to the graveyard slot on BBC Three.
Moving from post-broadcast streaming to pre-broadcast streaming – the Beeb recently confirmed plans to release other shows all-at-once at the start of their linear broadcast for Netflix-style binge-watching – iPlayer is now regularly the home of exclusive content, such as the miniseries My Jihad (incidentally, one of the best pieces of television you’ll see this year). In the last six months, iPlayer’s original commissions have attracted over 29 million requests.
But exclusive content has mostly been short-form: the only other feature-length video has been experimental documentary Bitter Lake. Now, iPlayer’s going more mainstream with fictionalised comedy drama The Rack Pack.
Directed by Brian Welsh (Glasgow Girls, Black Mirror) and starring Luke Treadaway, the film explores the glory days of the Seventies and Eighties snooker scene, when huge characters became household names and Snooker Loopy troubled the pop charts.
It is written by Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell and Alan Connor, team behind A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and tells of the rivalry between Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins (Treadaway), whose natural talent and showmanship transformed the image of the traditional game and captivated audiences across the country, and Steve ‘The Nugget’ Davis (Will Merrick), who, under the guidance of manager Barry Hearn (Kevin Bishop), dominated the sport throughout the Eighties and ushered in a new era of professionalism. Nichola Burley plays Alex’s wife, Lynn Higgins, and James Bailey takes on the role of the greatest player never to be World Champion, Jimmy White.
The choice of subject is no coincidence for the Beeb, which – also not unlike Netflix – has years of viewings figures to prove the audience interest for a drama about snooker. Indeed, in 1985, the climax of the world snooker final broadcast on the BBC in the early hours of a Monday morning was watched by 18.5 million people in the UK, which remains a record for a post-midnight audience for any channel in the country. This year is the 30th anniversary of that final.
While The Rack Pack would perhaps normally have been a regular TV movie, though – the Beeb is placing a marked emphasis on its BBC One drama output, with part of the BBC Three budget being redirected to its lavish productions – the corporation is also positioning iPlayer as a platform for content that could find a wider audience online.
The Rack Pack was ordered by Victoria Jaye, Head of TV Content for BBC iPlayer, and Shane Allen, Controller of Comedy Commissioning, and is executive produced by Peter Holmes (Frankie Boyle’s Election Autopsy). The film is made exclusively for BBC iPlayer by Zeppotron, part of Endemol Shine Group. The BBC Commissioning Editor is Gregor Sharp and the producer is Barney Reisz (Black Mirror).
“BBC iPlayer offers a unique creative space for comedy of all shapes, sizes, tones and ambition – free of the traditional parameters of TV slots,” comments Shane Allen, Controller of Comedy Commissioning. “Higgins was to snooker what George Best was to football – a Northern Irish folk hero whose mesmerising talent made for a fascinating world-class champion on the snooker table, but his explosive personality made for a troubled life off the table. Our cast are perfect to do this vibrant story and era justice.”
Peter Holmes, Managing Director of Zeppotron, says the drama is a “passion project”.
“The commission marks an exciting new step for Zeppotron as we produce our first ever feature film… I am a huge fan of snooker and this golden era of the sport is in my blood. If you only watch one film featuring Big Bill Werbeniuk this year, make sure it’s this one.”
The Rack Pack will premiere on BBC iPlayer in early December.