Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitzky. How the duo of Executive Producers behind Doctor Foster cast a spell on British TV, hypnotizing millions with gripping women’s stories.
I truly believe that nothing in the world is stronger than a woman with a grand dream. Except perhaps, two women sharing the same grand dream.
Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitzky are two Executive Producers who are running their own independent TV production company in London called Drama Republic, which they founded with Greg Brenman in 2013. Roanna and Jude are the embodiment of a beautiful, powerful and fulfilling creative partnership. As a duo of women Executive Producers, they have focused their work on women-centered narratives with strong female leads. Their productions include such acclaimed TV series as My Mad Fat Diary and Doctor Foster – all griping women’s stories.
The most resplendent jewel in their crown of successes, Doctor Foster is the story of an accomplished General Practitioner in a small English town whose world unravels when she starts suspecting her husband has been having an affair. The show, starring the hypnotizing Suranne Jones who received a BAFTA award for her incarnation of Gemma Foster, was written by the playwright and screenwriter Mike Bartlett. The series has captivated millions of viewers during its two consecutive seasons, in the UK and abroad.
During our discussion, I was very inspired by Roanna and Jude’s stories: both as individuals and as a creative duo. I loved that despite being at different stages of life, they share the same worldview and have in common a deeply rooted love for Drama. I discovered that their partnership was truly special: as soon as they started collaborating, their careers took on another dimension and recognitions started flooding with nominations and wins in strides, first for My Mad Fat Diary. Jude and Roanna are at once in perfect sync and complementary; they care about the same things, they care about each other; and most importantly they have grown into their best selves together: a true synergy at play.
I was able to hear their story through a succession of chance events: in December, as I was starting to contact women for The Creatress, I embarked on an impromptu trip to London where a dear friend introduced me to the duo. My friend had told me about Doctor Foster with such passion during our interminable conversations on love, life and friendship that I couldn’t contain my excitement – although I hadn’t watched a single episode yet, I already knew many of the themes for having debating them with her over and over again.
Roanna and Jude were then in Manchester on the set of their upcoming show, Wanderlust, starring Toni Collette. If it hadn’t been for the freezing temperatures up North and a new loving husband with whom to sip Earl Grey tea in Knightsbridge that weekend, I might have suggested meeting them there –but let’s be realistic, I probably would have fainted on set, star-struck by an apparition of Toni, and delayed the shooting entirely. Mind you: my restraint may have saved that show.
We therefore arranged a meeting upon their return, a feat that my lucky star – as I sometimes call my procrastination – made possible: since I hadn’t booked my return ticket yet, I was free as a (frozen) bird in the streets of London and able to delay my trip. I couldn’t believe my luck! Within two days I had binge-watched the first season of Doctor Foster on Netflix in its entirety.
I immediately understood why people were captivated by their shows. I was amazed by the complex intricacies of their production and the force with which they were able to profoundly move an audience. The authenticity, darkness and rawness of their work are astounding: a beautifully, hauntingly multifaceted woman seen through the prism of a mundane story of infidelity. That is surely the story of their alchemy: turning the mundane into a universal Truth, resonating with thousands. In front of the screen and between viewings, I could feel the show’s intoxicating ingredients -- paranoia, sensuality, obsession to name a few -- dripping in my veins slowly, pleasurably, viciously. I was hooked.
I admire that in Doctor Foster, Roanna and Jude’s work is all about chasing the vulnerability of an otherwise powerful woman, pricking it with surgical precision sometimes ferociously and sometimes tenderly, teasing out a range of emotions ever so carefully like a thread – or dare we say, a blonde hair. Their work is a labor of love as they expose their human vulnerability to the world and transmute it for viewers to connect around it in all its colors and nuances: in its absolute fury, with grandeur, with true compassion. “I am a bitch… but tonight I am a WOLF,” is one of my favorite lines.
So there I was in London on a December morning, very impressed by their work which I had completely fallen for and nervously pushing the door to Drama Republic’s offices, located on a quiet street in the middle of a bustling neighborhood. Bright and airy, yet cozy, their large windows facing a brick lane. We were just days before Christmas and a decorated tree was surrounded with a dozen presents with handwritten names to taunt their hopeful recipients. Occasional laughter peeled from various corners of glass-walled meeting rooms. The office’s White Christmas was about to start and there was a palpable giddiness in the air.
Roanna and Jude welcomed me with the huge smiles and warmth I would expect from two cheery Californians. They immediately started complimenting the friend who had introduced us, which is my preferred way to initiate a conversation with strangers – on a high note of shared admiration. They invited me to join them in one of the office’s largest, albeit quite intimate, meeting rooms with great simplicity and started telling me their story. And then a rather intimate conversation with two down-to-earth, open and generous women ensued. On the walls around us, glistening framed shots from their acclaimed shows were witnessing our conversation, demure.
Their creative partnership began at their previous company Tiger Aspect Productions: as soon as their collaboration started, they found that together they were both doing their best work. Their first TV show together was My Mad Fat Diary, inspired by the published diary of author Earl Rae recounting her teenage years struggling with overweight and mental health issues in addition to living through the mandatory dramas that adorn every young female’s adolescence.
A difficult and supposedly unappealing topic when they first pitched it to the broadcasters, the show struck a chord with the audience at a time when skinny, attractive female protagonists were the norm...
A new tide was rising, and Roanna and Jude saw the potential to tell beautifully and candidly a brave, honest story about realities that begged to be told. At that time, no one else believed that these difficult matters could be TV-material. A deluge of audience’s tears, laughter and subsequently awards ensued – their magic had started to operate.
Roanna, in a soft voice, confesses having always been obsessed with Drama – at age nine, she knew that she wanted to be in professional Theater. Her family was not in the business, but her mind was set and foregoing University she attended Drama school. Originally from Scotland, she became an Assistant Director and then became a Director in larger cities – Leeds first, then London at the National Theaters. Never attracted to the Film industry, after several jobs surviving on a meager salary she found herself at the age of thirty doing a stint in radio and then eventually going to work in TV as a Script Editor.
Jude and Roanna both tell me that the job of a Script Editor is absolutely key to the quality of a show, because they make sure that all the content provided by the writers has the right tone, that the details are realistic and that each scene’s intention is properly rendered. In appearance, this job may not seem to be the most creative but it is actually the keystone to a good show. Apparently, this specific role is not always represented in US TV shows – and I come to wonder if they may indeed be the secret ingredient that characterizes the excellence of British shows.
As a Script Editor at Tiger, Roanna started working with Greg Brenman – the other founder of Drama Republic. Admittedly for years, she stayed in that role and didn’t want to rise up too much, trying to juggle family responsibilities as a mother of young children with a manageable workload. After several years, she started being a producer on a few shows. Back then, the elusive role of Executive Producer seemed to be too big, too mysterious. And retrospectively she recognizes that for a while she didn’t have the self-confidence to throw her hat in the ring. Not many women were Executive Producers around her. And then Jude came into the picture.
Jude’s voice is warm, almost husky and her tone decisive. She always wanted to work either in acting, drama or television – but somehow convinced herself along the way that she wasn’t very good in acting… She loves writing too, and quickly realized that one ought to be well-off to pursue such an aspiration – as writing alone cannot guarantee a living. In TV she saw that things were actually getting made, a good fit for her energetic disposition. She followed a “classic” path: started as a runner, became Personal Assistant to a Producer – which allowed her to see all what the job entailed, and then became a Producer and an Exec Producer with My Mad Fat Diary.
She shares with Roanna a common past as Script Editor for long-running series such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Looking back on her career, this training as Script Editor was a game changer for her because it allowed her to embody the creative role of storytelling which would boost her future role as Producer. Upon the start of her collaboration with Roanna on My Mad Fat Diary, she has an epiphany: not only can she do the role, but she can do it with maestria. She also convinces Roanna of her own worth, and pushes her to reach higher.
Neither came into television thinking about being executive producers, although their encounter seems to have played a big part in having them make that jump to the high-power job. They kindly explained to me what the role of Executive Producer entails in TV Drama, a title which may be opaque to the industry outsiders like me.
Executive Producers are responsible for overviewing the creative process, from the first idea of the show they pitch to broadcasters, to the shooting itself through to advertisement and marketing. This includes hiring all the creative people, including the director and casting. The job assumes a high level of responsibilities and requires excellent decision-making skills, with strong artistic and commercial acumen. Big money is involved and very large teams are constantly looking to them for guidance – problem-solving at its best.
Their approach of the job is very detailed; they discuss and approve every element of their shows with the crew: from costumes to sets to final editing. What may set them apart is the absolutely key relationship they foster with their writers, whom they keep at the heart of every decision. Their work is deep and personal, all about nuances and subtlety. Having their independent production company allows them to produce at their own pace: “It’s a matter of time.”
Even though the lead writers for their three acclaimed shows were all male, they shared an exceptional quality of communication with them on very emotional and intimate topics. Sometimes, as a woman, you can intuitively feel when a women’s story has been written exclusively by men – the details simply do not align with your own experience. This is not the case here.
The chemistry between them is glaring: they seem to revel in each other’s thoughts, giggling in turn and finishing each other’s sentences. They share a real sweetness and a raw emotionality that comes through when they mention the issues they deeply care about – mostly stories about women -- and a very endearing earthiness: they tackle difficult and personal topics that others may shy away from such as sexuality, marriage, mental health, family life…
They are at different stages in life, one in her late thirties and the other in her burgeoning fifties, but their eyes sparkle in the same way – we briefly chat about aging, a touchy topic for women. They understand each other’s lives, needs and desires. As two mothers having climbed to an Executive Producer role, they understand the pressure of this demanding job and feel a great relief to share their responsibilities between them. They trust each other and each other’s decisions, in complete sync when it comes to details, tone, and dramatization.
It is not every day that you get to meet two artists who form such a strong partnership – and in some ways, they remind me of a happy marriage where partners continuously uplift each other. It is by all means a prosperous union, since they have had two shows at Drama Republic that have done incredibly well. Something tells me that the much anticipated Wanderlust with Toni Collette, which will air on BBC One and Netflix, will be another resounding success. I leave their offices with a big smile – these alchemists have cast a spell on me, too.