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While Copper, BBC AMERICA’s first foray into original scripted drama, is set in Civil War-era New York, a strand of British DNA runs through it. Not only is its lead star Tom Weston-Jones a Londoner, but the series’ co-creator Tom Fontana is an unabashed lover of British television and says the BBC name was a primary attraction to working with the cable channel on the project.
“The BBC imprimatur on any television show means it’s very good,” he told me at Copper‘s premiere party on Wednesday (August 15).
“I’ve been watching British shows all the way back to the original Upstairs Downstairs,” he said. “British TV has had an enormous influence on my career the whole time. The ideas of character work and the real, rich details — those are the things I just love about BBC shows.”
Fontana worked in collaboration with his longtime creative partner Barry Levinson and Monster’s Ball screenwriter Will Rokos on the series, which centers around an Irish-American, war vet cop who returns to his New York home after the Civil War to find that his wife is missing and his young daughter has been killed. Sharp class divisions, racial tensions, and corruption have overtaken the city, and the members of the burgeoning NYPD force struggle with the chaos.
Fontana comes to BBC AMERICA with a strong brand: the man was responsible for the critically acclaimed Homicide: Life on the Street and the groundbreaking prison drama Oz. Comparing Copper to his previous work, Fontana says, “it’s the most like Oz, in that HBO had never done a drama series before Oz. When [BBC AMERICA general manager] Perry Simon called me and said, ‘I want to do Copper,’ it was taking a big risk because the show’s not pablum. You can’t see it on network television. You have to watch cable television to see a show like this.
“For me, the series has been great because we have a wonderful creative collaboration with Perry and the team at BBC AMERICA. But we also made the show we set out to make. We didn’t compromise it.
“At my age, you don’t need to compromise anymore.”
Anastasia Griffith, one of the two Brits in Copper‘s international ensemble, has glowing things to say about Levinson and Fontana. Griffith is a veteran of American television, having appeared on programs such as Royal Pains, NBC’s paramedics drama Trauma, and Once Upon a Time. But she says, “I’m more into doing press for this show than for anything I’ve ever done in my career, and I think that says everything about how I feel about this particular show.”
In the wake of HBO’s revered Deadwood, there has been an influx of period dramas on American television, including the recent hit miniseries Hatfields & McCoys and AMC’s Hell on Wheels. Traditionally, U.S. have had the lion’s share of their historical pieces imported from across the pond, the wildly popular Downton Abbey being the most notable recent example.
“Often people hide behind the period, and they don’t really do much else,” says Griffith, who plays a British-born Fifth Avenue wife in the series. “The truth is that [Copper] could be transferred into a modern period and still be as intriguing and as interesting. The writing would be as good, the performances would be as good. I think the fact that it’s in this period just heightens it all and gives it that grit and balls, for lack of a better word. I think it’s unlike anything else on television.”
“It’s a very interesting period of time, in which America was really finding its own identity,” she adds. “I’m half-American myself, and we’re all from this period. This is where we all find our roots in this country, and I think it’s important for us to realize that.”
The 19th century Manhattan setting was appealing for many of the series’ actors. “New York is one of the greatest cities ever,” says Ato Essandoh, who plays African-American doctor Matthew Freeman. “Here, we see it in its nascent period, in the primordial ooze of New York, when all of these disparate elements are coming together in a big hot mess that eventually forms the place we’re standing in now, which is the New York City we know and love. But, before, it was this grimy place where everyone was trying to eke out an existence.”
Copper premieres tonight (Sunday, August 19) at 10/9c on BBC AMERICA.