In this special interview, our Elise Gallagher In this special interview, our Elise Gallagher sits down with the mastermind behind Channel 4’s Walter Presents ahead of an exclusive screening of Tabula Rasa at the Pilot Light TV Festival in Manchester on 5th May at 4pm.
Described as the Netflix of international drama, Walter Presents wasn’t born overnight. Instead, it was a passion incredibly present for Walter Iuzzolino from a very early age. Walter was born in Genoa, Italy and was schooled intensely in the joys of television.
|Walter Iuzzolino (Photo by Massimo Fenati) Source|
After starting his career in factual television and working his way up to commissioning Channel 4 classics such as The Undateables, Walter left his job to pursue his passion for international drama and sharing it with the world, saying “it was always my childhood dream”.
He is the name and the face of Channel 4’s flagship Walter Presents, and despite him reaching the tender age of 50 it turns out his actions were anything but a mid-life crisis. Rather, he’s revolutionised how we watch television, and in doing so created a new dawn for foreign language drama.
When he started, there wasn’t a lot, just “a little bit of Scandinavian stuff from BBC4 like The Killing, and they had a French show which I really like called Spiral which had become quite successful on BBC4. “But actually, there wasn’t a one-stop shop or a dedicated place to go for pieces that had come from all over the world. From Spain to the Czech Republic, Belgium, to Latin America and Argentina and so my ambition was to go global and much bigger.”
Iuzzolino’s approach was rather novel. “I did a year and a half of intense viewing – literally watching thousands of hours of anything I could get my hands on, which was great. But it was also strange because it was unpaid and I was in my kitchen and I treated it like having a real job. I wanted to get an overall feeling of what was out there and to establish whether there was enough great drama produced around the world – outside the US and the UK – that could support the idea of creating a whole channel.”
The originally-estimated six months of unadulterated screening quickly became 18 months and over 3,500 hours of television drama. But it paid off, and after pitching to broadcasters and technology companies, Walter had a conversation with Channel 4, his former employers. “Channel 4 were amazing, they moved incredibly quickly” – and within two weeks of pitching the deal was done.
But why the name Walter Presents? “Our original title for the channel was World Drama because we always thought that we would keep it flexible.” The Head of Channel 4 suggested this was too corporate. They remarked, “the best we can do with this brand is to tell the honest story of how the brand came about; you single-handedly dedicated your years to this, it’s a life passion.”
One thing is incredibly evident about Walter: he doesn’t just love television drama, he lives and breathes it. “And so I was reluctant and very shy but actually it worked very well. I enjoy doing my introduction, I think it’s a real joy and a privilege in life to be able to be the spokesperson or the champion of something you love.”
Walter Presents launched in January 2016 with the triumph that was Deutschland 83 – which is still to this day has the highest ratings a foreign language show has ever received on British television.
“I was very humbled by it,” Walter says. “I don’t try to second-guess an audience, I don’t know what you like, I will never be able to know what you like, and it’s truthless for me to try and guess it based on who you are, where you live, where you go to school. What do I know?
The only thing I know is what I like, and what I feel passionate about. Ultimately, as a curator, you are the consumer of your brand, and I often say it’s like owning a little shop – you live in there 24 hours a day so you have to love every single object and curate it as your home. “And then, if your customer and your viewer likes it and they like your taste they will come back – they will not like everything, they may like a table and not a chair – or a coat hanger and not an old phone, but it’s a space where they want to be in and spend time.”
Deutschland 83 certainly took Channel 4 by storm, with almost three million viewers watching the first episode. “There was something really cross-generational about it – because it appealed to people of my generation who were children when it happened, it appealed to my parents who were grown up when it happened, and also to young people now who quite like the trendy, retro, sexy, fun 1980’s pop music – it was really a victory.”
Now for the important questions – does Walter have a favourite from his collection? His response is a flustered splutter of show names and exasperation. “What a difficult question. Because all of them represent a passion of mine, it’s like asking me to choose my favourite child. “My all time favourite drama within the whole collection is not very well known at all. I’m extraordinarily proud of it because it’s still the most touching piece of television I’ve ever seen in my life… a drama called Burning Bush” He sighs, satisfied with his answer.
|Tabula Rasa’s pilot will transmit on Sunday 6th May on Channel 4 at 10pm with the entire series available on All 4 straight after.|
Of course, Walter being Walter, he then follows up his answer with a number of other shows including Before We Die, and Tabula Rasa – a drama he’s premiering at this year’s Pilot Light Festival in Manchester.
Buy Tickets for the screening Here
“I just fell in love with the story.” Tabula Rasa is an intense Dutch thriller that follows a young woman with amnesia, imprisoned in a secure psychiatric hospital. As both a witness and prime suspect to a mysterious case, she holds the key to solving it. “This thriller is premiering on the 5th of May in Manchester, and the next day it gets its nationwide release on Channel 4 – it’s exciting to bring it to Manchester before anywhere else.”
Does Walter have a favourite UK drama? Is he a Coronation Street fan, perhaps? “There is no denying UK drama is extraordinary across the board and again it’s another very difficult one to pick.” I can already hear the countless names buzzing through his mind.
“There’s one piece to me that really stands out which I thought was extraordinary because it felt awkward in the way that television is awkward in Europe and not often in the UK – and it’s a small drama called London Spy.”
Broadcasting on BBC 2 in 2015, it told the story of a relationship between two young men and how their relationship goes from happiness to devastation when one is accused of espionage. “I have a lot of time for that piece of telly, it’s a show that I’d have bought for WP had it not been taken.”
There’s no doubting the success of Walter Presents, a haven for all who want to watch something new and hand-picked with passion. But has Walter been too late in picking certain dramas before they were poached? The obvious competitor to me is that of BBC4, their foreign drama slot often filled with Scandinavian crime dramas, many of which have outranked their English language counterparts.
“If I’m honest with you, we have a very different taste palate. I admire the work enormously and I’m an avid fan of what they do, but they are very consistent in speaking to a very specific brief.
“The one drama that I wish I could have bought is a Sky Arts drama called The Legacy.” This acclaimed Dutch drama can be described as a modern family portrait, following the story the internationally renowned artist Veronika Grønnegaard who unexpectedly dies and leaves her fortune to a young florist unknown to the family. “It’s a story of how this very powerful, intellectual complex family copes with the arrival of this foreign agent, so to speak, who suddenly becomes their landlord.
It’s an incredibly beautiful and moving piece of television. And I remember falling in love with it when I first saw it – and that is absolutely the one drama I wish I could have had.”
It is clear that regardless of the genre, Walter loves anything as long as “all of them have one thing in common and that’s they are beautifully written, very well acted and very well photographed together.”
Interview from Elise Gallagher
Walter Presents: Tabula Rasa starts on Sunday 6th May on Channel 4 at 10pm with the entire series available on All 4 straight after.
This year’s Pilot Light TV Festival runs from Thursday 3rd – Sunday 6th May.