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What is the secret of AMC's success?

There may be more than one answer to the question "what do advertising executives have in common with drug dealers and the undead", but only one has three letters: AMC.

When the execs in question are those of award- munching series Mad Men, the drug dealers are led by Breaking Bad’s consecutive Emmy winning actor Bryan Cranston, and the undead are shuffling after former This Life star Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, things start to make a little more sense. All of these shows have been - and continue to be - major successes in the UK whether on screen or through DVD sales, and they’re all from the stable of US cable channel AMC.

In a country where we’re used to consuming the latest products of HBO (think Sex and The City, The Sopranos, The Wire and, more recently, Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones) and Showtime (Dexter, Weeds, Homeland), while seeing those imports divided between our native channels, it’s easy to ignore where our favourite shows come from. However, the arrival of AMC’s latest original series, Hell On Wheels, illustrates just how far the channel has come in a few short years.

The network started life in 1984 as the American Movie Classics channel, designed to churn out films from the golden age of Hollywood all day long. It’s a bit ironic, then, that epic western series Hell On Wheels is the latest in a long line of original programming from a network that built its success on identikit Wild West movies. Perhaps even more so that it’ll be the first series on Turner Classic Movies who churn out . . . well, you guessed it.

AMC (who have conspicuously dropped the use of their full name) did dip their toe into original programming with Remember WENN in 1996, a series set at a fictional 1940s radio station, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they struck gold with a slow-moving period drama (allegedly rejected by both HBO and Showtime) that we now all know and love as Mad Men.

Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC, has overseen the network’s transformation, and has said that it’s precisely this desire to do things differently that has made AMC a success.

Five years ago, we had no scripted originals on our air. In the summer of 2007, we launched Mad Men and we followed that up with Breaking Bad. At the time, you had people saying, "Is AMC in this for the long haul?" We maintained, not only are we, but we are trying to do the kind of diverse projects that were really seen only on premium television. Our stated goal then, and it's still on my board now, is to produce premium television for basic cable.

The "premium" versus "basic" distinction is essentially the difference between subscriber-funded HBO and advertising-supported AMC, but, again, Collier would tell you that ignoring the conventional model is what has created some of the best television of recent times.

Here's a network that has questioned everything that networks have done conventionally and succeeded. Would anyone tell you to take a moody period piece and turn it into a serialised drama on cable? And then would they tell you to take a modern-day story about a high school chemistry teacher who deals crystal meth and make that you're follow up ad-supported lead? And the answer is no, but we did it.

Indeed they did, and after following up Mad Men with Breaking Bad, they had further success with The Walking Dead in 2010, before Hell On Wheels launched in the US in November as AMC’s second highest original series premiere with the all- important second series already in production.

That’s not to say it’s all been perfect, and, sandwiched between Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, came a re- make of The Prisoner and then Rubicon, both of which died out over here on ITV1 and BBC4 respectively.

Furthermore, AMC’s commitment to doing things differently saw them bravely take on remake duties with international critics' favourite, Forbrydelsen  failing even to beat a repeat of Law & Order on Channel 5.

Still, a quick look at current TV schedules shows AMC’s impact, with Mad Men, The Killing and The Walking Dead all currently airing here and Breaking Bad season 3 arriving shortly on DVD (14 May). Hell on Wheels could well be another hit, with an impressively cinematic scope, scenery- chewing characters and the requisite balance of sharp dialogue, gore and intrigue. It’s even got an unknown actor as the steely- eyed lead with a mysterious past - now where have we seen that before? We’re looking at you, Jon Hamm.

As for why AMC’s shows have been so warmly received over here, it might be a little too easy to look to the network’s mantra of "story matters here", but it’s Hamm himself who articulates the secret: “There are a million different channels, and everyone is doing original programming now. But part of rising above the noise is having something different to say or a different approach.”

The cast and crew of AMC's Mad Men at the 2011 Emmy Awards (Photo: Getty Images)
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit