Colin Firth, AETN adapt ‘The People Speak’ for the UK

Ahead of the October 31 premiere of The People Speak on History UK, AETN International's Christian Murphy and Michael Katz talked to realscreen about the global plans for the format and how the UK version differs from the American original.
October 21, 2010

The People Speak, the History documentary based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and the Zinn/Anthony Arnove anthology Voices of a People’s History of the United States, gave TV audiences the opportunity to see American history told in a different way. In the 2009 U.S. doc, acclaimed actors and musicians gave dramatic readings and musical performances of chronicles of dissent throughout history.

Following its debut on the U.S. History network, work was underway to transform the project into an international format. The first fruits of that undertaking will be seen on October 31, when the British version of The People Speak premieres on History UK.

Elements of the U.S. version of have been altered in order to adapt the format internationally, says Michael Katz, AETN International’s VP of programming and production, in an interview with realscreen during MIPCOM. The issues that the British version tackles include suffrage and hereditary rule, immigration, women’s rights and crime and punishment.

Also, with the passing of Howard Zinn, who also served as the narrator on the original film, AETN International approached the UK version with the idea that historians would gather the UK material, but it would be narrated by actor Colin Firth, who also served as co-director. Firth has called the program ‘the perfect response to the abject misery of my history class as a school boy.’

According to Christian Murphy, VP of AETN International, a chief task for the team behind the UK version was to find a British historian with the same sensibility as Zinn. Miles Taylor, director of the Institute of Historical Research, found the materials, but did not appear onscreen. Instead, Firth and a host of other UK performers, including Joss Stone, Keira Knightley, Sir Ben Kingsley and Sir Ian McKellen bring to life the words that changed UK history.

Katz adds that while the U.S. version was the culmination of a number of different performances shot in Boston and California over a period of time, the UK version was culled from a single stage show held in London’s West End this past September. Also, in the finished UK version, the viewers will see the performers receive the material they’ll perform for the first time, and their reactions are part of the film.

Murphy says he’s been in discussions with a half dozen territories around the globe that are interested in adapting the format, and that each will keep the spirit of the U.S. and UK films.

The People Speak exploded the idea of history as preachy documentaries with no relevance, into something with relevance day after day,’ summarizes Katz.

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Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.