RTÉ crime thriller Hidden Assets plots course through Covid terrors

‘Strong nerve’ and schedule ‘miracles’ needed to bring international drama to screen

RTÉ One's six-part drama Hidden Assets opens next Sunday night with a Criminal Assets Bureau raid exposing links between a wealthy Irish family, a diamond stash and a spate of Belgian bombings. Behind the scenes of a pandemic-delayed 12-week shoot split between Antwerp and Co Clare, its producers endured dramatic tension of their own.

"I think we are allowed say it was actually really difficult," says Kathryn Lennon of Irish production company Saffron Moon.

“It was a learning curve of how to manage a production with all of the terrors of Covid, in a world where there was no insurance available for Covid at the time we were green-lit.”

One "crunch point" came when the Government introduced mandatory hotel quarantine with Belgium on the "red list" while the production was in Antwerp, obliging fellow producer Siobhán Bourke to "work miracles" on its shooting schedule so key cast and crew – notably star Angeline Ball – could get out in time.

“That was a very depressing time for us as a production. Angeline was our lead player and she was required for the entire Irish shoot,” says Bourke. “But we also got a bit lucky there, because the rules relaxed at just the right moment.”

Although Hidden Assets, written by Peter McKenna (writer and co-creator of RTÉ's Kin) and Morna Regan, ultimately avoided costly stoppages due to positive tests or border controls, it was "just a very strange time" to be making a television drama.

“The actors and directors and creatives in Belgium, including myself, were essentially in a bubble. You’re being tested all the time, you’re on your own a lot. You feel very isolated, actually. When you have your shooting days, you find yourself saying, ‘Oh my god’. It’s just the worry of it all – all the people, all the departments, all the service providers.”

One key location, a huge warehouse in the Antwerp docks, fell through at a late hour after its board ruled a film crew should not enter given its workforce was furloughed.

Co-production paperwork

These complications came only after a lengthy period negotiating the international tripartite agreement that underpins its financing: Hidden Assets – which resurrects Ball’s character DS Emer Berry from 2017’s Acceptable Risk – is an Irish-Belgian-Canadian co-production.

Commissioned by RTÉ and US-owned streaming service Acorn TV, the thriller is produced by Saffron Moon alongside Belgium's Potemkino and Canada's Facet 4, with the first three episodes directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan and the second three by Belgian director Kadir Balci.

“I wouldn’t like to show you the stack of paperwork that goes along with three countries,” says Lennon. A “strong nerve” and flair for form-filling is, however, essential for any producer trying to raise money to bring Irish stories to screen.

"You're effectively not going to be able to make high-end drama for anything under €1 million an hour," says James Mitchell, whose company Soho Moon has united with Bourke and Lennon's Saffron Pictures to create Saffron Moon.

RTÉ is "probably not going to finance much more than 15 per cent" of this and all combined Irish sources – including Screen Ireland and the Section 481 tax credit – will "at best" pay for about 50 per cent.

On Acceptable Risk, a Canadian partnership "worked really well", though the decision to part-film that series in Canada was a "fiercely expensive" one, not to be repeated.

Having had some experience of working in Brussels (on the post-production of drama-documentary Citizen Lane), Mitchell was introduced to Saffron Moon's Belgian partner by its bank, Paris-based production cashflow specialists Cofiloisirs. It could then access funding from Screen Flanders and a Belgian tax incentive.

Insurance cover

The resulting budget is “a bit more” than €1 million an hour, Mitchell says, but “a good deal less than the hourly cost of Kin”, with Covid compliance likely adding about 10-15 per cent and insurance the issue that “had everybody baffled and perplexed”.

While Screen Ireland eventually devised a Production Continuation Fund and there was a similar Belgian scheme that would pay for restart costs, these were "not a 100 per cent replacement" for out-and-out insurance.

“What they wouldn’t cover you for was if you had to abandon for some reason – let’s say, god forbid, if your lead actress got Covid and died.”

Notwithstanding these risks and hurdles, the producers hail the practical support offered by Screen Ireland and RTÉ, saying Shannon Group was "incredible" to work with on Irish locations in the vicinity of Shannon Airport and found its Belgian partners "really delivered" day-to-day.

Hidden Assets was conceived after RTÉ agreed with Saffron Moon that there was mileage in the DS Emer Berry character investigating white-collar crime. Other "jurisdictional possibilities" in Europe could now arise for her if she returns for a third series.

“Let’s see how this one goes,” says Bourke.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics