Universal International Studios Exec Mark Freeland On Hopes For CBBC Oliver Twist Spin Off Dodger And Plans For Another Epic Idea With Family Appeal

EXCLUSIVE: Universal International Studios Exec Mark Freeland is hoping his upcoming CBBC Oliver Twist spin-off Dodger can land as a rare, traditional family hit, while he revealed plans for “another epic idea with family appeal.”

The first five episodes of Dodger, which stars Christopher Eccleston as Fagin and Shameless star David Threlfall as the Chief of Police, will land on VoD player BBC iPlayer on Sunday and the first ep will premiere on the CBBC channel at 5.30PM.

Inspired by The Goonies, Dodger features 10 self-contained 45-minute episodes, mostly shot with a hand-held camera and each of which involves a cast of children plus the adult stars undertaking adventures that invariably end in the main character (played by rising star Jack Dawkins) avoiding getting caught.

Speaking exclusively to Deadline, Freeland, a former high-level BBC exec, said UK family drama has become few and far between, citing rare hits such as BBC One comedy Ghosts, which is made by the team behind CBBC’s Horrible Histories and has been remade by CBS.

“I have always loved the constraints of being pre-watershed but linear channels are still run by demographic and there’s not much family drama around,” he added. “But Dodger is a crossover show. The seven-to-12 demographic is our core audience but we were very much asked to produce something that older brothers, sisters and parents would watch.”

Freeland stressed the balance between promoting the show on its linear channel and iPlayer, coming at a time when the BBC is prioritizing the latter in almost everything it does.

Dodger comes from BAFTA Award-winning comedy scribe Rhys Thomas and Tracey Ullman Show writer Lucy Montgomery, the latter of whom plays Fagin’s Landlady.

While they have imbued the 10-parter with a distinctly comic feel, Freeland praised CBBC for allowing the team to extend each ep to 45 minutes, thereby “going from sitcom to life-affirming comedy.”

“We’re not exactly doing a BBC1 or ITV 9pm drama but can deliver bang for our buck, creating something slightly odd-shaped that’s enormous fun and packed with adventure.”

The creators also wanted to set the show apart from the hit 1960 musical adaptation, avoiding traditional East End clichés and tropes.

“There was a danger we would adapt the musical instead of the book, which is almost more culturally stamped in the nation’s consciousness,” added Freeland.

Next up, the We Are Lady Parts exec has plans for an “epic high-stakes idea with family appeal set in the recent past,” which he is in the midst of persuading Universal International Studios (recently rebranded from NBCUniversal International Studios) to take on.

Freeland, who has worked with the likes of James Corden, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais, also has development ideas in with Channel 4 and an unknown streamer.

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