Jeff Parker and Chad Wang discuss how BBC Studios brought Inside No. 9 to the stage… In China!

Inside Inside No. 9 – the stage show! With Jeff Parker and Chad Wang from BBC Studios…

It might be quite a long introduction with your job titles, fellas, but here we go… Jeff Parker, you’re a Creative Producer with the Live Entertainment team at BBC Studios. Chad Wang, you’re Senior Brands and Licensing Manager in Greater China, also for BBC Studios. Welcome, Chad…
Chad: Thank you for having me!

And welcome back, Jeff!
Jeff: Thank you… Thank you for inviting me back.

Not at all. Always a pleasure. So! Let’s start with a tricky question… For those unfamiliar with the TV show Inside No. 9, how would you describe it?
Chad: Written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, Inside No. 9 is an anthology of darkly comic twisted tales…

“Darkly comic”… Good phrase! What’s the appeal of the show, do you think, Jeff?
Jeff: It’s different. There isn’t really a format quite like it and the writing and the conceit are so clever and always surprising.

I understand there’s now an Inside No. 9 stage show in China! Tell us about that!
Jeff: Yes, we now have the world’s first immersive Inside No. 9 theatre show. It’s staged at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. Audience members can purchase tickets to see stage adaptations of two of the episodes, with an option to upgrade to an exclusive third performance.

That’s a really interesting way of doing it. Out of interest, which episodes?
Jeff: Once Removed, Séance Time and La Couchette. We adapted the scripts a little… We took out some references to UK West End musicals, for example, and worked with the writers to say something more relevant for the local audience.
In any case, each of them staged in a very different way and offers the audience a unique viewing experience.

Staged differently in what way, Jeff?
Jeff: So the design of the set and where the audience is seated changes to give it a sense of immersion. For example, with Once Removed, the set is built to resemble the house from the episode, and it’s staged 360 degrees around the audience…

Jeff Parker, Chad Wang, BBC Studios, Inside No. 9, Experiences, Film & TV

Around the audience? The audience is in the middle?
Jeff: Yes! They’re seated in the middle of the set on rotating stools. In Séance Time, the audience is placed around the action. Each audience member has their own individual viewing cubicle meaning that no one person quite has the same experience.

Wow. That sounds incredibly creative. Chad, in my mind, the show’s humour feels quintessentially British… Why is the stage show debuting in China?!
Chad: Inside No. 9 is actually one of the BBC’s most successful British dramas distributed in China. To date, there’ve been over 100m views for all eight seasons – and the show has been highly acclaimed by the viewers. It came at a time when Western content was at its most popular and this provided a springboard to look for other ways that the audience could engage with the content.

How did it come about?
Chad: We started this project in 2021, following a meeting with Damai, one of China’s biggest online ticketing platforms and producers. I’d only recently joined BBC Studios… Like many projects, it started as an idea that we thought was different and would capture the imagination of the theatre audience. The more we discussed the format, the more we became convinced that it would be very popular in the Chinese market. At BBC Studios, we always put our audience first and create products that we hope they will love and enjoy. In August 2022, the most important piece of the jigsaw was put in place when we approached director Zhao Miao.

What’s his background?
Chad: Zhao Miao a leading figure in the new generation of local theatre directors. He comes from a background of creative physical theatre and has been influential in the industry. He’s completed several commercially successful stage productions based on famous novels. Most importantly, Zhao Miao is a big fan of the Inside No. 9 series – so we set to work! Zhao Miao’s creative design of the performance and viewing is one of the most important factors in the success of this project.

Jeff Parker, Chad Wang, BBC Studios, Inside No. 9, Experiences, Film & TV

Yes, it sounds appropriately quirky – just as you’d hope for Inside No. 9! And after Zhao Miao came on board, what was the next step?
Chad: The next step was to secure the approval from the writers and creators of Inside No. 9, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. It was a very proud moment to present the ideas to them and to get their support. After that, Damai looked to secure a theatre. We were excited to learn that the show would open in the Shanghai Grand Theatre which is one of the most iconic theatres in China… Of course, we also had a very intense six months leading up to the opening! That included the theatre renovation and set build, casting, rehearsals and – eventually – the opening night on 27th December 2023.

All that in six months? That’s amazing! What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Chad: When we first had this idea, China’s local live event industry had been hit hard during COVID. Also, there were almost no large-scale overseas theatre projects coming to China until this year – 2024. But the local theatre business was changing: immersive theatre concepts were popping up in the market. Due to COVID, though, they were all smaller productions, with only a few actors, for example. So to stand out in this market, we wanted to combine a well-known IP with a relatively new form of performance to create an immersive production with a higher cost. This strategy has been successful in terms of results.

Great! Jeff, you’re based here in the UK. What was the biggest challenge for you?
Jeff: For me personally, I think it was the distance! That’s both in terms of miles and time difference… We had to work fast and work smart. For example, initial rehearsals were recorded and uploaded to an electronic sharing platform for us to view and comment on. We worked remotely in this way until the last two weeks! Then we travelled to China for the final rehearsals.

Well, you could’ve avoided all that by doing a version in the UK! Is there any chance of that? What would need to happen, Jeff, for you to drop everything and make that happen?!
Jeff: Ha! Well, the theatre experience that Damai created is unique, and was created specifically for the audience in China. When creating events, we always put the audience in the heart of what we’re creating. There are no further plans at the moment.

Jeff Parker, Chad Wang, BBC Studios, Inside No. 9, Experiences, Film & TV

I’ll try and conceal my disappointment and soldier on! What other experiences might work for Inside No. 9, though? Is BBC Studios actively looking for projects?
Jeff: I think there are many possibilities. I have my own thoughts – but I’m not going to share them yet! Our Live Entertainment team at BBC Studios is always looking for new and innovative projects – and welcomes interest from potential promoters and licensees! We currently have an exciting pipeline of events in development keeping the team busy.

I sincerely hope you’ll come back and talk to us about that when the time’s right… Chad, I suppose it would be the opposite question for you: what other licences do you think might work as stage shows in China?
Chad: Immersive theatre – or, as we call it: innovative live performance – could be an important future direction for the Chinese market. The success of Inside No. 9’s immersive play proves there’s great potential in combining innovative theatre performances with well-known IP. However, for future projects – pessimistically speaking – the opportunities for IP from Western countries seem to be becoming fewer.

Chad: The new generation of young Chinese audiences have grown up more with local TV dramas, local or Japanese anime and games. There’re more opportunities for those IPs to be adapted into immersive theatre. But there are still opportunities for Western IP. On the one hand, drama IPs with a longer history of distribution – especially those with quality storylines of their own – still have a chance in the market. On the other hand, the innovation and expressiveness of the product becomes more important. It needs to be a good immersive experiential product first, and then to have a well-known IP on top of it to make the project work.

Good answer. How did you come to be in this industry, Chad?
Chad: I started my career in the publishing industry with Dorling Kingsley working for years on book distribution in Greater China. Then I moved into the licensing business… Prior to the BBC, I worked for EndemolShine and was responsible for brand licensing in Greater China, including Mr. Bean, MasterChef, Simon’s Cat and so on.

During the time, I led the creation of MasterChef’s world-first cooking training programme in Hong Kong, the MasterChef Academy. That project used recipes that had appeared on the MasterChef programme to teach participants how to cook them… You could make and eat the food you’d previously only seen on the programme. Sadly, this project was a casualty of Covid.

Jeff Parker, Chad Wang, BBC Studios, Inside No. 9, Experiences, Film & TV

What’s next for you?
Chad: Well! The most important reason I switched from publishing to licensing is that I think content should not be trapped or constrained to the way it’s presented… So I’ve always been passionate about bringing original content into other formats, and I believe that it’s always the creative product that drives business moving forward. I’ll continue to explore how the BBC’s long history of content can be transformed into other products, with the changing local market environment and evolving technologies.

Jeff, you’re no stranger to Brand Untapped! You did a lovely interview with us about Doctor Who: Time Fracture. People can read that and learn about your background here. But you’ve been at BBC Studios for 13 years…
Jeff: Yes! It was 13 years in January… I have a lot more grey hairs now than I did!

Ha! I can imagine. One thing I wanted to ask you is this: what is it about BBC Studios that keeps you there?
Jeff: Well, it was never my intention to be here for this long… It’s an exciting job, though, and I get to work on some fantastic brands and projects. That said, the main thing is the people. I consider myself incredibly privileged to work with so many wonderfully talented colleagues from across the business who are always kind in sharing their knowledge, expertise and shared passion for the brands we are lucky enough to work with.

That’s gladdening to hear! And Chad, to wrap things up, what’s the one question I could’ve asked you today – but didn’t?
Chad: What’s next for this Inside No. 9 Immersive Play?

Perfect! What’s the answer?
Chad: This project has been a huge success in the market since its launch, both in terms of the audience and the industry. In fact, we’re already planning with our partners how to replicate the programme in other cities in China to continue its success. With the launch of the ninth season of the TV series this year, we’re also actively preparing a promotional plan to tie in with it. We’re confident the project and the IP will do even better in the local market!

Brilliant. Well, I want to thank you both for your time today. I wish I could visit this production – it sounds incredible. I sincerely hope you’re both come back and tell us more about future projects. Thanks again.

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