An article about the writer and the case against Britannia, as featured in:
#1 21.08 - 20.09.2020
A BULGARIAN IN ENGLAND, ENGLISH AT HOME
Meet Ben Krushkoff - From DJ and property broker to teacher and screenwriter. And a fighter for what he calls his intellectual property.
Text by Stefan Antonov.
In the small and, at the time, closed communist country of Bulgaria, it wasn’t strange for a local man or woman to marry a citizen from another country, at least one from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. But the union between a Bulgarian man and an English woman was something pretty rare, back then.
Meet Ben Krushkoff, the son of a Bulgarian lifeguard turned deep-sea diver, and an English flight attendant, who abandoned her job to be with her beloved in Bulgaria. After spending a few years there, the young couple moved to the United Kingdom where their two children grew up. However, nostalgia for his home country never left his father, Hristo, and eventually, when communism fell and with more and more Bulgarians looking to start a private business, he returned to his native Plovdiv and opened up a furniture factory. After graduating his secondary education in England, the youngest son, Ben, followed suit.
From the outset, he attempted to combine the opportunities that came from his British citizenship and background with the prospects of the nascent Bulgarian market. His first job came about thanks to an old friend of his father, an owner of a record company in the nineties. "When my parents first moved to the UK, my dad left his entire collection of (Western) vinyl, turntables and a mixer to a mate of his. With the coming of democracy that friend founded a music company and, in turn, gave me the opportunity to join the business”.
“The job involved helping the company in its attempts to break into international markets, as well as to acquire licenses from major production companies for the territory of Bulgaria. But the country was in a power vacuum, and there were no rules back then. Or, to be more accurate, the ones that were in place weren’t always adhered to. Piracy was on the rise, which was a major problem. But even still, I felt an incredible energy and desire among the people to achieve something. I also started mixing records at Bulgarian techno parties. I was a part-time DJ and played music that was unknown to the locals. As a result, I was given the chance to have my own radio show on one of the local stations, even though I could barely speak the language” recalls Ben, about his first contact with Bulgarian reality.
(image) Tribus. Ben's diploma project, which he claims Sky borrowed heavily from without acknowledging his authorship when creating the television series "Britannia".
For a young person to live in a country which had only recently tasted freedom was a highly attractive proposition, and so Ben opted out of his university studies back in the UK. Instead of studying, he found himself DJ’ing in some of the famous clubs on the coast, as well as in Sofia and Plovdiv, alongside helping out with his father’s business. He stopped working for the record company when it became clear that their ambitions, for which he was originally appointed, could simply not be realised at that stage of the country’s development.
He spent the period of hyperinflation mainly in England, but in 1998 returned to Bulgaria and spent more time working with his father, looking for English customers for the furniture that it had continued to produce. It was then when he met his future wife - a Bulgarian - who he soon married and with whom he eventually had two sons, both with (joint) Bulgarian (and British) citizenship.
In the first decade of the new century, Ben founded a company that specialised in the intermediation of real estate deals.
"The growing opinion among English investors was that Bulgaria would become a member of the European Union, had very low property prices and a great climate (winter/summer), and interest in the market was starting to rise. Instead of Spain and France, many buyers decided to look for houses and apartments in the beach and mountain resorts of the country", says Krushkoff.
The business itself wasn’t involved in investing in properties, changing the status of land or in construction itself. Instead, it positioned itself between the developers and the real estate agents marketing the properties, and concentrated on supporting the sales process. He admits that the major money being made was in development - turning empty fields into residential buildings. However, he decided not to take on such risks, and used his marketing skills to form partnerships with developers and investors.
"It was a great business, but also a tough one. There was a lot of money floating around and huge turnovers at stake, with plenty of dirty tricks and attempts to steal the company’s clients. What I really didn't like, though, was that municipalities allowed for construction to take place en masse. There were simply too many properties allowed to be built. From an ideal level of, let’s say, 2000 beds in a particular resort, building permits were granted for developments with a combined total of over 20,000”. He doesn’t speak with any fondness about this period, even though the money was good.
Then came the global financial crisis and the eventual collapse of the market. Business declined, Ben lost his father and his marriage hit the rocks, which ultimately ended in divorce. These events happened within three months, just as after he’d suffered a severe spinal injury while skiing in Chepelare. But life had to continue.
After undergoing treatment and a period of rehabilitation, Ben began a new career as an English teacher - in both state and private schools. And, to this day, he believes that this period changed his life forever, because it reminded him of his own youthful dreams; ones which weren’t associated with opportunities for development in the emerging Bulgarian market. Namely to be a writer.
"The kids I was teaching were amazing - ridiculously smart and willing to learn - and I’d constantly give them projects in English, to help develop their creativity. I even wrote to some successful Bulgarians at the time and invited them to visit my classes and talk to my students. One of those who responded was Solomon Passy (former Chair of the UN Security Council and OSCE). I remember how inspiring he was and that the children truly absorbed his words”.
In the same year Ben decided to go back to England to study, in order to gain a mastery of scriptwriting. He chose to learn his craft at Bath Spa University. The course he took didn’t just help him change his professional development, though. It opened up a thorny path that would condemn him to years of battle, which have yet to come to an end. But he doesn’t regret it for a moment.
"Some of my teachers were screenwriters and creators who had won (and been nominated for) Oscars and other major awards. I couldn't believe I’d found myself in such an environment, the feeling was truly unique. I spent three years developing my own project there - a script for a fictionalised television series set in ancient Britain. The working title was Tribus. Upon its completion, I received an award for "Script of the Year" at the university. One of the assessors even compared it to "Game of Thrones” and wrote that, in his opinion, my ideas were stronger."
He defines this time as a period of great effort, as he tried to combine his responsibilities of being a good father whilst also a successful student.
"I wanted the script I was writing to be my business card, to show the industry what I was capable of. A number of people read it there. However, only one person outside of the university was ever given a copy. A journalist”.
(sub header) I find the similarities between Tribus and Britannia staggering, says screenwriter Robin Mukherjee.
“She wanted to show it to a producer friend of hers. But two weeks after giving her the script, she deleted me from Facebook, blocked my number and ended two years of friendship. At that stage, I suspected that my intellectual property could have already been stolen", said Krushkoff.
He’d worked on his script between 2013 and 2016, and in 2018 Ben saw the joint Sky (UK) and Amazon Prime Video production of Britannia. His reaction was one of fury, but being mindful of the legal implications of what actions to take, chose to publicly announce the narrative of the series as an "unauthorized adaptation” of his original work.
The academic leadership of the university supported Ben’s view and is of the opinion that the similarities between his script and the plot of Britannia cannot be the result of a simple coincidence.
"I know that Ben was working on Tribus in great detail for a considerable period of time. I am also familiar with the material which he developed. I do find the similarities to Britannia quite staggering. In my view, they are too many and too exact to be dismissed as mere coincidence, or as the inevitable confluence of ideas when drawing from the same historical sources”, commented Robin Mukherjee, a senior script writing lecturer at the university. Among his writing credits are episodes of Poldark and the Australian Oscar nominated film Lore.
Today, Ben is trying to take his case to court. In contrast to Bulgaria, in the United Kingdom the fee for such lawsuits is defined as a share of the total amount of damages sought and the amount he needs at this stage is in excess of £200,000. It is an unattainable sum for him, at present, and until the court phase, Ben is fighting his battle on social networks and YouTube. Sky have rejected his accusations, which has led to incessant editing of the Wikipedia article about their copyrighted series.
One thing Ben is certain of, is that he will not give up the battle for what he considers the use of his intellectual property (and a breach of his human rights). "A number of British media outlets I’ve spoken to haven’t covered the story, because, I believe, of my Bulgarian surname. There is a strong negative sentiment when it comes to Eastern Europeans in the UK, especially after Brexit, whatever the context. I’ve even had a job consultant advise me to change my name, even when I’ve been more qualified than my competitors for the positions I was applying for. But, I’ve been told my name is an obstacle”, says Ben.
And yet the man, already middle-aged, stubbornly continues.
This is not the first time such battles have been fought. British Professor Ben Shanks, for example, received recognition and £2 million in compensation after a 13-year battle with Unilever for a blood sugar test. This happened only last year, nearly 40 years after the test was developed. Robert Cairns, a professor of engineering, also spent two decades in his fight against three major car manufacturers in the United States and eventually received more than $40 million in damages. In the same period he spent time in a psychiatric clinic, his marriage was ruined and relations with some of his children were permanently damaged. In the end, however, these court battles were won.
Meanwhile (at the time of writing), Ben is working as a writer for a leading video games company. He got the chance to do so, he believes, precisely because of his business card - the Tribus script. For him, this is already a victory in itself, albeit a small one and far from the ultimate goal. “I found a career that I truly love, thanks to what I learned at university and the work that I developed there, which led to my graduation. I believe I will get more recognition for it, but I'm glad that those efforts are already bearing fruit".
Ben continues to fight, without neglecting his parental duties. And without hiding his Bulgarian origins.
ABOUT THE JOURNALIST:
Stefan Antonov is a highly respected Bulgarian journalist, specialising in financial, govermental and intellectual property matters. He has previously reported for some of the nation's leading newspapers, including the Telegraph, Dnevnik (Diary), and Capital broadsheets and was more recently an editor for The Economist Magazine.